Dr. Atilla Uner (top) and members of Urban Search and Rescue Task Force USA 2 responded to the massive earthquake in Nepal in April 2015 (middle & bottom).
Atilla Uner, MD (RES ’97, FEL ’99, ’09), received the emergency call on Saturday morning, April 25, 2015, within hours after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated Nepal. Thirty-one hours later, he and his teammates on Urban Search and Rescue Task Force USA 2 — 52 firefighters and paramedics, three civil engineers, six search dogs and two physicians — were setting up camp in Kathmandu.
It was the latest disaster to which Dr. Uner, clinical professor of emergency medicine, has deployed. In 2005, he went to Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina. And there have been the daily localized disasters that bring people through the doors of the David I. Saperstein Emergency Center at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center. It is a world to which Dr. Uner has been drawn since he was a teen, growing up in Germany.
In Nepal, it was Dr. Uner’s role to care for survivors of the earthquake and also to keep the members of his team healthy. After two weeks of intense search-and- rescue and emergency medical practice in Nepal — including taking part in the rescue of a 15-year-old boy found buried in the wreckage of a collapsed building — he was set to return to Los Angeles. “By that time,” he says, “we had left our camp and were packing up because no one could still be alive in those buildings. Then, a second quake hit (on May 12), and we got right back into rescue mode.” A helicopter flew him to the village of Charikot, where he triaged 26 survivors. He arrived back home three days later.
“What we did in Nepal was not so much Third World humanitarian aid but even more,” Dr. Uner says. “We did what I’ve always liked, and that’s the emergency-medicine way of healthcare. It’s sort of out there. It’s part of a huge organization. It has strategies and tactics. It’s an operational environment as opposed to an in-house one.”
Dr. Uner’s move toward a career in emergency medicine began when he joined the Bavarian Red Cross as an alternative to mandatory military service. For a young man who had done well in school but was “bored stiff,” the freedom to drive at high speed through the city streets was exhilarating. “I was a 19-year-old medic on an ambulance, and I loved it,” he says. “The lights and the siren, going into people’s homes and seeing crazy situations, I relished the experience. I wanted to be a medic forever.”
He might have followed that course if not for the lure of the Red Cross’s rescue helicopter. “It was manned by a doctor, a medic and a pilot. I wanted to be that medic,” Dr. Uner says. But there was a hitch: He would have to serve five years with the Red Cross before he could go airborne. “I never had any intention of going to university,” he says. “I was going to be a medic!” But rather than wait five years before he could fly as a medic, he elected to spend six years and become a doctor — and then fly on the helicopter as the MD.
He entered medical school at the Free University of Berlin in 1984. It was a time, however, when there was an overabundance of physicians in Germany. “On my first day in medical school, there were 700 students. The professor told us that after six years of study, only 50 percent of us would find a job as a doctor. ‘You’re going to drive a taxi,’” he said the professor bluntly told them.
Dr. Uner was not deterred. He wrote to universities in the United States to ask that he be allowed to come to work hospital rotations during his last year of medical school. He then flew to Boston, bought a motorcycle and spent the next 10 months traveling across the country and working his way through rotations at Harvard, Beth Israel Hospital in New York, the University of Indiana in Indianapolis, the University of Texas at Houston and, finally, a UCLA rotation at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. “I had two suitcases that I’d send ahead by Greyhound bus to my next stop,” he says.
Despite what he thought would be long odds of an American medical school taking a foreign-born applicant for a residency, UCLA accepted the bilingual doctor. In addition to completing his training in emergency medicine, Dr. Uner earned a master’s degree in public health.
At the age of 53, he is not letting up on any of his pursuits, whether it’s his emergency work at UCLA, his volunteer search-and-rescue work through the United States Agency for International Development’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance or zooming around, just for the pure joy of it, on one of his three motorcycles.
“It always feels good to help people who otherwise can’t be helped,” he says. ”I get a lot out of it. The other thing is, I’m an immigrant. I came here from Germany in 1993 looking for a better life. So this is me paying back for the fact that 300-million Americans took me in when I walked through that door.”
Robin Keats is the author of three nonfiction books, has written for numerous magazines and creates nonfiction TV programming.