Jerry Umanos was a doctor so driven to serve the underserved that he held two jobs—with a 7,000-mile commute between them.
For many years, Umanos divided his time between Lawndale Christian Health Center in Chicago and the Cure Hospital in Kabul, where he was gunned down today when a policeman employed as a security guard, possibly also a Taliban fighter, attacked the hospital.
This latest insider attack in Afghanistan killed Umanos and a father and son—also Americans but not yet identified—who were visiting the hospital.
“As they were walking out of the hospital, the security guard opened fire on them, killing three and wounding another one,” an Afghanistan Interior Ministry official said. The wounded included an American nurse, according to reports.
The security guard shot himself after the attack and was treated at the hospital before being transferred to Afghan custody. In other similar attacks, the Taliban has claimed responsibility, but has yet to do so today.
In 2010, I made rounds at the Cure Hospital with Umanos, a pediatrician drawn seven years ago to work in Afghanistan because it was “the most dangerous place to be born,” he said. That morning, two newborns died in Cure’s neonatal unit, despite the best medical care in the country available, and Umanos was facing a familiar frustration: Both babies were full term and died of unexplained causes, but chest X-rays suggested some deformities that prenatal care and vitamins could have prevented, he explained.
For years, Umanos and his wife Jan, along with their children, lived in the Lawndale community of Chicago, an area battered by 1968 riots that never came back economically. Lawndale Community Church launched a community development corporation that spurred urban renewal with housing, vocational training, and the Lawndale Christian Health Center, a clinic where Umanos served for 25 years.
“Today, the staff and patients of Lawndale Christian Health Center lost a very dear friend, devoted colleague, and gifted doctor,” read a statement released Thursday afternoon by the center. “Dr. Jerry Umanos … was, for many of us on staff, the pediatrician for our very own children.”
After long hours at the Chicago clinic, Umanos would board a plane and make the 20-plus-hour flight to Kabul, where he lived at the Cure guesthouse and kept a stationary bike to stay in shape. Walking or jogging the streets of Kabul wasn’t an option for security reasons.
Umanos was familiar with the dangers of working in Afghanistan. In 2010, he helped supervise from Kabul a medical missions trip of a dozen aid workers into northern Afghanistan that would end with the group being gunned down in Nuristan province by the Taliban.
Members of that team also were longstanding medical workers in Kabul, and leader Tom Little was an optometrist who worked for more than 40 years in Afghanistan—and a close colleague of Umanos. He helped establish the eye hospital in western Kabul that would later become the Cure International Hospital, now one of the largest medical facilities in the city providing general care.
When the Taliban reentered Kabul in 1996, fighters came from the west along the main highway outside the hospital, and set up a base camp in the facility. Burn marks on the floors today are reminders of fires they lit to stay warm. Closed by the Taliban, the hospital remained shuttered throughout the militant government’s rule and reopened only after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Today’s shooting is the latest in a string of deadly attacks on foreign civilians in the Afghan capital this year. A March attack in downtown Kabul on offices of an American NGO narrowly missed a facility next door where Christians, including Umanos and other medical workers, have from time to time gathered for fellowship. Such workers are experienced in serving alongside Muslims in a country where Christian evangelism is strictly forbidden and are adept at working within that framework—and aware of its deadly dangers.