OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Former OSU student aiding health efforts for refugees

07/08/1998

CORVALLIS - During the last four years, Heinke Bonnlander has worked with HIV-positive children in Uganda, helped Haitian refugees get treatment for tuberculosis, lobbied the U.S. military to quit providing tobacco to refugees in Cuba, and coordinated health care relief efforts for 350,000 Rwandans returning to their war-torn country.

Oh, and she's run the Portland Marathon a dozen times.

Not bad for a 57-year-old grandmother who, after raising a family, got her Ph.D. in public health just four years ago from Oregon State University.

A small woman with a big heart, Bonnlander is at home in Albany this summer spending time with her family. This fall, while many Oregonians are raking leaves or casting for salmon, Bonnlander hopes to be in Vietnam, directing relief efforts. If not there, then Burundi. Or, best of all, she said, the Congo - "if it would only open up its borders" to relief organizations.

"Anywhere there are refugees," she said, "there is work to be done."

Her efforts at helping others comes naturally. She married a physician and in her 40s, started a career as a nurse. In her spare time, she came to the OSU campus and worked as a volunteer helping Annette Rossignol, a professor of public health, conduct research on premenstrual syndrome.

The academic setting appealed to Bonnlander, who enrolled in OSU's Ph.D. program in public health. Her graduate work was ambitious - she went to Haiti to collect data for her dissertation, which focused on the prevalence of malaria over a 10-year period, and complications relating to immunizations given to infants to prevent tuberculosis.

From there, Bonnlander went to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where she spent nine months with World Relief directing the organization's health efforts for 25,000 Haitian refugees, and serving as a consultant to the U.S. military on health issues for both Haitian and Cuban refugees.

Bonnlander said she found the military extraordinarily efficient in coordinating logistics, yet not fully equipped to understand refugee health needs. The military's efforts, she said, were "well-meaning. But refugee operations may better be handled by relief organizations who have more experience."

One of her first efforts was to halt the distribution of formula to Haitian mothers.

"On paper," she said, "giving them formula sounds great. But when you give the babies formula, the mothers stop producing milk. And when they were sent back to Haiti - and all of them were - there was no formula. And the babies die."

The refugee camps, Bonnlander pointed out, were "not particularly nice places."

"They were built on a concrete runway and it was crowded, hot and dirty," she said. "People were living 14 to a tent and surrounded by barbed wire. They would do anything they could to get out of camp - from drinking bleach to burning themselves.

"There was no stimulation. Nothing to do. I would see doctors, professors and Olympic athletes who would sit there in the heat, day after day, hoping to come to the United States."

Bonnlander also helped put a halt to the distribution of free cigarettes to Haitian refugees, and convinced the U.S. State Department to change its policy on the treatment of tuberculosis patients. From Guantanamo Bay, TB patients were being shipped back to Haiti, where they were to receive treatment.

Not thoroughly convinced that the treatment was actually taking place, Bonnlander went to Haiti and followed a number of patients through poverty-ridden streets and villages. She found fewer than 50 percent received any kind of treatment, increasing the chance for spreading the disease and creating more drug-resistant strains of TB.

The State Department subsequently kept and treated tuberculosis patients at Guantanamo Bay.

"Heinke is a doer," Rossignol said. "She has made a lot of contributions to world health efforts. She tends to see the world from a gender-related perspective, with an eye to those in the world who are most disadvantaged. And they happen to mostly be women and children."

Most recently, Bonnlander was health program manager for the American Refugee Committee, providing primary health care to about 350,000 Rwandan returnees in the northern part of that country.

She acknowledges the danger of her pursuits with a modest smile.

"My family was pretty worried about my stay there," Bonnlander said, "but I assured them that living in New York City is probably more dangerous than living in Rwanda."

Not all of her time is spent overseas in grim surroundings providing aid to the needy. Bonnlander loves to run - six, seven, eight miles a day - whether she's in Albany, Ore., or Rwanda. Her daily outings provide a peace of mind for her and, she says, a bit of amusement for the villagers.

"In many of the places I've been, you can't run on grass or off the road for fear of land mines," she said. "So I've had to become quite visible. People will line up and laugh at the crazy woman running down the road in the heat for no reason. The children like to follow, for a while. There's a lot of pointing, and shouting and laughter.

"After a while, though, they drop off. They eventually get used to you. And then I can relax and just enjoy the run."

Which is how she gets a little relief of her own.