Siena Grad, Franciscan Friars Fight to ‘Break Ebola’

Maria Hayes In the Headlines

medicuschristiWhen the Ebola virus began spreading in West Africa, people there turned to a Siena College graduate for assistance.

Dr. Joseph Marotta, ‘80, is not a virologist or a public health specialist, but an orthopedic surgeon working in Albany, N.Y., nearly 5,000 miles away from the outbreak. He is also the founder of Medicus Christi, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the medical care of the people of the developing world.

For the past five years, Medicus Christi and Marotta have worked to address Ghana’s dire need for orthopedic surgeons by training and providing medical care for the people of West Africa, as well as the construction of a teaching hospital in the city of Cape Coast.

When the Ebola outbreak began, the people served by Medicus Christi in the past called on Marotta again for aid. Soon after, the organization launched Break Ebola, a grassroots campaign to address the severe shortage of basic medical supplies in countries battling the virus.

Marotta Congressional Hearing

Joseph Marotta, left, met Kent Brantly, Ebola survivor, at the congressional hearings on Ebola last month.

Break Ebola
Last week, the health ministry of Liberia, one of the countries hardest hit by the disease, released an inventory detailing supplies that are most needed. The country estimates that there will be a deficit of nearly 80,000 body bags in the next six months.

Ebola cannot be contracted through air, water or food. Rather, people become infected when they come in contact with the blood or body fluids of someone who is sick with or has died from Ebola. Symptoms include excessive vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding.

If caregivers do not have proper personal protective equipment — such as gloves, masks or boots — the virus can spread easily. Liberia is projecting a deficit of nearly 990,000 protective suits for healthcare workers in the next six months. Across the globe, 427 medical staff members were infected since the start of the epidemic and 236 died as of Oct. 12, according to a report from the World Health Organization.

Marotta hopes to get basic medical supplies to people in need by working through connections with medical manufacturers that he established through his work with Medicus Christi.

“We will be purchasing some supplies to fight Ebola and some manufacturers will be making donations,” Marotta explained. “We’re looking to get personal protective equipment — gloves, masks, goggles, gowns, boots — things for healthcare workers and families caring for those infected with the virus.”

He stresses the urgency of the situation and the importance of a quick response. Marotta has visited Washington several times to lobby for the United States government to send aid to Africa. He is working to begin a national campaign to raise awareness and funding for the Break Ebola campaign.

“This is an international problem,” Marotta warned. “After the virus appeared in cities with international airports, the virus could spread anywhere in the globe in a matter of days. There is nothing to stop it from spreading across the developing world. If Ebola does continue to spread and we don’t control the source of the virus, more and more refugees will be coming to the United States.”

Marotta is familiar with weak healthcare infrastructure in African countries. After hearing a missionary from Africa speak at his parish, he felt called to help. Marotta spoke with his pastor, who is from Ghana, who introduced him to his friend, Ghanaian Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Both priests attended St. Anthony-on-the-Hudson Seminary in Rensselaer, N.Y., run by the Conventual Franciscans.

Through the priests, Marotta learned that of Ghana’s 26 million citizens, only 10 or 12 are orthopedic surgeons. Injuries, developmental disabilities and arthritic problems that are very commonly treated and cured in the United States become crippling difficulties for Ghanaians.

“This hospital that Medicus Christi is building is more than a temporary medical mission project,” he explained. “Cardinal Turkson and I are trying to improve healthcare in Ghana by engaging the people to work with us as partners, to help lift themselves up. If we can get this model to work in Africa for orthopedic surgery, the Church, which has hospitals all over the world in developing countries, can use this as a potential model for other medical specialties. We can create autonomous, self-sustaining services in areas of the world where people don’t have access to these services.”

Medicus Christi Marotta friars

Joseph Marotta, second from right, with friars Gregory Jakubowicz, Joseph Rozansky and Kevin Mullen.

Franciscan Compassion
Marotta’s desire to assist those in need is rooted deep in the Franciscan values to which he was first introduced as a student at Siena College. Through the example of friars such as Julian Davies, OFM, Mychal Judge, OFM, Jerome Massimino, OFM, Reginald Reddy, OFM, Cyril Seaman, OFM, and Dennis Tamburello, OFM, Marotta gained a deep reverence for St. Francis and his message.

“In my college days, I was very influenced by the friars and the teachings of Francis,” he recalled. “I had always hoped that some day I would be able to live my life with those Franciscan ideas of service and charity and caring for the poor.”

The doctor has aimed to involve in Medicus Christi the Franciscans who so deeply inspired him to care for others. When the organization was in its early days, Marotta, who worked as Siena’s lead doctor for athletes, went to then-president Kevin Mackin, OFM, for assistance and support. He has since spoken with Joseph Rozansky, OFM, and then-General Vicar Fr. Michael Perry, OFM, about how the Franciscans can help on a global scale. Today, Provincial Minister Kevin Mullen, OFM, and Hilbert College chaplain Gregory Jakubowicz, OFM, serve on Medicus Christi’s board of directors. This includes other Siena College graduates, as well as Cardinal Turkson and Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany.

“What impresses me about Joe’s work is how the commitment to one’s baptismal call can help give direction to someone who is trying to make a difference using the talents he has,” said Gregory, who met Marotta while serving as chaplain at Siena. “Part of what helps him to bring this compassionate medical care to the poor and under-served is the way he was shaped and formed by the friars at Siena. Joe has an incredibly successful orthopedic surgical practice in Albany and a wonderful family. He still finds time — out of love, compassion and care for the poor — to try to bring medical care to developing nations.”

Marotta is grateful for the friars, who have been some of his “greatest teachers, supporters and participants in Medicus Christi.” He hopes that, through his work, he can take the Franciscan values to which he was introduced at Siena and share them with people across the globe.

“Pope Francis has embodied the concepts of charity and service that are critical to the future of humanity. If we don’t start getting along, we’re not going to be around for much longer,” said Marotta. “St. Francis’s philosophies and his example are things that the world desperately needs. Through organizations like Medicus Christi, I would like to see these kinds of Franciscan ideals have an expanding influence, both in the United States and all over the world.”

Maria Hayes is communications coordinator for Holy Name Province.

Editor’s note:  Information about Medicus Christi and ways to support the Break Ebola campaign can be found on the organization’s website