Doctor of Diplomacy

Dr. Leonid Roshal cannot recall a single incident in his childhood that sparked his interest in medicine. It was, perhaps, just meant to be.

"In our family there were no medical personnel, no doctors," Roshal said.

His mother learned about his desire to treat people when he wrote an essay in the fifth grade about why he wanted to become a surgeon.

"Some want to become drivers, some journalists. And I wanted to be a doctor," he said brusquely. It's as simple as that. "Next question."

Roshal, of course, grew up to become much more than a doctor. At 73, he is the country's best-known pediatrician and, arguably, hostage negotiator. He made international headlines by mediating with attackers at the Beslan school in 2004 and at Moscow's Dubrovka theater in 2002. He also is a member of the Public Chamber and an expert for the World Health Organization. In addition, he is a self-described workaholic who puts in 20-hour days as the head of the emergency surgery and trauma department at the Center of Children's Health.

The reason Roshal has managed to navigate territories far beyond a doctor's expertise successfully is, as he tells it, a combination of two things: a simple desire to ensure people's health and his readiness to speak his mind.

In October 2002, when 42 attackers took 850 adults and children hostage in the Dubrovka theater during a play, Roshal said he rushed to the scene with one thought on his mind: "When the catastrophe happened, I decided on my own that I needed to provide [medical] help for the children and adults. And I went there and insisted I be let through," he said.

He traveled to Beslan in September 2004 as one of four people whom the hostage-takers had asked to participate in negotiations, even though "they could have killed me."

"I flew in and said I was not a politician -- I came to help ... to make it possible to bring in medical supplies," he said.

More than 1,000 children and their parents were taken hostage on the first day of school. Arriving on Sept. 2, the second day of the crisis, Roshal said he talked parents and relatives out of storming the building. After gunfire broke out the next day and the crisis ended in a ball of flames, Roshal tended to some of the wounded in the Beslan hospital and then flew to Makhachkala to treat 300 children at hospitals there.

Roshal's staff sang his praises. Gennady Sushkevich, a colleague of the doctor's for 15 years at the emergency surgery and trauma department, said that in addition to his skill and experience, Roshal was making his mark on medicine by streamlining the emergency care of children both at home and abroad.

Roshal was a medical consultant in Israel during the Gulf War, and a member of emergency teams during the war in Yugoslavia and the 2005 Pakistan earthquake.

"He thinks globally and has his head in the clouds all the time," Sushkevich said.

Joyce Man / MT
Children and parents waiting in the entrance of the hospital where Roshal works.
Maybe Roshal has his head in the clouds, but for many hours each day -- perhaps too many -- his concentration is on his work at the hospital near the Polyanka metro station. Roshal -- as someone who flies around the world to operate on children and is ready for surgery at any hour -- would seem the perfect person to advise on time management. But the doctor acknowledged that his biggest problem is managing time.

"I am a workaholic," Roshal said. He arrives at work at 8:30 a.m. and goes home between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., leaving time for just four or five hours' sleep per day at most.

Francoise Horowitz, the president of the Samusocial street children's organization, said he had never seen Roshal slow down in the 4 1/2 years they have known each other.

"I remember once he came to the [Samusocial] office and said he needed to sleep, and he slept for 15 minutes and started working again," he said.

Roshal received the Hero of Russia award in 2002 and Business Week's Star of Europe in 2005.

These days, Public Chamber sessions and other official meetings compete with Roshal's time with his young patients. But that has not changed him, Horowitz and Sushkevich said.

"He still holds himself to a higher moral standard," Horowitz said.

"He has a lot of style, courage, bravado and intelligence.

"I'm sure he's more solicited now, and his office is more like a prime minister's office than a doctor's office," Horowitz said. "But I can always get him on the phone or push open his office door."

"He's been through hell and high water," Sushkevich said, "but the qualifications have not affected him. He remains accessible to his colleagues and our clinic's administrators."

Roshal did not express any interest in retirement.

"I love children," he said. "There is nothing more important than health, especially that of a child."

His advice to anyone thinking about studying to become a doctor? "Become a doctor only if you love people. If you don't love people, it's better not to do this," he said.

It's as simple as that. "Next question."