Wednesday, 9 September 2020 – Angels in white from heroic Croatian hospital Dr. fra Mato Nikolić in Nova Bila offer free dentistry for all special needs children
Few young people look forward to visiting the dentist. But, imagine how such a visit must be if the world is already a confusing and difficult place for you. These are the difficulties of dentistry for all special needs children.
“Children with special needs suffer from a range of disorders,” Dr. Nikola Matković tells TCN over the phone from Croatian hospital Dr fra Mato Nikolić in Nova Bila, near Vitez, central Bosnia. “They can have stunted mental development, autism, Down’s syndrome, disharmonic development, epilepsy, cerebral palsy. They all need to put under general anesthetic for dentistry and, of course, that requires a specially trained anesthetist to be present throughout, as well as the surgeon dentist and several members of staff. It can be necessary to have between six and ten highly skilled medical professionals in the operation, depending on the case. And, of course, that’s very expensive. The parents of many children simply don’t have that kind of money.”
Croatian hospital Dr. fra Mato Nikolić in Nova Bila, which answered the call for free dentistry for all special needs children
A doctor of dentistry, Nikola Matković became acutely aware of the financial difficulties for many such parents in 2016, when NGO Betanija from Vitez put out a call for help. His main job is there, in the local health centre. They help provide care for about 50 special needs clients in the region. Responding to the call, Dr. Matković approached colleagues to see if they’d be interested in trying to help give free dentistry for all special needs children.
Dentist Lidija Lasić-Arapović and anaesthesiologist Zoran Karlović, both from Mostar, were quick to offer their assistance. They were followed by dentists Dr. Anja Hačimić, Dr. Ivana Dunđer-Vidović, Dr. Nikola Kezić, Dr. Ozrenka Raić from central Bosnia and assistants Slavica Šimić and Anita Martinović from Mostar. All agreed to join Dr. Matković in his attempt to offer free dentistry for all special needs children in their region.
The team of Croatian hospital Dr. fra Mato Nikolić doctors at work, supplying free dentistry for all special needs children
Dr. Matković needed the approval of the Ministry of Health and of Central Bosnia Canton and authorities at the Croatian hospital Dr fra Mato Nikolić, lead by director Dr. Velimir Valjan, in order to begin the programme. Both quickly agreed that it was needed and agreed to contribute funding to help establish it. The programme of free dentistry for all special needs children in the Central Bosnia Canton region started in late 2018. But, that was just the beginning.
“We soon started getting calls from parents of special needs children from outside the region,” remembers Dr Matković. “And from full-time carers of adults who also have special needs. We soon realised we could not just leave them with nowhere to turn. We again approached the authorities and asked for permission to widen the programme and they were incredibly supportive. We’ve so far had around 120 clients, between the ages of six and thirty-five. And they’ve travelled here for treatment from every corner of Bosnia.”
Croatian hospital Dr. fra Mato Nikolić. Welcoming all ethnicities and people of all religions, it gives free dentistry for all special needs children
For an outsider – such as this writer – if can be baffling to try and understand how Bosnia and Hercegovina works. The country is populated by the same people, although they’ve been separated for hundreds of years by three competing religions. This separation led to ethnic tensions rising during the break up of Yugoslavia, leading to Bosnia now being split up into several internal cantons under one federation, another autonomous state – Republika Srpska – plus the self-governing district of Brčko.
“This question may be stupid, but is healthcare the same in Bosnia as it is in Croatia?” asks this British member of the TCN team, rather naively. “Do you have the same option of health insurance to all the people who live there, no matter where they live? And, you’re called Croatian hospital Dr fra Mato Nikolić. Does that mean that you treat only Croats? Do Muslims and Serbs have their own separate hospitals?”
Dr Nikola Matković
“Ahahaha, it’s not such a stupid question really,” laughs Dr Matković. “Bosnia can be a confusing place. Well, the answer to your first question is no. It’s not the same as in Croatia, it’s a lot more complicated because there’s a completely separate system for those who live in Republika Srpska. But, I’m pleased to say that we have overcome all the bureaucracy and difficulties to be able to treat patients from every part of Bosnia, including Republika Srpska. The NGO Betanija who set the ball rolling is a multi-ethnic organisation. They welcome people of every ethnicity and religion. So do the Croatian hospital Dr fra Mato Nikolić and this programme within it. Our hospital is called Croatian hospital because it was set up with great financial assistance from the Croatian government.”
The parish church of the Holy Spirit in Nova Bila became the only medical resource for some 70, 000 trapped people during the war. Around half of them were refugees.
Croatian hospital Dr fra Mato Nikolić is named after a prominent Bosnian Franciscan, humanist and the first graduate doctor from Bosnia and Herzegovina – Fr. Mato Nikolić (1776-1844). It is a hospital known throughout Bosnia and Croatia because of the heroic work undertaken there by staff and volunteers during the time of war.
The church hospital in the time of war
In 1992, violent fighting caused a huge wave of forced migrations all across Bosnia. In the area where the hospital is now situated, the population almost doubled with the arrival of refugees. Some 70,000 people found themselves in an area 30 kilometers long and 2 kilometers wide. They were cut off from the rest of the world by the lines of fighting and by blockades. No hospital existed within the area, just the parish church of the Holy Spirit in Nova Bila. From there, a few healthcare professionals worked day and night, with almost no supplies, to treat the sick and wounded. So cut off was this group of people that they faced famine. The absence of any medical supplies was secondary to the very real threat of starvation.
Staff of the war hospital Fr. Mato Nikolić pictured in 1993
War hospitals set up to try and deal with the trapped people proved ineffective, as the lines of fighting were constantly shifting. But, at the end of 1992, it was decided that the church in Nova Bila would be established as the main hospital for all those within the four municipalities of Travnik, Novi Travnik, Vitez and Busovača in the Lašva Valley. This war hospital took the name Fr. Mato Nikolić.
Despite having no regular supplies of electricity or even water, between 19 October 1992 to 1 April 1994, over 20, 000 people were treated and cared for in the hospital. 1,260 operations were performed under general anesthesia, 4,200 under local anesthesia. 721 children were born.
Despite having no regular supplies of electricity or even water, between October 1992 to April 1994, over 20, 000 people were treated and cared for in the hospital. 1,260 operations were performed under general anesthesia.
In June 1994, the President of the Republic of Croatia, Dr. Franjo Tuđman, visited the Lašva Valley and promised to build a new hospital. The new Croatian hospital Dr. fra Mato Nikolić was opened in 1999. Its pioneering programme to offer free dentistry for all special needs children from across Bosnia is just the latest commendable action undertaken by those associated with this hero hospital.
How the new Croatian hospital Dr. fra Mato Nikolić looked a few years ago, as its sixth wing was being constructed
All colour photographs © Croatian hospital Dr. fra Mato Nikolić, Dr Nikola Matković and municipality of Vitez
All black and white photographs © Bijeli Put documentary, original sources Davor Višnjić, Željko Maganjić, Srećko Stipović, Arhiv konvoja Bijeli put, Arhiv Kruh svetog Ante, Foto klub Split