Santa Barbara lost a brave and gifted advocate this month; a tall, big-hearted physician who literally traveled to the ends of the Earth to save people in dire straits.
His name was Mark Stinson, and he was a 49-year-old family practice and emergency medicine specialist from Oakland, California. Stinson began making regular trips to Santa Barbara 10 years ago to see his brother Michael-chair of Santa Barbara City College’s Film Studies program-as well as his former student and friend Mimi Doohan. It was during these visits when he helped conceive the nonprofit Doctors Without Walls (DWW) and the annual public health fair Healthy Neighbors, programs that now provide desperately needed health services to southern Santa Barbara County’s homeless residents.
People who worked with Mark in rescue operations and at Contra Costa County Regional Medical Center’s ER describe his exceptionally clear thinking in moments when lives hung in the balance. Where others hesitated, Mark acted, colleagues said. Like the time a young child dying of dehydration and electrolyte imbalances was brought into the emergency room. Fumbling and tense, members of the medical staff were struggling to get an intravenous line into the boy; nothing was working. Mark came over and immediately began drilling an interocceous line into the child’s tibia (or calf) bone-a procedure that requires great skill. The child lived.
Michael said as a kid, Mark was always figuring out how things worked, taking apart objects-big objects, like bicycles-and putting them back together. Once he understood them, he’d go find someone to whom he could teach the same skill.
He loved extreme sports adventures and overseas travel, and looked for ways to combine them with his medical work, ultimately taking up wilderness medicine. This eventually led him to disaster relief. In the early 1990s, he joined Los Angeles-based Relief International, stockpiling vacation and downtime so he could leave work at a moment’s notice and accompany the group to the world’s most heartrending catastrophes. He was in Sri Lanka two days after the 2004 tsunami swept tens of thousands of people to their deaths. In 1999, he was in Macedonia helping Albanian refugees of the Kosovo war survive the conditions in tent camps. Months later, he flew to Izmit, Turkey, to search for survivors of the massive earthquake.
“He was a cool guy,” said Herb Sigmond, a friend and physician who accompanied Mark on many of these ventures. “He could see problems. People knew they were as safe as possible when he was in charge.”
But Mark’s residents at Contra Costa County Regional Medical Center loved him for the little things he did to help them through the trials of medical training. Doohan will never forget how he came up to her in the ER and discreetly whispered into her ear what she should say and do-“to make me look good,” she said.
No one was surprised when officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) asked Mark to head their Oakland-region Fire and Rescue Team. He ended up leading the team to lower Manhattan on September 12, 2001. There, FEMA asked him to oversee the medical needs of the hundreds of rescue workers combing through the infamous “pile.”
One colleague recalled Mark’s support after he discovered his wife had left him. When Mark asked, “What can I do?” the friend replied, “Check in on me now and then.” Mark called him every day for a year. “He was the friend people waited a lifetime to have,” the colleague said.
Michael described him this way: “If you found yourself in the wilderness with Mark when a storm came, he’d make sure you and everyone else got a blanket and food. Then you’d turn around and see Mark standing there in his long underwear.”
Mark’s dad died during a visit to Santa Barbara five years ago and his ashes were interred at Santa Barbara Cemetery. Last weekend, Mark’s ashes were placed there too, adjacent to his father’s.