Addressing a health crisis in a war zone
Complex emergencies usually unfold rapidly, prompted by upheavals like hurricanes, wildfires, and war. When these disasters force an exodus of people from a region, Adam Keehn’80 is often traveling in the opposite direction, moving toward the crisis to bring health resources to people who are displaced or left behind.
Adam Keehn’80 is director of complex humanitarian emergencies for Americares, a health-focused relief and development organization that has been responding to people affected by poverty or disasters for more than 40 years.
In early April, he was catching his breath for a few days at home in Portland, Ore., after spending several weeks on Ukraine’s Polish and Romanian borders. He was leading an Americares team, delivering medicines and medical supplies to Ukrainians during the Russian invasion.
“First and foremost, we’ve been working on shipping medicines and supplies to hospitals and clinics throughout the country,” Keehn says. “That’s kept us busy, but we want to do more.”
In the first two months following the invasion, Americares shipped 30 tons of medicine and medical supplies valued at over $4 million to Ukraine. Americares also awarded nearly $500,000 in grants to 18 organizations operating in Ukraine, Poland, and Romania, including many local organizations supporting millions of fleeing refugees.
Americares has a broader scope of providing medical supplies to clinics, hospitals, and health centers, both internationally and as a safety net for Americans without access to healthcare. Keehn and his team, however, focus directly on emergency situations, such as last summer’s west coast wildfires, the ongoing Syrian humanitarian crisis, and now the urgent health care needs of Ukrainians.
Before joining Americares in 2018, Keehn already had 25 years of experience doing humanitarian work, including as the Hurricane Irma team leader for Save the Children.
In Ukraine, Keehn says that hospitals and clinics desperately need medicines and supplies after they’ve been under siege and had their supply chains broken. On top of those intense needs is a refugee crisis of staggering proportions with its own health care dimensions. Keehn explains that people fleeing their homes often leave everything behind, including the basics, such as prescription medications.
He says this problem came into stark focus one day at a train station in Krakow, Poland. As massive flows of people moved through the station, Keehn’s colleagues met an elderly Ukrainian man who was running low on his medications.
“He had a chronic heart condition and he explained to a doctor on our staff that this was his last supply of medication,” Keehn says. “She noticed his swollen ankles, which was an indication his health condition was worsening. This brought home the importance of not only urgent medicines for wound treatment and trauma care but also chronic health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, hypertension — diseases that require ongoing, regular medicines.”
People who have endured the trauma of war also need specialized mental health care. “We’re providing technical support and funding to local organizations that work on what we call ‘psychological first aid’ or other types of psychosocial support to people going through the stresses of displacement,” he says, “as well as to the staff of front-line responders who suffer from burnout and vicarious trauma.”
Keehn has witnessed a great deal during a career that started in Mali with the Peace Corps shortly after Beloit, followed by many years of service with Save the Children. He worked on the early 2000s food crisis in Ethiopia, and since joining Americares, has focused on the crises in Syria, Yemen, Bangladesh, and elsewhere.
He thinks the situation in Ukraine is different in one significant way — displaced Ukrainians are receiving a warm welcome from most Europeans and their countries. For instance, the Romanian and Polish governments are extending their national health systems’ coverage and public education to Ukrainian refugees and their families, he says. This often has not been the case for refugees from many other parts of the world.
Yet the personal trauma of forced displacement is universal. “I think emotionally and psychologically, the impact is the same regardless of where people are moving from.”
Keehn’s international upbringing helped inform his point of view. He was born in India (as was his older brother, fellow Beloiter David Keehn’77), and the family lived in Southern Africa when their father was the U.S. Agency for International Development representative in Zambia and in Zimbabwe, then known as Southern Rhodesia.
“That sort of planted the seed in all of us that the world is a big place, and we have it pretty good over here in the U.S.,” he says.
At Beloit, Keehn double majored in French and English and studied abroad in France. While the Peace Corps sparked his interest in humanitarian work, he says his facility with French was a key factor in advancing his career, especially in West Africa’s French-speaking countries. He later earned a master’s degree in adult education and community development at Cornell University.
Keehn advises students interested in humanitarian work today to consider developing practical skills.
“I think travel, language, humility, and empathy are important attributes, but ultimately people want practical solutions to their problems,” he says. “People with public health backgrounds are highly sought after, and so are nurses and doctors who are willing to put those skills to use in other parts of the world.”
As dire as the situation is in Ukraine and other parts of the world right now, Keehn finds encouragement in a few places. One is the overall advancement of access to education and health care across the globe; another is that most of the world is standing up against the travesty unfolding in Ukraine.
“There’s no doubt that what’s happening in Ukraine is atrocious, and it’s causing misery to millions of people,” he says. “But we see an outpouring of support for Ukraine and the widespread vilification of the Russian attack. To me, that’s a hopeful sign that people realize this is not acceptable.”
From his unique perspective, he can also recognize, even quantify, progress toward his organization’s goal of addressing the current critical health care needs in Ukraine.
“I remind myself that in this area — health — we are moving medicines and supplies into places where people don’t have access to them,” he says. “It’s easy to see progress in a situation like this when you have X number of tons of supplies flowing across the border to hospitals that desperately need them. You can feel good about that.”