The unsung heroes of the medical profession

Olga Kesidou is an ear, nose and throat doctor with a private practice. I spent quite a long time there during our interview and was surprised to note that not a single patient walked through the doors. The stereotype is that Greek doctors are corrupt money-grubbers who demand a wad of cash to do their jobs and take kickbacks from pharmaceuticals to promote their products.

True, the country has its fair share of such individuals, but, like everyone else in Greece, doctors are also feeling the pinch of the crisis and for many this has led them down new paths that reveal a different face of the profession.

The crisis has led thousands to volunteer their time and services, despite their own financial woes, at free clinics, without discriminating between the haves and have-nots or the Greeks and non-Greeks who seek their assistance.

“I miss the simple things: proper lunches, some time at home, enough sleep,” Kesidou told me. “Earning half the money I once did, working twice as hard and with the pressure to help confront a serious social problem, there is little time left over for yourself.”

Kesidou now keeps up her private practice in order to make ends meet and she’s only earning half of what she once did. She also works at two private clinics and at three free clinics that provide healthcare to the needy.

“I didn’t pay my insurance this month because I couldn’t afford it,” she admitted. “Being unable to meet your obligations for a few weeks is not a problem, but by allowing someone to go hungry or to get sick you are pushing them toward crime and the margins of society, and that is bad for everyone. We must try to maintain social cohesion.”

When many doctors first started volunteering at free clinics at the beginning of the Greek crisis, they mostly worked with immigrants who did not have any health insurance.

According to Irene Daountaki, a doctor who volunteers at the free clinic in Rethymno, Crete, “the numbers have shifted dramatically and Greeks are now in the majority.”

Data provided by the facility show that the number of uninsured patients in Rethymno in 2008 stood at just 8 percent of the population and the majority were migrants without documentation. The number of uninsured people today is estimated at 20 percent, and the majority are Greek.

The Rethymno free clinic employs 70 doctors and nurses, all of whom have other jobs. It is estimated that there are 200 doctors and nurses volunteering their time in Thessaloniki and many more in Athens.

According to figures from the Federation of Hospital Doctors in Greece (OENGE), more than 4,500 professionals offer their services in support of an often unofficial, shadow healthcare system to help the uninsured and the poor.

“These are transitory services – a bulwark against the crisis – and we do not like to view them as permanent,” explained Dimitris Varnavas, the head of OENGE.

Free clinics treat chronic problems and provide vaccinations, while they also run programs for distributing medicines donated by households. The network of volunteer doctors also augments the work they do with donations of supplies or equipment.

Their patients come from all walks of life.

“I have seen shop owners who used to be quite wealthy and who came to my private practice now resorting to the free clinics,” said Kesidou. “At first, they would get embarrassed when they saw me, but a big part of our job is explaining to patients that they can’t blame themselves for the crisis.”

She explained that the free clinics don’t just provide care to the destitute: “We get municipal workers who are not on the payroll and cannot afford to insure themselves, or low-income pensioners who can’t pay for their medicines.”

Kesidou and another 22 doctors and nurses recently opened a new clinic in Peristeri, northwestern Athens, in cooperation with a local solidarity group that donated the premises.

“We have people dropping by asking us to give them medicine even before we have opened,” Kesidou said. “We reach out to our colleagues and the public for help, and you know what has really encouraged me? That no one says no. Many doctors have had a change of heart and will help where they can, and the patients for their part display an enormous amount of dignity.”

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