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O.C. Woman’s Medical Mission of Mercy : Balkan war: Sonja Hagel has arranged for wounded to be treated in Southern California.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sonja Sofia Hagel had no time to savor the joy of her latest humanitarian victory Friday morning. She had work to do.

Thursday evening, Hagel had greeted the first four arrivals in the largest airlift of war wounded from Bosnia-Herzegovina to Southern California. It was an ambitious and dangerous relief effort in which she had played a key role.

But that was already history. Three more Balkan patients were scheduled to arrive today at Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino.

Even before starting her workday as associate administrator at Century City Hospital on Friday morning, Hagel, a Huntington Beach resident, was putting her persistence into play again.

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She was late to an interview because she had spent hours on the phone to Croatia trying to connect with a United Nations official whose help she needs to bring another war casualty--a 26-year-old quadriplegic--to the United States. She already had lined up a neurosurgeon to operate on his spine.

“We have just started. There are hundreds of patients waiting to get out,” she said. The United Nations, she said, is deciding who gets to go first, depending on the severity of their medical conditions and their ability to travel.

Events were moving quickly. Three more war victims were scheduled to arrive soon. They include a 40-year-old man who lost his legs in a shell explosion who will be transported to Los Alamitos Medical Center, another 40-year-old man with leg injuries going to Garfield Medical Center in Monterrey Park and an 8-month-old baby boy with a faulty heart who will go to Loma Linda University Medical Center.

Hagel is intimately familiar with the plight of each of these patients as well as seven who were flown Thursday to hospitals in other parts of the United States and five still in Germany awaiting transportation to the United States. She had been responsible for matching each of them with American hospitals and physicians willing and able to treat their complicated medical problems free of charge.

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But Hagel is not satisfied to simply wait for the suffering people of war-torn Bosnia and Croatia to come to her. As her “summer vacation” she plans to leave Thursday on a medical mission of mercy she has organized to Croatia. She said she will take with her 14 doctors, thousands of pounds of medical supplies donated by hospitals and vendors, and boxes of toys donated by Mattel Inc.

The 2 1/2-week trip is aimed at providing updated technical assistance to local physicians in Split and Zagreb, Hagel said. One American specialist, an eye surgeon, will teach local physicians how to use laser equipment donated by Zvonimir Mihanovic, a Croatian artist.

Hagel said she will also take time to visit two orphanages in Zagreb that opened last year with the support of the Society for Croatian Mothers and the Croatian National Foundation. Hagel helped with the fund-raising for that project.

“I have a passionate feeling for the people who are suffering,” said Hagel. “I witnessed, experienced, touched it. I have been in the refugee camps. I’ve seen the devastation and destruction. I am saddened by what is going on. I am very saddened that the world at large hasn’t moved in to help.

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“So I am touching their souls on a humanitarian level. The contributions I make are very small compared to the need.”

Dr. Burr von Maurc was part of a small team of plastic surgeons who accompanied Hagel on her first medical foray to Croatia in January. “I think she is performing more than just a medical mission,” he said. “It is a goodwill mission for humanity, to show America cares for the people of the Balkans.”

Born in Austria and raised in England, Hagel considers herself fortunate to be “bicultural.” Her mother was from Slovenia, she said, and she has many family members in Eastern Europe.

Growing up as the oldest of six children in a small port town in Lancashire, Hagel watched longingly as ships set sail for distant places. “I wanted to see the world . . . and my passport was to become a nurse.”

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Her mother, who washed dishes and scrubbed floors in a hospital, was not sure she should allow her daughter to become a nurse because the profession demands long hours and hard work. So her mother enrolled in nursing school herself to test the waters. “Once she got through, she said, ‘OK, now you can go,’ ” Hagel recalled with a smile.

So at 18, Hagel entered nursing school with the idea of becoming a ship’s nurse. Upon graduation, she discovered such jobs were scarce. Impatient at the wait for an opening, she contacted an employment firm that was recruiting nurses to work in the United States, and in 1971 she was hired by Hollywood Community Hospital.

She eventually moved on to the Los Alamitos Medical Center, where she worked for 13 years. The Los Alamitos hospital was purchased by a nationwide hospital chain which also owns Century City Hospital, where Hagel has been employed as an administrator since 1987.

Apart from her professional duties, Hagel said she devotes nights, weekends and her vacations trying to bring relief to the Balkans.

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Her love affair with the Balkans began five years ago, when she visited Croatia and Slovenia. She said the mountainous landscape and climate were beautiful, but what most impressed her were the people and culture.

“The people are very loving and caring and family-oriented. My heart was captured by their hearts,” she said.

During that trip, Hagel arranged for a 14-year-old burn victim from Croatia to receive extensive plastic and reconstructive surgery at Century City Hospital and opened her home to the boy and his mother for 18 months while he was treated.

After Bosnia-Herzegovina opted for independence from Yugoslavia in February, 1992, the Serbs rebelled against the majority Muslims and Croats who had voted for secession. Hagel watched with horror as the events unfolded on television.

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Not one to remain a spectator, she appealed to hospitals to donate millions of dollars worth of bandages, medications and other supplies that were flown to the Balkans without charge by Delta and Croatian airlines. In December of 1992, she started Hands Across the Sea, arranging for schoolchildren throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties to write to the children of the Balkans.

Hagel said last summer she took her first trip to the war-devastated Balkans. It was during this trip that the idea for “Operation Second Chance” took shape. It was launched with the medical mission to Croatia in January and the evacuation this week of 19 patients to the United States, the first such evacuation from the heart of beleaguered Sarajevo.

Over the years, Hagel said, she has become well known in Croatia, which she said is why the International Organization for Migration asked her assistance when they needed someone to find physicians and hospitals in the United States to care for the wounded.

It took her seven months to find institutions that would donate free services during financially difficult times for the medical industry, she said. “I got a lot of rejection, but I kept on going.”

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Hagel emphasized that everything she has accomplished has been with assistance from many others.

“I am not a one-woman show,” she said. “If there is one message I have, it is help your neighbor.”


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