Ever since his days as a Vietnam draft resister, Russell Palmeri, 31, has felt a "little guilty." But this Christmas he's going to do something about it.
Palmeri, a fourth-year medical student at Georgetown University, will spend the next six weeks with 13 other medical workers at a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand.
The group, which left yesterday, is the first of three teams of doctors, nurses, medical students and medical aides that Georgetown University and the U.S. Catholic Conference are sending to aid Cambodia's starving millions.
Two more teams will leave in January and fresh teams will replace them every 6 to 12 weeks for the next two years, according to George Wagner, coordinator for the U.S. Catholic Conference Migration and Refugee Service, which is financing the effort.
Although the first few teams are being staffed primarily by Georgetown medical school personnel, other medical schools will be invited to participate in the future, according to Georgetown medical school officials.
Palmeri's team consists of two doctors and five nurses from Georgetown University Hospital, two Georgetown medical students, three nurses who are members of the Daughters of Wisdom order of nuns and were recruited by the Red Cross, and a Catholic priest and an assistant chaplain from the National Institutes of Health who will work as physicians' assistants.
They will spend from 6 to 12 weeks at a medical clinic housed under a roof with netting near Chantaburi in southeastern Thailand. Without modern laboratory equipment and possibly without electricity, the team primarily will treat malaria, tuberculosis, malnutrition and intestinal parasites.
One of the volunteers, Dr. Thomas Botsford, a resident pediatrician at Georgetown University Hospital, said that when he first heard of the project, he wondered if the refugees needed a doctor as much as they needed a bag of rice.
Palmeri's best friend, Thomas Kessler, was also chosen to accompany the team. He said one reason he volunteered was that as an American, he felt "somewhat responsible to the Cambodian people" for their present plight "despite Henry Kissinger's claims that the United States is in no way responsible."
Sister Marlene Martin, who will stay at the camp for three months, said she feels "honored to be going to help the Cambodians in some way, even if it's just to hold someone's hand who's dying." Martin formerly worked in a pediatrics clinic in the Appalachian town of Mullens, W. Va.
"I've been trying to do something like this for a long time," said the Rev. Jack Wintermyer, a priest in residence at Sacred Heart Church here. Wintermyer spent the last year working as a doctor's assistant at Zacchaus Medical Clinic, a free clinic for the poor at 14th and N streets NW.
Most of the team members were notified that they had been chosen just a week ago and many met each other for the first time at a meeting Monday night. They lingered afterward, exchanging stories of past medical work in Third World countries.
Dr. Henry Lederer, associate dean for students at the medical school who helped coordinate the effort, said that most of the school's 205 fourth-year medical students "showed interest" in volunteering, but all but 40 were ineligible because of their class schedules.
"It proves that medical students are still idealistic," said Lederer, who is accompanying the first team for several weeks in order to help prepare future medical teams.