By Lillian Cox
ENCINITAS — Twice a year Dr. Eileen Natuzzi leaves her home and surgical practice in Encinitas to perform humanitarian work in the Solomon Islands, about 1,000 miles northeast of Australia.
Her seventh trip is scheduled for April when for four weeks she’ll head up an American medical team that will provide surgical care and teaching to local doctors.
She estimates the value of her work and that of the other surgeons, including loss of income, to be approximately $50,000 each person, each trip.
Natuzzi says they are only paying an old debt.
“The debt I feel we owe is to the people of the Solomon Islands to help them improve their health care system,” she said. “Sixty-eight years ago during World War II, at great risk to their own lives, the young men of the Solomon Islands rescued our downed airmen, marooned sailors and Marines who were lost in the jungles. It is the least we can do for them.”
Natuzzi is referring to the Guadalcanal campaign fought between Aug. 7, 1942, and Feb. 9, 1943. Today, more than 1,000 Allied airmen, sailors and Marines are entombed in ships in what is referred to as “Ironbottom Sound” including Natuzzi’s uncle, seaman second class Billy Stack, who was only 17 when he died.
Probably the most famous American to be rescued by Solomon Islanders is President John F. Kennedy after his PT109 was hit by a Japanese destroyer.
For all their help, Natuzzi is embarrassed that the United States hasn’t done more to return the favor.
“Over the past 30 years the U.S. has only donated $100,000,” she said. “Most of it is for global warming.”
In August 2004, Natuzzi made her first visit to the Solomon Islands to memorialize her uncle on behalf of the family.
She returned in May 2008 when she was recruited by Dr. Lance Hendricks, founder and medical director of the Loloma Foundation, to provide medical care in rural clinics on the outer islands. In April 2010 she began providing specialty training to three local surgeons responsible for serving a population of half a million people, most of whom live on the outer islands.
Natuzzi says malaria is still the most rampant disease.
“Over 30 percent of people suffer from the same disease our servicemen were afflicted with in 1942 and 1943,” she said. “Filariasis, another mosquito-borne disease, is widely seen. There are many advanced cancers, in particular breast and cervical cancer, because there are no screening programs.”
Dr. Gerry Schneider, a plastic surgeon at Scripps Green, is one of the specialists who works with Natuzzi.
“The Solomon Islands disturbs me, not just because of the medical problems we see there, but also because of what happened there 68 years ago,” he said.
Natuzzi said it was the desire to do humanitarian work that fueled her to passion to study medicine. In addition to the Solomon Islands, she volunteers through Project Access San Diego and the UCSD Student-Run Free Clinic.
She says more and more doctors are traveling overseas to volunteer because of frustration with the economics and paperwork involved with running their practices here.
“When doctors become dissatisfied, they do what is satisfying,” she said. “They return with their batteries charged.”
Natuzzi also returns with her battery charged.
“Now I found the country I want to focus on,” she said. “When I’m dead I want people to say, ‘She did something good about this.’”
Already en route to the Solomon Islands is a 40-foot container that Natuzzi arranged carrying medical supplies and hospital beds.
To make a tax-deductible contribution supporting Dr. Natuzzi’s work, e-mail her at email@example.com. For more information, visit www.lolomafoundation.org, lolomafoundation.blogspot.com and williammoorestackfoundation.org.