One Man’s Mission: Saving Lives & Dignity in the Time of Cholera!
by George Hakopiants*
Each morning, Theodoros Giannaros crosses the serene streets of Athens on his way to work at the Elpis Hospital. Mr. Giannaros is the Director of this small hospital with a big mission. His workplace is a beautiful building reminiscent of the older structures that once dotted the Greek capital. Centrally located, this charming area is lined with pretty trees that coexist alongside large, grey structures and bus-stops. In many ways, the Elpis Hospital has had a front-row seat to Modern Greek history. It treated the wounded during the Balkan Wars, World War I and World War II, as well as scores of Greek refugees expelled from Turkey. The hospital has maintained its place in Greek society for over 170 years, and today has the capacity to care for up to 220 patients.
Like every hospital, Elpis has seen its share of good and bad, but there is no denying that the hospital along with its Director and a growing amount of Greek people, have seen better days. Recent austerity measures have forced the Greek Government to implement harsh cuts on crucial programs and services. Specifically, the healthcare sector in Greece has been dealt a serious blow as the government reduced spending in this field by up to 40%. The consequences have been devastating. In the case of Elpis, the budget has been slashed from €20 million to €8 million. Resources are limited, and an increasing amount of aid is coming to the hospital from NGOs and charitable organizations that have branches throughout Europe and Greece.
Despite reason to be discouraged via a deepening financial crisis, Mr. Giannaros insists on not backing down. A soft-spoken yet tenacious man, Mr. Giannaros has taken up the difficult burden of caring for an increasingly large population of indigents with a rapidly decreasing amount of resources. “New treatments are expensive, and people with rare diseases will not be able to find treatments with aspirin,” he says, referring to the growing scarcity of adequate resources. Clearly, the socioeconomic lines that separated guest workers and recent immigrants from longtime natives are increasingly becoming blurred as both the insured and uninsured find themselves in need of Elpis’s services. The Director himself reports a sharp rise in ordinary Greeks resorting to Elpis for medical attention. According to him, the changing paradigm began in 2010 and has consistently increased every year since then.
The country’s economic slump has added a tremendous burden of stress on ordinary citizens. The hospital reports increased cases of stress-related diseases such as heart attacks, strokes, and rashes. Several staff members at the Elpis Hospital have also suffered from strokes and heart attacks just from the inability to handle the growing amount of stress brought about by the current crisis. Similarly, Elpis also describes a populace that is becoming increasingly depressed and suicidal. The figure has increased by up to 35% over the past two years, and for many in Greece, this staggering figure hits very close to home. Such is true for Dr. Giannaros as well, whose son was driven to suicide last year. Despite having his work cut out for him personally and financially, Dr. Giannaros is making a significant difference on the ground.
The tenacity of his efforts has garnered the attention of international media outlets. Most recently the American public broadcaster PBS featured Elpis and some of the everyday citizens who make use of the hospital’s services. “I have no insurance, no pension– I have nothing!” complained Dionyssia Michaelidou, a retiree living in Athens who came to Elpis with her unemployed daughter to pick up free medications. Another patient, Isidoros Tsagas, claims to have been saved by Elpis from life-threatening cancer. The hospital was able to provide free medicine and treatment to Mr. Tsagas, something he cites as the sole reason he is alive today. “It was a miracle. Otherwise, I would be dead”, he says.
Mr. Tsagas and Ms. Michaelidou are only a few faces in the growing mosaic of burdened Greeks who have difficulty accessing everyday necessities such as medicine. Given the current circumstances, Dr. Giannaros, like many others in Greece, is limited by the country’s financial hardships. But there may be something we can do, as Hellenes and Philhellenes living in the United States, and it starts with education. “Agora: From Democracy to the Market”, the documentary film American Hellenic Council founder Aris Anagnos sponsored at this year’s Los Angeles Greek Film Festival, is the ideal means of educating Greeks and non-Greeks alike about the impact the financial crisis has had on ordinary people.
The film, directed by Yorgos Avgeropoulos, is an award-winning documentary that examines the human consequences of the financial crisis in Greece and follows the story of four different individuals living in today’s Greece. The documentary was filmed over a period of four years and represents a truly diligent effort on the part of the director to document the dramatic turn of events in his country. Having been featured in the film Giannaros and the work being done at the Elpis immediately captivated many of those at the American Hellenic Council. Shortly after its debut North American screening, many in the Council began talking about the importance of helping out Greece, especially now in these trying times. As a political and cultural advocacy group, the Council works to advance issues related to Hellenism in the Greater Los Angeles area. Spreading awareness and raising funds to help keep Elpis afloat is a literal example of promoting Hellenism not just in our community, but around the world. For this reason, the Council is working to spread awareness about the situation in Greece to as many people as possible.
To help do this, the Council will be organizing a series of screenings of Agoura throughout the Greater Los Angeles area. Additionally, the AHC has already started a crowdfunding effort to raise money to purchase new resources for the struggling Elpis Hospital. The campaign hosted on GoFundMe (gofundme.com/projectelpis) has raised up to $2,000 from small grassroots donors, and invites all of those looking to make an impact in Greece to make a contribution. All of the proceeds will go to purchasing new equipment and supplies for Elpis.
Surely Elpis’s troubles are but a piece of the wider problem of social disparity as a result of economic hardship. There are many other institutions in need of help, but Elpis is unique in that takes care of virtually all of those who walk through its doors. Moreover, the hospital’s director, Theodoros Giannaros, ought to provide many half-witted analysts who blame the Greek people and their supposed “laziness” for the country’s problems, a chance to reconsider. Given all that he has done with limited resources, Dr. Giannaros embodies the antithesis of the stereotype perpetuated by many an inarticulate analysts on Greece. His steadfastness and perseverance are what makes showing Agora to the public all the more important. Surely there is no use in arguing over how Greece got to where it is today, and whose fault it is. The fact of the matter is that people in Greece and the professionals there who are making a difference — like Dr. Giannaros, need our help to continue to make a difference where it matters most.
George Hakopiants is Executive Director at the American Hellenic Council of California.