It’s 1997. We are a team of three doctors, tightly packed into a tiny, twin-engine plane, loaded to the brim with bandages, medicines and surgical supplies. We purposely lose our passports, and all personal identification, back in Uganda. Flying the last 200 miles at treetop level to avoid being spotted by circling bombers and gunships.
We’re on a secret mission into a terrorist country that’s fighting a bloody civil war, the Islamic Republic of Sudan. We drop fast, land in a dirt field, and then anxiously unload our supplies. We get the plane airborne and out of sight within minutes.
The next day, we set up our surgical facility in an abandoned, two-room school house. The surrounding village is completely deserted because of the ongoing, decades-long civil war. Several hundred yards away, a once thriving village hospital lies empty, ringed with active land mines. It is our haunting, daily reminder of the hate and destruction of war.
With chalk-boards pushed to the corner, we emergently operate on a badly wounded fighter, a lifesaving above-the-knee amputation. We don’t know if he fights for the good guys or the bad guys – and it doesn’t matter. We are there to heal. Next is a feverish, frightened young boy with a ruptured appendix. He will die without surgery. And the cases, keep coming, and coming faster, and then coming even faster.
Over the next two weeks, we operate all day, every day, and at night by flashlight.
And the most amazing thing, and the most unexpected to me--the thing that blew me away--is that the fighting around the clinic schoolhouse begins to slow. Then stops! And within weeks that newfound peace miraculously spreads throughout the entire province.
From healing grow dignity and self-worth. From that healing, grow trust and hope. Our healing presence introduces a calmness, an air of tolerance and mutual understanding. Our healing presence, introduces a currency for peace, medicine as a currency for peace.
My experience in Sudan didn’t just come out of the blue. You see, I had the good luck to grow up in a medical family – dad, a family doctor, and two older brothers, physicians as well. My earliest and fondest memories as a little boy are sitting next to Dad on the front seat of his old, green Chevrolet, my left arm propped up on his well-worn, black doctor’s bag.
We are going on a house call.
I hold his hand tightly as we enter a darkened bedroom. From across the room, I watch with wonder as Dad slowly approaches a grey-haired woman, sits on the side of the bed, and gently touches her hand, connecting so intimately, so intensely, listening and nodding.
Time slows, He leans over to his bag, pulls out a dark yellow vial, and reassuringly gives it to the woman. Her face turns, she says something. And then she smiles. The room instantly brightens. The heavy veil of despair and depression lifts. You feel the compassion, you feel the restored hope.
So, in that room, on that day, my own lifelong journey toward health, hope and healing began. It had a natural course, leading me on to medical school, and then into surgery, and then to join pioneering surgeons exploring a radical, revolutionary new field of medicine.
You see, in the early years of my training, we had absolutely no treatment, for the otherwise healthy person who had a badly failing heart. None at all. The whole idea of saving a life, by cutting out a diseased heart and replacing it with a healthy one, was science fiction, an impossible dream. But these courageous surgeons set the goal, committed the resources, and made heart transplantation a reality. They solved what for ages had been unsolvable — they gave new life where there was no hope.
Transplanting hearts and lungs became my daily routine.
At about the same time, little did I know that an even greater threat, a more existential threat to humanity, was just beginning to emerge. It, too, was a disease for which there was no treatment, and no cure. Its cause was a single virus, a cagey, little virus that would constantly change its shape to escape detection and treatment. The virus was HIV. The disease, AIDS.
I first met the virus as a young surgical resident in training. I read the initial 1981 report of five people in California who died of a mysterious, unnamed disease. The virus outsmarted and outran us. The first year, we watched helplessly as a few hundred people died. The next year, a few thousand, then a hundred thousand, then a million. And eventually three million people dying every year, that’s more people than died in the entire Korean and Vietnam Wars combined, every year.
I realized the scale of human suffering on my annual medical mission trips to Africa. My clinics overflowed with AIDs patients. The virus hollowed out entire societies, taking first the most productive members at the prime of their lives — teachers, police, civil servants, mothers. In Botswana, life expectancy plummeted to 39 years of age!
Yes, it was time to act. Not just to listen, not just to talk, but to act.
In 1994, I ran for the US Senate, and won. As the only doctor in the Senate, I shared my medical experiences in Africa with my Senate colleagues, so they’d understand the magnitude of destruction caused by this single virus. I brought back pictures of emaciated patients lying three to a single cot, dying of AIDS.
One afternoon in my Senate Majority Leader office, I receive a call from the Office of the President of the United States. “Could you come to a small, confidential dinner with the President in the Red Room of the White House? Please say nothing to anyone about this meeting.”
I know something special is up.
The next evening, I walk into the Red room and join the President and a handful of others. Over the next two hours, the President spells out in detail his ambitious, tightly held plan: The President will commit US leadership and unprecedented resources on behalf of the American people. The plan is to eradicate AIDS in Africa.
In the room someone says, “It can’t be done.” the President replies, “My smartest scientists tell me it can.”
Another one says, “It’s too expensive.” The President replies, “My researchers say the cost of treatment will fall to a tenth of what it is today, if we totally commit our creativity, our innovation, and our science to it.”
“It’s overseas, and we’ve got problems right here at home.” The President responds, “A person should not be condemned to die because of where they’re born. It is the moral and right thing to do.”
And finally: “But Mr. President, it’s never been done before.” And President George W. Bush stands up: “And that’s why the American people will do it.”
The idea is so big and so bold! I realize based in on my own experiences, the plan, if successful, will change the course of human history. Overwhelmed, I just listen quietly. But in my head are swirling the images and memories of: Sudan’s medicine as a currency for peace, transplant surgeons conquering the unconquerable, dad’s bedside compassion.
Three weeks later at the Capitol, the President announced his plan at the State of the Union address. I took the proposal back to the Senate, we wrote the legislation, and with bipartisan support passed the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief, or PEPFAR. PEPFAR provided an astounding $15 billion to fight AIDS across Africa and the developing world — more than any country or any President has ever committed to fight a single disease. US industry stepped up. Our remarkable scientists got to work, and together, they developed powerful, life-saving, anti-retroviral drugs. In Africa, infected teachers and workers regained health to build stronger and more secure communities. In Botswana life expectancy jumped from 39 years to 63.
Life replaced death. Hope replaced despair. And stability replaced chaos.
So, looking back today, did PEPFAR work? Twenty million people are alive today who would otherwise have died. Tens of millions more now have better access to improved healthcare for other infectious diseases, chronic illness, and maternal and child health.
But we can’t rest. Regrettably, some in Washington are calling to cut our investment in global health. I only wish we could share with them what we know. The incredible success of PEPFAR; The small amount we actually spend on global health – only one quarter of 1% of our nation’s budget; the reality that deadly infectious agents like Ebola and Zika are just a short plane ride away. I only wish we could share with them how medicine abroad contributes to security here at home.
History tells us that strength is the road to peace, and this is so. But there are many kinds of strength. There is the strength of arms, and there is the strength of healing hands. There is the strength of courage, and there is the strength of caring. Above all, there is the military strength that defends the life of a nation, and there is the medical strength that saves one life at a time.
Generations of Americans have learned the painful lesson of “peace through strength.” And so, when it comes to military might, our nation is blessed with “the greatest strength the world has ever seen.”
Now let’s match that force of arms with the greatest strength the world has ever seen when it comes to medical mercy. Let’s practice the lesson of “peace through healing.” Let’s remember that rogue regimes and hateful fanatics are not the only threats to global peace.
Disease is a threat to peace. Pandemics are a threat to peace. Illness and hopelessness are threats to peace. And so, in a world facing all of these threats, now is precisely the wrong time to cut back on our modest funding for global health.
The world is a safer and more secure place for us all when societies overseas are healthier and more stable. The world is safer and more secure for everyone when individuals provide for their families and create opportunities for their children, without the worry of being struck down by an illness that could be easily prevented or easily cured.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In our time, we’ve learned that a threat to health anywhere is a threat to peace everywhere. We can bring more peace to the world and to ourselves, not only by deterrence – but also by compassion, by the power of healing hands, and by medicine as a currency for peace.
Last year, I gave a TEDMED talk outlining how medicine can serve as a currency for peace. This is my script for that talk. You can watch the video here: https://www.tedmed.com/talks/show?id=687176
This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.