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Hooked With A Hug

Alumnus Eric Talbert had long believed in the mission of the humanitarian group Emergency USA, but seeing a child's scars firsthand left a mark on him.
People  |  Feb 25, 2013  |  By Kate Stowell
Eric Talbert's work with Emergency USA has taken him to such war-torn areas as Karthoum, Sudan, where the medical aid organization opened a pediatric clinic.

A little boy at a market in the west African country of Sierra Leone clinched it for Eric Talbert.

It was March 2012 and Talbert, '03 BS Psychology, had taken an afternoon off from his work at a medical facility run by the aid group Emergency International. He went to explore the local market. The boy walked over and pointed to Talbert's shirt bearing the group's logo -- a capital E, formed by three bold red lines, with a circle around it.

"Emergency, right?" the boy asked. Talbert nodded. "Thank you," he said as he held up his arm so show his surgical scars. Then he wrapped his arms around Talbert, grateful that he still had both of them.

Eric Talbert was traveling abroad with the humanitarian group. He'd left his comfortable bed and modern conveniences in San Francisco to travel to Sierra Leone, a country still devastated from a civil war that broke out in 1991 and lasted 10 years. Having volunteered as a fundraiser and advocate for the group in the United States for six years, Talbert was well aware of the good it did. That day he felt it.

"I didn't do anything to directly help this little boy," Talbert said, "but as a representative of Emergency, there was this huge immediate gratitude and connection, and being able to see him smile and know that he received care that he deserved in this one quick passing was really touching. There's no undoing that hook."

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Even before Talbert's travels abroad, he was passionate about the vision and mission of Emergency, which provides high-standard, free health care to victims of war and poverty. In 2005, he was living in New York City when a friend told him about a book tour event featuring Dr. Gino Strada, an Italian war surgeon and co-founder of Emergency. It took Talbert two pieces of information to decide to devote his life to this organization: First, that 90 percent of the victims in today's conflicts are civilians, of which one-third are children. Second, organizations, like Emergency, are changing those statistics.

"That just blew me away," Talbert recollected. "I knew I had to do what I could to help out in my own way, so I started volunteering."

Over the next six years, Talbert collected emails on a clipboard in front of a local supermarket. He talked to people about the organization and inspired them to give. Their $20 donations added up.

Anna Gilmore, a fellow volunteer at the time, saw Talbert's passion for the organization. "He was willing to do anything," said Gilmore, now the Emergency USA board president. "And beyond that, he was willing to learn how to do more."

At the time, Talbert was working at SUNY Downstate Medical Center as a research psychologist, a job directly related to his bachelor's degree in psychology from UNLV. As he became more and more familiar with the group's work, he realized he wanted to transition to the nonprofit sector.

He enrolled in the European Graduate School to get a master's in media and communications. There were no guarantees, though. Sure Talbert had shown his dedication to the organization through volunteer work -- he even helped it get the 501(c)3 status in 2008 -- but there was no place in the budget for a full-time employee in the United States. Undaunted, Talbert to build his skills in the nonprofit sector through a couple of full-time jobs while continuing his volunteer efforts with Emergency.

Finally, in 2011, after six years of volunteering, a master's degree and practical experience, Talbert was hired as the executive director of Emergency USA.

"I don't know if it's his vegetarian diet or the fact that he's a runner, but he is just so well-paced and unstoppable," Gilmore said. "We could not exist without him. He's basically been the source of structure, planning, and building a really effective future."

"It's been a long process," Talbert said. "But I really feel like I'm in my dream job. Sure, there's a lot going on, and it's stressful, but there's nothing more I'd rather be doing with my time than supporting this organization and the work they do."

Take for instance that medical facility in Sierra Leone. It now has a specialized program to treat esophageal burns, a medical problem common in the area. There's a tradition to make homemade soap, Talbert explained, with caustic lye. As a liquid, it looks like milk; as a solid, it looks like sugar or salt. Unfortunately, children who aren't old enough to read warning labels on bottles, ingest the lye. The resulting burns in the throat are so severe that without treatment the child eventually dies from starvation.

"This is a program Emergency developed with the help and support of the local people. We didn't even know this was going on, but we were able to address it because we have surgical capacity. The children are able to be treated and ... get a second shot at life."

Another example is Emergency's Salam Center for Cardiac Surgery in Sudan, Africa. It was opened due to the large number of children with heart problems due to the strep throat. "A hundred years ago, strep throat was a big problem in the United States, but now we all have access to penicillin, and people are treated and cured," Talbert explained.

Unfortunately, the same is not true in Africa, where strep often goes undiagnosed and untreated. "So the strep throat turns into rheumatic heart fever and then it starts attaching the heart valves. People, kids especially, are dying from cardiac arrest, all because of strep throat."

According to Talbert, more than 15.6 million people are currently estimated to suffer from rheumatic heart disease, of whom about 300,000 die each year. Since the Salam Center's opening in 2007, more than 41,000 patients from 24 countries have been treated.

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Last year, the work at the Salam Center caught the attention of Kief Davidson, a documentary filmmaker. He came across the story of eight children who were preparing to make the trip to Sudan for open-heart surgery to treat their rheumatic heart disease. In the short documentary Open Heart, Davidson follows their journey. The film was screened at several film festivals and was nominated this year for an Academy Award in the "Best Documentary Short Subject" category.

Talbert hopes that the wrenching story that Open Heart tells will help people understand the issues people face in war-torn and poverty-stricken areas.

Since it formed nearly 20 years ago, Emergency has treated more than 5 million people. "It's been really bittersweet to watch that number grow," Talbert said. "There's a sense of confidence that we're helping people in need, but at the same time there can be a sense of despair because there is such a need due to war and a lack of resources."

Then he thinks about the boy in Sierra Leone. "My job is building a connection between the medical work in the field and the people here on the ground and educating people about a culture of peace, solidarity and respect for human rights, and I'll continue to do that until I put myself out of a job."