Published: December 01, 2019
On the night of Wednesday, Nov. 20, the Ocean Viking was full of people rescued from overcrowded rafts on the sea, 25 miles north of Libya and its tumultuous civil war. There were 135 of them from 18 countries, most having fled to Libya to escape cholera, war or famine.
They were desperately trying to get away from a land of kidnappers and torture camps, slave labor and sex trafficking, gunmen and airstrikes. Many were children. Tim Harrison, a veteran medical transport nurse from Union in Knox County, was helping treat people who hadn’t had medical care in months or years and had just spent two days in wintry conditions on open boats. There were broken bones and untreated infections, chronic illnesses and trauma from sexual assaults. One woman was the center of concern for Harrison and his eight colleagues from Doctors Without Borders, the Geneva-based international relief group also known by its French acronym, MSF. She was pregnant with twins. There were complications. She needed specialized care.
But there was another rubber raft out there somewhere in the dark, one of three that had cast off from the Libyan coast under cover of darkness, a hundred people packed aboard so tightly they couldn’t move, with little food, water or fuel. With stormy weather on its way, they likely wouldn’t survive long. A choice had to be made.
This is Harrison’s 21st deployment with Doctors Without Borders and his 13th cumulative month at sea. He’s helped rescue 9,000 people, even while the rescue operation was harassed and threatened with legal action by Italy’s Interior Ministry, which until August was headed by Matteo Salvini of the far-right League, a party whose motto is “Italians First.” He’s manned hospitals in conflict zones, clinics in the world’s poorest nation – South Sudan – and provided medical care in Myanmar during the slaughter of the Rohingya.
In between, the 68-year-old decompresses at his brother’s home on a pond in Union and drives the quiet, warlord-less roads of midcoast Maine’s backcountry until he’s ready to return to the frayed edges of the world.
That night, Nov. 20, the nearest helicopter rescue teams were in Malta and Italy, but Ocean Viking would have to steam west to get within their range. The rubber raft was thought to be farther east. Did they save three lives now or risk them for an extra chance to save dozens?
“There was a big discussion that night, but then with a lot of angst, we decided to turn toward Italy,” Harrison said. “That’s when we found the raft.”
Ninety people were crouched in the flimsy inflatable. One of them had multiple gunshot wounds from an attack back in Libya and needed medical evacuation. Everyone needed dry clothes, food and a warm shelter. “One of the first things we do when people come on board is to deal with them as human beings,” he said. “It’s about restoring their dignity as they are asking for help.”
A Maltese military rescue helicopter used harnesses and a stretcher to pluck the pregnant woman and the man with the bullet wounds from the ship’s aft deck and rushed off to dry land. What would happen to the other 213 people sheltering on the ship wasn’t yet clear.
Ocean Viking – a 209-foot vessel co-leased with the Marseille-based refugee assistance group SOS Mediterranee – has to sit in international waters until one of the European states agrees to let it land and disembark the people it has rescued. Sometimes the wait is a week or longer. Saving migrants from drowning is controversial enough that Malta refused to let the ship make a scheduled refueling stop this summer.
This time the migrants caught a break. Italian authorities granted permission for the Ocean Viking to dock in Messina, Sicily, and by Saturday the rescued people were receiving care ashore. Harrison was on the phone with a reporter half a world away in Maine, talking about how he got into this line of work and why he’s still at it.
“At first I felt a sort of obligation, because it was something I had the skills and makeup to do and was available to do, but eventually I realized that in some ways it’s a job, though not in a bad way,” he said. “Every time I finish and reevaluate: ‘Am I still able to do this?’ And it has drawn me back so many times. I recover to a certain degree, and then I find it’s something I really want to go back and do.”
“I don’t feel like anything special,” he added. “If I wasn’t here, there would be someone in my place.”
Those who have worked with him say otherwise.
Physician Craig Spencer, director of global health for emergency medicine for Doctors Without Borders, twice served with Harrison aboard the Ocean Viking’s predecessor, the Aquarius, in 2017 and 2018. “It’s not just the length and breadth of his experience – he’s been a nurse longer than I’ve been alive – but also the way he approaches things,” he said. “He’s always calm. His default is, ‘Let’s think about this and how it works and what will be the best way to do this.’ And he’s just a really empathetic human being who always treats people as equals, these most vulnerable people in the world.”
Tom Judge, executive director of LifeFlight, Maine’s air ambulance service, has known Harrison since his days with Boston MedFlight in the 1990s and early 2000s. He says he was one of three people who built the Massachusetts nonprofit into one of the premier air ambulance services in the world, and did it while also earning a master’s degree in public health at Boston University and publishing research to improve clinical interventions.
“In addition to being an incredibly gifted clinician and a very mission- and purpose-driven individual, he’s also a scientist,” Judge said. “And once Tim had worked overseas and saw the overwhelming needs – well, that’s where you’d find him.”
“He’s just one of those people who if you were up the proverbial … creek, his face is the one you’d want to see,” he added.
A FAMILY OF CAREGIVERS
Harrison, who grew up in Michigan, Colorado and Florida, started volunteer overseas medical work during his vacations, doing a dozen two- to three-week assignments in Africa for the Virginia-based Physicians for Peace between 2000 and 2008. He was in Eritrea during the tumultuous years during and after its war with Ethiopia; in Rwanda, a society recovering from a 1994 genocide that took the lives of a million people; in Chad during its protracted civil war; and in Congo, where a close friend was killed in an ambush and where he and his colleagues had to be extracted from a firefight by United Nations peacekeepers.
“My family in general is chockablock full of caregivers – therapists, nurses – and we came from one of those typical dysfunctional ’50s families with these holes in our souls, and we figured out how to fill them and accomplish atonement,” said his older brother, Patrick Harrison, a retired carpenter in Union whose family Tim lives with when he’s not in the field. “He is serving the children of the world and just has a deep, deep understanding of those that suffer.”
Harrison first encountered Doctors Without Borders in a tiny village in Chad whose residents would regularly go into hiding as warlords sped through the streets in Land Cruisers with .50-caliber machine guns mounted on the top. He was helping train local doctors in how to do a surgical prostate procedure at a shuttered hospital when a Doctors Without Borders team working in a nearby displaced persons camp showed up to see what was happening in the abandoned building and, then, asked if the surgeons could do an emergency cesarean section for one of their patients.
“So we did it, and eventually they invited us over for dinner,” he recalled. “And they were having a really good time and were working hard, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is maybe what I want.’ Because drop-in medicine is interesting, but it doesn’t feel that impactful.”
Harrison, who was recently divorced, applied to join Doctors Without Borders, gave up his Boston apartment and started crashing with one or another of his siblings in Massachusetts and Maine before and between eight- and nine-month assignments overseas. “My MSF salary doesn’t support a home-base environment,” he said.
Pretty soon he settled into a pattern: recuperating at his brother’s family’s lakeside home in Union between sometimes hair-raising assignments in Somalia and South Sudan, Myanmar and Zimbabwe.
“Every organization has a Rolodex of people who they turn to if something is really going wrong, if they need to do a complex emergency mission in someplace that’s not necessarily stable,” Judge said. “Tim became one of their go-to people.”
Knox County, where he has a brother, daughter, nieces and nephews, became the counterpoint, a place where he could sit staring at the water.
“You have to decompress and manage the things that have gone on, and the world is not really that nice a place,” Tim said. “It takes time, and it’s not easy, but I think Maine’s environment facilitates it. I just spend hours driving the roads and waking up and having coffee, and it just helps me reset and recharge, and eventually I feel like I can go back to work.”
His brother Patrick concurs. “When they go to these places, whether they’re warriors or caregivers, they come back, and America is just so different, and they don’t quite jive with that adrenaline and intensity they experience overseas,” he said. “Our Union area and myself and my wife, we offer him a bit of sanctuary and haven so he can heal when he comes back.”
Patrick hopes his brother will eventually stay and work in Maine. “Like the Spartans said, ‘Come home carrying your shield or on your shield,’ ” he said. “We would prefer he would come home carrying his shield.”
For the past two and a half years, Tim’s work has been Mediterranean search and rescue, which his family appreciates because it’s safer than the war zones he used to work in. He’s been involved in a nighttime rescue in which he was pulling drowned people from the water alongside the living, and has treated people who’d been tortured with melted plastic and electrocution or had survived bombings, riots and rape. Many of them would be dead if the Ocean Viking had not found their rafts, joining the 1,100 who died trying to make the crossing in 2018 alone.
On Thanksgiving Day he was still out there and helped rescue 60 people from an overloaded wooden boat off the coast of Libya.
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