Florida Keys

Deadly strike on Afghan hospital hits close for Keys doctor

Robert Loeffler has been with Doctors Without Borders for five years.
Robert Loeffler has been with Doctors Without Borders for five years.

Last week’s bombing of a Doctors Without Borders trauma center in Kunduz, Afghanistan, hit Florida Keys Dr. Robert Loeffler a little harder than most.

A member of Doctors Without Borders since 2010, the orthopedic specialist was called to go to Afghanistan about a year and a half ago but couldn't go because of work constraints.

The U.S. airstrike killed at least 10 patients and 12 doctors. The Pentagon — which has admitted it was a mistake — says the strike came after the Afghan government requested it after Taliban forces overtook the city. President Obama has apologized to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

"As an American I have mixed feelings about it," Loeffler said. "It was horrible. The entire DWB community was shocked."

He's worked at Lower Keys Medical Center since 2005. Before that, he was at Fishermen's Community Hospital in Marathon from 2002 to 2005.

The mission of Doctors Without Borders, founded in Paris in 1971, is to "help people worldwide where the need is greatest, delivering emergency medical aid to people affected by conflict, epidemics, disasters or exclusion from health care."

Despite the hospital tragedy, Loeffler, 66, is actively looking to be deployed. His first work with the organization was in January 2010 when he traveled to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to help after an earthquake killed an estimated 160,000 people and displaced more than 1 million.

An orthopedic surgeon since 1980, Loeffler worked with patients who had broken bones and open fractures. It was rewarding but tough.

"The two big problems we had was not having enough supplies and where did these people go afterward?" Loeffler said. "There were no houses or facilities whatsoever. The first person I saw was a 6-year-old girl whose elbow was an open dislocation that was out of place for two days. You almost become frozen, overwhelmed. The way I did it was focus on one patient at a time."

Becoming a member of Doctors Without Borders involved filling out online surveys and writing essays, which took Loeffler weeks to complete. He went through another round of applications specific to orthopedics, which is surgery related to sports injuries, trauma and skeletal injuries. Loeffler met a field representative in Miami before flying to his final interview in New York.

"DWB has a pretty brutal vetting process. You have to be ready for some major stuff," Loeffler said. "DWB is a war zone. This is a whole different league."

Loeffler said the organization focuses more on preventing and containing diseases like Ebola instead of surgery because there is a greater need for primary care. A woman he interviewed with in New York told him there are only 19 trauma surgeons with the group.

When and if he'll go overseas is still to be determined. Loeffler said he first wanted to go to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa since there's a surgical clinic near Rwanda. He said it has been locked down. Battles have been ongoing between the government and rebels.

He's now looking at going to the Middle East where Doctors Without Borders is needed. He's improving his French, which will help his odds of going on a mission of three months to a year.

"I'm really looking forward to one soon. Now that my time is more favorable, they're more apt to call me," Loeffler said.