Compassion and Commitment
An interview with Rose and Gene Gangarosa
In October 2014, The Center for Compassion & Global Health (CCAGH) had the privilege to interview Dr. Eugene J. Gangarosa, MD, MS, FACP and Rose Gangarosa about their lifelong commitment to global health. Please enjoy this meaningful conversation with Gene and Rose as they speak to the importance of compassion and social justice in their continued efforts to support the field of water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH).
CCAGH: Where did your commitment to compassion and global health begin?
Gene: We have travelled together many places, we’ve lived in developing countries such as Pakistan and Lebanon, and we’ve come to know the conditions of poverty. My own experiences as a child coming from a very poor family inspired me to be committed to the poor and to the disadvantaged. Rose has shared that feeling.
Rose: Gene was sent to Pakistan. That is where my interest started because I had never been exposed to the poverty and dire conditions, the depravation of water that I saw there. This really impressed me and stayed with me for a long time. I used to work at the school. Every day we would pass by a very polluted canal. That was where I used to see women washing clothes and bathing their children, and cows drinking – it was pitiful. It bothered me so I said to Gene, I wish there was something that we could do. There wasn’t, but it really depressed me at the time. And this stayed with me the entire time we were in Pakistan for two years. Then we returned to the states and came to Atlanta.
Gene: In school I studied Italian, and I enjoyed foreign languages, and I had three years of Italian and two years of Latin. This is relevant because when I went overseas I was assigned to a squadron in Naples, Italy, a place in devastation. When the Germans retreated they destroyed the water and sanitary infrastructure. I was fortunate because the last months of the war, I never had to shoot my rifle. I served as a supply Sargent. I was helping indirectly in the reconstruction of Naples.
At that time, because of the water shortage, an epidemic of typhus occurred. There was an Army unit called the Typhus Control Commission from Walter Reed Army Institute for Research in Washington. I interacted with those people and was very much inspired by what they were doing. I liked the idea of being involved with something constructive. I felt this was my first overseas health experience, not really health but doing something constructive helping people.
There’s something addictive about accomplishing and making things happen. At least there was for me. When I trained in internal medicine I had committed to practice medicine. I loved the Doctor / patient relationship. I had that experience in Bangkok in 1959 during a cholera epidemic. That was a life-changing event; a career changing event.
CCAGH: What have you found most meaningful about your work?
Gene: The most gratifying thing to me is, even though we will never see the faces of those we help, we have a good feeling that we’ve made a difference in the lives of the people where we have prevented diseases with safe water and sanitation. We think quality of life starts with those basic essentials – having safe water and having a toilet. It is amazing in this era of high technology that such a large percentage—20% to 25% of the world’s population—do not have toilets. An even larger percentage do not have safe water.
We feel the same pains that disadvantaged people feel. We’ve come through some difficult times, but we’ve been very fortunate. I’ve been very fortunate as having as a hobby finances. I was able to get the resources to provide the seed money for the funding for students, their global field experiences, for sponsoring our two Chairs, water and sanitation. What sustains us is a common vision and a common purpose in life.
Rose: You can’t live with a person for that many years and not have the same view. We agree on the most important things and that has what’s sustained us and kept us going.
It’s very nice to know what that small contribution that we made for chairs has done. They tell us what is happening. All the students they come back and tell about their experiences. What they have accomplished is just remarkable. We never really expected that little bit to help as much as it has. I have somebody for my chair that is a fantastic person. I’m amazed in this short time what he’s been able to do with his job.
The funny thing about giving is that once you start it, you are on a roll, and it gives you more satisfaction as you go on to do what you can. That’s certainly how it has been for us. I don’t think about getting a new sofa. I think of it as this money could go to something else that could really make a big difference in somebody else’s life. It works well, and it makes you feel good. And, it’s a lot of fun.
Gene: I think about the support that I got from my education. I could never have had the education I had without the GI Bill. And yet, there were politicians at that time who, like now, condemned the government for making those commitments to poor people or people who served. However, every year of the last 40 years of my career I’ve paid each year more than the sum of all the money I was paid by the government that supported my schooling. I am so grateful for that.
CCAGH: What is the role of compassion in global health?
Gene: I think this profession has that as a unique characteristic, our sense of commitment to social justice. We get a great deal of pleasure from the company we keep, who have that same philosophy. One has to be self-effacing. One has to be willing to make sacrifices and be prepared to see the merit of helping others.
It’s a very important trait to have, a commitment. I think it’s part of our profession. This is what attracted me to public health, the commitment to the philosophy of social justice. It plays a very big role, and I’ve enjoyed working in this field because all of the colleagues and all of the students I have taught and worked with have that as a characteristic – compassion and a sense of social justice.
For more information visit about Gene and Rose Gangarosa and their work, please visit: http://gangarosainternationalhealth.org/