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Dr Antonio Braga from Sydney helped Macedonia with crucial medical supplies and saved many lives during the first years of the Macedonian independence

27 February, 20:08
Dr Antonio Braga from Sydney helped  Macedonia with crucial medical supplies and saved many lives during the first years of the Macedonian independence

Memoirs of an Honorary Macedonian, Dr Antonio M Braga

 

 With the help of the Macedonian community we requested, collected, packed and sent over 60 tonnes of medicine and medical supplies conservatively valued at twelve million dollars in recurrent shipments to the end of our endeavour.

 

 

My memory has dulled somewhat with time, but Gina may be of some help in placing appropriate photos, if they are still available after all this time. She may also change and add more information if she so desires.

The following is my story of our effort to send to the Republic of Macedonia, in her time of need, medical supplies and equipment in the early 1990s.

As Gina and I were driving along one day, she asked me if I could write a prescription for a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory for her maternal grandmother in Bitola. I was surprised with such a request, because I had many samples of such an item in the surgery. I discovered that modern medications were in short supply because of the disintegration of the former republic of Yugoslavia into different countries of Eastern Europe, namely Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia etc.

On returning to my medical centre that morning I looked around and noticed the many sample medications lying on my shelves and in drawers, practically going to waste. I also noticed after going into my treatment rooms, large amounts of pathology supplies, items such as disposable needles, syringes, alcohol swabs, cotton buds, plastic containers, plastic gloves, plastic speculum etc. These sterile and disposable goods could all be sent along with the medications to Macedonia.

After dinner that night, I sat down with Gina and explained to her what I was thinking about that morning. I explained to her the possibility of sending all those good medications that were wasted samples at the medical centre. I suggested we could request such supplies from all the general practitioners’ in Sydney and elsewhere and collect them all to send to Macedonia. With this discussion, we put our thoughts into action and started the drive to send medicine and supplies to Macedonia.

It did not take us long to realise that it was no easy task and a great deal of planning had to be done to overcome many obstacles. We began to realise we had a difficult job on our hands.

To start with we had to acquire a licence from the Australian Government to export the medications. We had to get ourselves well known to the community and ask for their help. We knew it was not our project alone. We had to acquire the help of a great number of volunteers. We had to ring each general practitioner in Sydney and ask them for their donation of medical samples and pathology supplies. We had to request, collect, sort, pack and dispatch. We had to find a centre where all these activities were to take place.

 

Dr Braga and one of the volunteers sorting the medicine to be sent in Macedonia

We rang two radio DJ’s of a very popular Macedonian radio program, Mr G.J. and Mr A.V. to voice our idea to the community, especially in Sydney. We knew from the start that that was essential for our project to succeed. These two gentlemen were great. Gina and I were at the radio stations on numerous occasions until we became well known and our idea was welcomed by the Macedonian community of NSW.

We operated as a charity under the auspices of the Macedonian Church Charity called “The Macedonian International Relief Fund.” During this time, we wrote letters to all Australian Pharmaceutical companies to ask them for donations of medicine they may have to spare. The response was indeed good. In response, we received word one day that a truck load of Codral Forte 

(Painkiller) had arrived at Gina’s parents place. It filled their double garage, spilling into the hallway and into their lounge room.

With the help of Qantas Cargo Manager, Mr M.G., we got permission to freight this medicine to Skopje at a nominal cost. It was Mr M.G.’s suggestion to ask every Macedonian who worked for Qantas, as there were many, to pool their annual cargo allowance together and donate this to our cause so that we may transport to Macedonia at a very cheap rate. We transferred this assignment to Mr B.K., an employee of Qantas who knew nearly all the Macedonian employees of Qantas, to handle the air freight. Our shipments were sent by Qantas to Stuttgart Germany and then via Palair Macedonian Airline from Stuttgart to Skopje. The cargo was then received and acknowledged by the then minister of health in Skopje, Dr J.T. This is how we started our project.

Whilst the initial donations and shipments were small, i.e. for the first 3 tonnes of donations, Gina and I bore the cost of shipping these ourselves but as the donations of medicines started to exceed our expectations, i.e. 15-20 tonnes it became obvious that we could not carry the financial burden by ourselves. For this reason, we asked the Macedonian radio, namely G.J and A.V to organise a fundraiser over the radio. With this we collected enough funds to complete our project until the end of our relief fund efforts. The funds raised were used to airfreight and ship the donated medicines to Macedonia. A small amount was also used to purchase petrol for the volunteer truck drivers.

The donations from Australian pharmaceutical companies kept coming in. Next to come was a truckload of Vioform Hydrocortisone Cream 30gram tubes (used for the treatment of skin conditions). It was even a larger amount of goods than the previous donations and was causing Gina’s parents, Mr and Mrs Mitrevski some inconvenience as their double garage was full and they started sorting and storing medicine upstairs of their home, but they never complained. Since we were running out of space at Gina’s parent’s house we decided to shift the project to my medical centre. This was an unfortunate choice because of what later transpired. My surgery was first broken into and then on a second attempt, was firebombed and set on fire. This was obviously a political attempt of oppression and many medicines were burn and destroyed.

At my medical centre, we were first disrupted in our efforts by a psychopath who managed to break into the surgery by smashing through a glass pane of the door. In doing so he must have cut himself so badly that he smeared his blood over the ransacked goods that were prepared for shipment. These had to be cleansed from the blood by volunteers using gloves, disinfectants, buckets of water and cloths, after which they had to be repacked before sending. The medicine was safe as it was properly and individually packed by their company and only the outside of the packaging was contaminated however it was my duty to send a few samples of this person’s blood urgently to my pathologist for checking for infectious diseases such as hepatitis, STD etc. to make sure we were all safe before attempting the clean-up. I did this first to protect the health of the volunteers.

The 2nd attempt at arson and most traumatic period for me, was again at my medical centre when someone attempted to set fire. The torching of my medical centre, by some lunatic may have been the same person who committed the break in earlier. It took an army of volunteers to clean for four days from the effects of the smoke damage and high temperature. It burnt a large area of the ceiling and burnt all the electrical wiring making us devoid of light and telephones. This destruction was so bad that it caused me the inability to work properly and see my patients.

 

Dr Braga's medical center was a sorting and packing facillity for the medical relief fund. Volunteers hard at work to send much needed medicine in Macedonia

I restarted my medical practice after some five days with the help of a very long electrical extension to supply poor light to the medical centre. This makeshift arrangement lasted for about 3 months, before the renovations were finished. The big industrial air-conditioning unit needed fixing, we cleansed the floor and re carpeted the whole centre and had the walls painted. It was not practical to finish our project in the surgery due to the two arson attempts and the obvious attempt to try and stop us were crippling me financially.

As a temporary measure, we went back to Gina’s parents place again until such time that Mr G.J. was kind enough to allow us to use his warehouse in Lakemba. We stayed there for the remainder of our efforts and kept this location a secret as we were trying to avoid any further arson attempts. It was from there that we continued our humanitarian efforts and sent the remaining shipments to Macedonia.
We received a good quantity of baby milk powder and liquid milk. It was not a very great amount, so we supplemented by the purchase of some more to make it worthwhile. This was air freighted by Qantas as previously done to the sick children in Macedonia.

At the temporary 'secret' location with boxes of critical medicine 

The assistant Health Minister, Dr Z.S., approached us stating he urgently needed renal dialysis filters, these items were quite urgent. He rang us on numerous occasions during the day and night and after contacting the pharmaceutical company Gambro, we were eventually fortunate enough to acquire a donation of three pallets full of kidney dialysis filters. With the three pallets and their corresponding saline products, we urgently air freighted 3 tonnes and shipped the remainder 5 tonnes by sea freight.
Commonwealth Serum Laboratories notified us that they had some spare child immunisation vaccines for us. It was labour intensive because it had to be kept cold and transported in special refrigerated containers at a specified temperature. This had to be done within 48 hours so logistically was quite a difficult process. We managed to perform this difficult procedure and send it to Macedonia for the inoculation of 30,000 children. We also received some 400 boxes of Lomotil for the treatment of diarrhoea from another company.
The last major air freighted medical supply to Macedonia took us nearly 2 years to perform. My three secretaries C.L.R, H.K. and S.B. spent hours and months on end telephoning Sydney and Wollongong doctors, using the phone directory, requesting their medical samples be donated to our cause. The response was very good, which was very surprising to me. The doctors’ list was then given to many volunteer drivers who would then go and pick up the medications from the various doctors’ medical centres, these were then brought back to us in plastic bags and cardboard boxes. All the samples were then sorted out. The outdated ones were destroyed by incineration as per the law, the rest were individually placed into their correct categories in separate boxes namely: cardiovascular, neurological, dermatological, respiratory etc. They were then packed, labelled, addressed and ready for shipment. It was time consuming and labour intensive. It took many volunteer packers to finish the job before it was ready to send but before sending a proper inventory had to be given to the Australian Health Department before a permit to ship was obtained.
The biggest donation we received in Sydney was a whole shipping container full of Orthoxicol Cold and Flu Syrup. All bottles were in date and ready for use. The donating company was simply changing its packaging and was discarding the old bottles which had a good 5 years life left so after opening, checking and repacking, the whole container was immediately shipped to Macedonia.

 

We tried to expand our operation interstate to increase and maximise this humanitarian operation. Gina and I went to Melbourne for a day. We were received by the local Macedonian community there who showed enthusiasm, but unfortunately our attempt was stopped and banned by the Melbourne Medical Director (who was of Greek decent). We nevertheless handed the project to a Melbourne volunteer who, with our instructions collected a worthwhile quantity of unsorted medication which was sent to us in Sydney for sorting, packing and shipping.
We then visited Adelaide and tried to expand our charity collection there too but were received with a lukewarm greeting from their local community leaders who pushed us off onto one of their committee members who offered us a dinner and a somewhat kind rejection. It was a great disappointment, our trip to Adelaide was a total waste of our time.
In Sydney, things were very different. With the help of the Macedonian community we requested, collected, packed and sent over 60 tonnes of medicine and medical supplies conservatively valued at twelve million dollars in recurrent shipments to the end of our endeavour.
A director of documentary films from the Macedonian National Television Station in Skopje, Mr M.P., was sent to Australia to film a documentary on our whole work and efforts. The TV crew filmed us collecting, sorting and packing the medicines as well as the forklifts loading the shipping containers. The TV crew also attended and filmed the charity ball which Gina put together at the Conco’Doro Lounge in Riverwood, which was a huge success with over 600 guests. The ball was dedicated to all and sundry helpers involved in our humanitarian aid collection to Macedonia. We invited our honoured guests, the cargo manager of Qantas and his partner, our honorary guests such as our voluntary accountants and various representatives from donating pharmaceutical companies.
On this night Gina and I gave our “Appreciation Awards” to over 60 people which were given to us and personally signed by the Macedonian Health Minister. On that same evening, there was a special speech given to the guests by the then President of the Republic of Macedonia, Mr Kiro Gligorov. His speech was given via a big screen presentation.

Gina Braga, former Macedonian  president late Kiro Gligorov and Dr Antonio Braga

I arrived a little late to the function that evening because of a medical emergency at my medical centre, as is the life of a doctor, but I was there for most of it. I gave a speech that night to which I received a standing ovation and I was proudly labelled and referred to as an honorary Macedonian from that day on.
Our efforts at just that evenings fundraiser alone ended with us raising over $30,000 which funds were used to buy immunisation for the children of Macedonia.
The “Macedonian International Relief Fund” organisation commenced in about 1990 and the whole project took just over 2 years where it ended after the then Health Minister of Macedonia advised us that Macedonia had received a huge donation and support from UNICEF and that we needn’t continue our efforts any longer.


Dr. Antonio M Braga
The Honorary Macedonian
28 November 2018

source: Шило

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