SANTA FE, N.M. — Andrew Lustig’s second career has had him digging through rubble, trying to find survivors, since the catastrophic earthquake that rocked Nepal on April 25.
The emergency medical technician from Santa Fe traveled to Nepal with Global Outreach Doctors, a nonprofit he founded about nine months ago that provides aid work in regions around the world experiencing hardship, whether it be natural disasters or famine.
Lustig and his team provided search and rescue operations when they landed in the Bhaktapur region of Nepal on April 27. They also helped out with medical care and food before returning to Santa Fe on Sunday.
Lustig, 53, has been doing this type of work for about 10 years, but he was on a much different path in his past life.
He ran a big media company in New York City for several years – his name still shows up around the Internet in connection with that previous career – and money was plentiful. But it wasn’t fulfilling a growing desire to help others, he says.
He decided enough was enough, and he walked away from the big-dollar job for a completely new career.
He left his job as the CEO of National Video, which produced video and provided TV facilities, 13 years ago after working there for 20 years.
He came to Santa Fe soon after that looking for a different place to live, and he has been an EMT at St. Vincent’s for six years.
“I made money for myself and a lot of other people, but ultimately I turned 40-something and asked myself what I had done for the world,” Lustig said. “What have I done for other people? After 20 years of being part of this company, I just walked out one day and said I’m going to do something else.
“I’m going to do something that has a significant meaning in the world as opposed to making music videos and TV shows. I wanted to make a difference in the world beyond corporate America.”
Lustig began training as an EMT and in naturopathy, the alternative therapy that emphasizes natural remedies and self-healing, before traveling to developing nations where he saw the extremes of poverty.
Some of his stops included places with famine and high infant mortality in Africa and the Amazon jungle as well as natural disasters in the Philippines and Haiti.
After years in a New York high-rise, Lustig found himself diving into those extreme conditions.
“I worked in a hospital that was missing a roof, but it still had a slab above me to keep me from getting rained on,” he said.
Lustig found his calling, and in addition to providing medical care, he also does fundraising to supply food and build schools in developing nations. He eventually formed Global Outreach Doctors so that he could have a consistent team.
One of its first challenges was Nepal, where 8,000-9,000 people have died and another 15,000 were injured after the 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit.
Lustig and his team tried to get out the day after the earthquake, but the runway at the airport, which was also damaged, was still being cleared.
This is a common problem with natural disasters, and once you’re cleared for landing, you have to find any way you can to get to where you need to be, he said.
“When you get into the airport, you’re looking to get to locations that are severely damaged,” Lustig said. “You’re going to rely on any sort of transportation. There may be a guy with a motorbike or on four-wheel-drive vehicles.”
When they got to their post, his search and rescue dogs – some of which were at the World Trade Center after 9/11 – started looking for people caught in the rubble.
There can be optimism when some buildings crumble and leave pockets for survivors to stay alive for a time, but since most of the buildings in the region fully crumbled, the team did not find many survivors.
“These buildings simply crumbled to the ground and turned into dust,” Lustig said. “There were some live finds, but for the most part buildings collapsed and it was just a pile of bricks, and there wasn’t an air space or a pocket for live finds. In this case, we did do a lot of human remain detection and not a lot of live finds.”
Seeing so much loss can be difficult. The team came across an 8-year-old girl that survived only because her mother lay on top of her and died protecting her. But despite such heartbreaking stories, he said, it’s important to suppress the emotions and continue to help.
“You have to be compassionate in order to do the job, but when you’re actually working with people, you need to keep your emotions in check because you have to do your job,” Lustig said. “When we arrive in a disaster and see loss of life, our job is to help these people.”
The work in Nepal is not over. A 7.3-magnitude earthquake hit the country on Monday night.
The work may never stop for Lustig, but he said it’s work worth doing, even if he or any other volunteer with Global Outreach Doctors doesn’t see a cent for their work. He left a great job for this a decade ago, and he has no regrets about it. The reward he gets from helping others greatly outweighs a large paycheck.
“Most people go against change,” Lustig said. “The people that take risks are the people that are successful in the world. It was a risk; I had no idea what I was going to do. I was living the life of a CEO, then all of a sudden I wasn’t doing that any more. I took a risk, and I’m getting paid in karma instead of cash.”