The Doctor and His Soccer Team
The small bus is rocking along a dusty rural road, its young teen occupants tossing their arms in the air and laughing, clapping and yelping their joy at being alive. They are headed to a soccer game. The man looking back at them from the front of the bus, and capturing the wild excitement for posterity on his cell phone, is fourth-year Tufts medical student Mattia Chason, who is in the middle of a three-month fellowship in the West African country of Gabon. Although he went there to do pediatrics, he had brought a whistle with him, too, and that’s where things got interesting.
Medicine came first. Last spring, Chason, A07, M14, was one of four U.S. medical students chosen as Albert Schweitzer Fellows and assigned to the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon. This is the village where the legendary theologian, philosopher and physician first set up shop and began his life-saving work in 1913.
A century later, the work continues. Despite its fame and the line of pilgrims who regularly visit the place in a spirit of homage, the hospital itself is not much to look at. It is air-conditioned in the doctors’ offices, but nowhere else; it is filled with frequently malfunctioning equipment. Many of the most basic lab tests are unavailable, Chason reports.
His days there had a fixed routine. Every morning, he would move through the jammed pediatric wards, seeing about 25 children in two hours. Malaria, gastroenteritis and dehydration, mysterious high fevers, TB, malnutrition and pneumonia were among the most common diagnoses. And snakebite? “I had no idea what to do about snakebite,” Chason says.
So for that case he ventured to the hospital research center and taught himself the basics. After seeing his pediatric patients, he would be sent to the maternity ward to examine newborns. Chason considered this interlude, as he later wrote, “my moment of peace for the day.” His hours at the hospital extended from 7:30 in the morning to 5 in the evening.
One Saturday, he noticed some local kids playing on a soccer field. “If you want me to coach you, be here next week at five o’clock,” he told them, after showing off some of his skills. Chason was no amateur, poking at the ball with a clumsy foot.
He grew up in Rome, Italy, and played soccer passionately as a young boy. His skills were such that Milan, 350 miles away, recruited him at age 14 to play for the city team. His parents dissuaded him, urging him to stick with his books instead. Later, as an undergraduate biopsychology major at Tufts, he was a star striker on the varsity team, regularly draped with laurels, such as team MVP and all-New England player. “He was a very skillful player and always very popular,” his coach, Ralph Ferrigno, remembers. “He was one of those boys who got along with everybody.”
Charisma counts in a foreign land. When Chason appeared a second time at the soccer field with a brand new $5 soccer ball and a whistle around his neck, he found 11 kids waiting, all between 13 and 16 years old. The coach and his players spent the next two hours dashing back and forth across the field, running drills and loving their time together. At the end of the session, the kids demanded a second practice later in the week.
Word quickly spread through neighboring villages about “le blanc,” the white coach eager to teach soccer. Each week more kids showed up. Eleven original players quickly grew to 14, then 18, then 28, then 32. Before long there were more than 40 kids dashing over the bare dirt of the soccer field—so many players that Chason began jotting down their names, home villages and preferred positions on bits of scratch paper to keep their identities straight. The practices soon drew a crowd—hospital workers, pediatric nurses, middle school and high school teachers.
Chason imagined them thinking, who is this white kid out there running the show? “Meanwhile, I was having the time of my life,” he says.
Other observers began pitching in. Two young Gabonese men volunteered to help run the team. After observing Chason’s devotion, and the kids’ boundless enthusiasm for what he was doing, the hospital offered to supply the team with new soccer jerseys, shorts, socks and soccer balls, as well as a bus and driver for transportion to games beyond the hospital grounds.
The coach raised his ambitions for the team, too. He wasted no time finding an opponent, selecting 25 players from among his total of 43 and escorting his new team to a nearby stadium. “We lost, 3–1, but you could tell my players felt proud to be part of this team,” Chason says.
That team feeling wasn’t limited to the game. On the week of his 28th birthday, the coach went for a three-hour walk accompanied by a dozen young players eager to show him around their respective villages. More new soccer recruits joined in as the team swept by, creating a laughing, darting cavalcade that raised dust along the way. The coach later called the experience “one of the best birthday presents I could have ever asked for.”
During Chason’s last week in Africa, while he was busy organizing a farewell team banquet and filming a movie about his players, the coach caught wind of an upcoming regional tournament that he wanted his team to compete in. This was a bigger deal than the previous matches. The tournament required pictures, birth certificates, sports physicals and entry fees for each player.
Chason began scrambling to put the package together in advance of his departure. Tracking down team members’ birth certificates in this or that small African village was anything but simple. “Some of them, they’d show up with a crumpled, wadded-up piece of paper,” he says, laughing. Ultimately, all 25 members of the team qualified to play. They won the first two games in the series and reached the semifinals.
By then, their coach had already boarded his plane to America. He was gone. But you can see his love, and his legacy, in the short film he made while there. At one point in the film, teenage boys are swarming over a newly cleared field. Then, with a kind of surprise, you notice that the American medical student with his silver whistle is dashing among them, blended in and altogether inseparable from the joy they feel.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Tufts Medicine magazine.
Mattia Chason has begun his residency in pediatrics at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at email@example.com.