SEATTLE — Shortly after U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens was slain during an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi last September, his sister Anne Stevens received a call from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Stevens, a Seattle doctor, recalled Clinton saying that “justice would be done” for Chris Stevens’ death.
But those words struck Stevens as exactly wrong. “This was not at all how my brother would have reacted — I never heard him talk like that,” said Stevens, a specialist in autoimmune conditions at Seattle Children’s.
Instead, she thought the most fitting tribute to her older brother’s life was to complete the work he had started in Benghazi, helping Libyans improve emergency care in the troubled and dangerous city.
This week, three Libyan doctors visited Boston and Seattle to begin forming the framework of a collaboration among Seattle Children’s, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Benghazi Medical Center.
They were joined by Thomas Burke, an emergency physician who oversees Massachusetts General’s global health programs and was in Benghazi the night Stevens was killed Sept. 11. Burke was to meet with the ambassador the next morning at the Benghazi hospital.
Burke said Stevens’ death has become a “political football” that has obscured the larger story of how Libyans are trying to develop a stable democracy in a country that was ruled by a brutal dictatorship for four decades.
“They could use our help to gain peace, stability and security,” Burke said. “We need to be a little less focused on who killed Chris Stevens.”
Burke said the Libyans lack management and leadership experience, and they need to develop basic health-care-management skills.
Six Libyans will soon head to Boston to train as paramedics. The country also needs help developing a health-management training program.
Libya’s doctors are looking to work with both hospitals on advanced training for physicians, because they need to rebuild everything from scratch.
On Thursday, Dr. Laila Taher Bugaighis, deputy director of Benghazi Medical Center, spoke to a group of doctors at Children’s.
She said Benghazi is a city of 1 million people with no functioning ambulance service or 911 system, and its doctors are in need of advanced medical training.
Its hospital was under construction for 36 years, the project delayed by corruption, she said. During Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, health care was so poor that when Libyans got sick they either “left the country for treatment, or prayed to God that they would recover,” she said.
“We were oppressed for 43 years, and health care was part of the way the regime manipulated the people,” she said.
Women in Libya are especially vulnerable, and during Gadhafi’s rule, rape victims were forced to marry their assailants and stay wed for five years, said Bugaighis, also lead obstetrician at Benghazi Medical Center.
The Benghazi collaboration was one of the reasons Chris Stevens was in Libya’s second-largest city in September, and originally the project — called Health Education Across Libya for Children — was solely a collaboration between Benghazi and Massachusetts General.
Anne Stevens didn’t know about the Benghazi-Boston collaboration at the time of her brother’s death, but since then she has taken on some of the mantle of that work. She and her colleagues have made Seattle Children’s part of the project.
The collaboration “is exactly what my brother wanted to help support … it’s not telling them to do anything, or giving them stuff, but collaborating with them,” she said.
In a statement, the Libyan ambassador to the U.S., Ali Suleiman Aujali, called Chris Stevens a “beloved champion” of the Libyan people, and said Libyans “are grateful that Dr. Stevens and Seattle Children’s Hospital are continuing his legacy through this important initiative to improve medical care and training in Libya.”
Bugaighis said doctors in Benghazi want the medical center there to become the leading hospital for all of North Africa. But she said it will take time.
“We are still an unstable country,” she said.
Seattle Times staff reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this report.