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Physician's Plea: Help Save Those in Darfur

March 15, 2007 By:
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Dr. Jerry Ehrlich

Headlines about Darfur offer only a cursory understanding of the brutal genocide there.

For 72-year-old pediatrician Jerry Ehrlich, however, stories of black villagers being tortured at the hands of Arab militias have proven all too real: Those victims were once his patients.

Ehrlich, of Cherry Hill, who grew up an Orthodox Jew in northern New Jersey, spent the summer of 2004 in Darfur, working as a volunteer with the international relief organization Doctors Without Borders. Living and treating patients in a refugee camp there, he saw many of the devastating ramifications -- malnutrition and post-traumatic stress disorder, among others -- of Sudan's killing fields.

While there, Ehrlich, a father to three grown children, also began collecting an unusual form of testimony to the tragedy: children's artwork.

Distributing crayons and paper in the medical wards, Ehrlich said he requested of his charges to draw whatever they wished, but "bring me back five, six pictures as a remembrance of my time in Darfur."

Ehrlich stressed that he did not give any special instructions on what to sketch.

Amazingly, almost all of the resulting 157 pictures depicted the same thing: burning huts, men with guns, pools of red and bombs falling from the sky.

Since the doctor's return, the art -- rendered in the shapes and stick figures only a child would draw -- has become a traveling exhibit, stopping at the United Methodist Building in Washington, D.C., and the African-American Museum in Philadelphia, among other venues.

In a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania -- one of hundreds of lectures Ehrlich has given in recent years -- the doctor shared some of these drawings with audience members, and delivered an impassioned plea to save the young artists who made them.

"If you could have ended the Holocaust three months, six months earlier, how many more survivors could there be? That's the way I look at Darfur," said Ehrlich, who belonged to Congregation Sons of Israel in Cherry Hill for almost 40 years before switching to the Conservative Temple Beth Sholom, where his daughter belongs.

During his talk, the doctor also showed photos of ailing patients, and the camp "hospital" -- a crowded, thatched-roof hut.

He said medical examinations there entailed doing a "visual diagnosis" to pick out the most critical cases. Most of these, noted the doctor, were children.

"It could take easily a month before you got them, you know, back" to normal health, he continued, projecting photos of rail-thin kids on the screen.

Ehrlich had some experience in rehabilitation of this kind: During the '90s, he served as a Doctors Without Borders volunteer three times, all in Sri Lanka, and participated in other medical missions to Haiti and the former Soviet republic of Georgia.

"I felt that to do something like this had to be part of my lifetime medical experience," said Ehrlich, who'd never been out of the country before attending medical school in Amsterdam during the late 1950s and early '60s.

He further admitted that his stints abroad have often been grueling -- in Darfur, the already slight doctor lost 18 pounds; during Sri Lanka's civil war, he once had to be evacuated by boat -- and that leaving his wife and children was equally painful.

Still, Ehrlich, an attending physician at the Virtua West Jersey Hospital in Voorhees, N.J., said he wouldn't trade the trips for anything. "I went to a staff meeting the other day and said to myself, 'These 50, 60 pediatricians are going to spend a lifetime being pediatricians, and not have half the experiences I did.' "


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