Chris Hansen, pediatrician, colleague in the field, MFP Board Member, and a special friend, died on February 3rd of a bone marrow disease. It is appropriate that Chris’s life is praised in this column because of his great love for the children of Haiti.
The style and character of Medicine For Peace volunteers have had a strong influence of the ethic of this medical relief organization. Physician and nurse volunteers tend to be idiosyncratic, risk takers and altruistic. Chris had been a MFP volunteer since the early 1990’s, and no one infused MFP with his character and idealism in quite the way that Chris did.
Chris’s education and medical training would seem to have prepared him for an academic career: medical school at the University of Pennsylvania, residency at the Philadelphia Children's Hospital, a Masters in Public Health from Harvard, and a Fellowship in Developmental Disorders at the University of London. However, Chris’s life, strongly influenced by his Quaker faith, took a very different path. Chris and his wife Alex, moved to the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona, where he worked for the U.S. Public Health Service, caring for Native American children. Following a stint with the Peace Corp in Turkey, he returned to the U.S. to work at the Tufts Delta Health Center in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. While Chris worked in the clinic, Alex worked in a black parochial school. Working in the civil rights movement strengthened his resolve to care for children who were victimized either by politics or the circumstances of their birth.
Chris developed a passionate concern for children in the developing world, particularly those countries plagued by war. He flew into Biafra in the 1960’s to assist children who were being starved by the Nigerian government, worked with Kurdish children in the refugee camp in Zakho in northern Iraq, treated Rwandan children suffering from epidemics of cerebral malaria in the Burighi refugee camp in Tanzania, and conducted a MFP nutrition study of children in a poor section of Baghdad after the first Gulf War. Chris had a special affection for Haiti, and helped organize a clinic for children with developmental disorders in Port-Au-Prince.
Chris was an imposing figure: six foot four inches tall, a shock of white hair and beard, decked out in cowboy boots, and a string tie with his signature Navaho tortoise clasp. His dress seemed to fit his life’s work. In addition to his work abroad, Chris was the Chief Pediatric Consultant for the Division of Youth Services and Family Services in New Jersey. His job was to provide services to mentally and physical abused children. He worried constantly about those children and the awful things that had happened to them. His colleagues attest to his optimistic spirit, but I know that what he had witnessed took a toll on him.
I remember most vividly one conversation I had with Chris when we worked together in Baghdad after the First Gulf War. The hospitals were crowded with a seemingly endless stream of severely malnourished children with marasmus and kwashiorkor. I expressed to Chris my discouragement at our inability to help many of those children. He looked at me with the determination he always seemed to have in those situations, and said,
“Well Mike, we’re going to save these kids, one child at a time.”