When terrorists seized a school in the Russian town of Beslan last September, leading Russian pediatrician Leonid Roshal was one of the first on the scene. In fact, the terrorists requested him to travel from Moscow to serve as their interlocutor. For three days, while senior officials seemed paralyzed with indecision, Roshal tirelessly worked to persuade the terrorists to release hostages and allow food and medical supplies into the school. After the siege's tragic denouement, he was an advisor to the medical operation assisting the numerous child victims, many suffering from horrific burns. Roshal had played a similar role during the 2002 siege of a Moscow theater. There he secured the release of several hostages by negotiating directly with the terrorists -- earning himself an award as a "Hero of Russia" from the government.
That's more than enough achievement for one lifetime, you might think. Yet Roshal, 71, was famous for saving children's lives in Russia long before the tragedies in Moscow and Beslan brought him public attention abroad. Born in Livny, 400 km. south of Moscow, Roshal has headed the Emergency Surgery & Children's Trauma Department of Moscow's Pediatric Scientific Research Institute since 1981. He became executive director of another key institute, the Moscow Institute of Emergency Children's Surgery & Traumatology, in 2003. The hospital treats 60,000 children each year. Roshal has also worked in Chechnya, assisting children injured in the war in that breakaway province. "We help children independent of their nationality, their religion, or the political ideas of their parents. Adults are sometimes idiots, and children shouldn't have to answer for them," he says.
That creed is just as relevant to Roshal's international work. He heads the International Task Force of Pediatric Disaster Medicine, a team of some 20 top Russian doctors who travel the globe to provide emergency assistance to child victims of wars and natural disasters. Roshal came up with the idea after the 1988 earthquake in Armenia, where he helped with relief efforts. He has since led his team to the sites of a dozen earthquakes, as well as wars in the Middle East and Yugoslavia.
To Roshal, his most important achievement has been to prove a key medical principle. Child victims of major disasters, he says, are much less likely to die or suffer permanent injury if they are treated differently than adults, in specialized hospitals, because of their different physiology. "It means I didn't live in vain," he says.
If the work takes its toll, Roshal is not saying. "When I work I have no emotions. I just do what I have to do," he says. Despite his age, he has no plans to quit, though he's concentrating on creating a highly trained team that will carry on his work. Many more children may yet have reason to thank him.
By Jason Bush