The UT Raoul Wallenberg Scholar Award is given to those who showcase commitment to and passion for serving others, something that comes naturally for Carolina Wishner, this year’s recipient.It’s not hard to tell that Wishner is an exceptional human being. She provided volunteer assistance during the devastation of the Chernobyl nuclear accident as well as after the terrorist attacks in New York on Sept. 11, 2001. She also helped to pioneer the 911 system in her native country of Panama, radically improving medical treatment throughout the country.
The decision of who would receive this prestigious award was made by a committee of six members, including the committee’s chair, Dr. Tom Barden, dean of the Honors College, and Robert Karp, who made the original donation to make this award possible.
“She was truly exceptional,” Barden said. “Her life story is just spectacular.”
At age 17, Wishner decided to study medicine at the University of Panama. She had realized the importance of education early in life and worked hard to succeed in school.
While studying at the University of Panama, she was offered a full scholarship to study medicine in the former Soviet Union. In 1986, when the catastrophic explosion occurred at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Wishner was studying at a hospital where many radioactivity victims were transferred.
“We could not eat anything from the ground or drink milk from the cows,” Wishner recalled. “Everybody was running to the store to buy things … it was awful, really awful.”
Wishner explained that they had to eat only food that came from cans. They also wore devices to detect the amounts of radiation in the environment. They were told to stay inside as much as possible, but many of the students did not understand the gravity of the situation.
“I remember we were playing volleyball outside,” Wishner said. “Now, in retrospect, I would never do that. But I was young, having fun and didn’t measure the situation.”
Being involved in this traumatic situation caused Wishner to realize that she had a passion for helping others in disasters and emergency situations. After completing medical school in Ukraine, Wishner returned to Panama and began working as an officer and a physician in the National Police of Panama City. She interned for two years and eventually became director of the National Police Clinics, a position she held for 12 years.
During her time as director, Wishner helped to pioneer the 911 system in Panama City, making emergency care more available to all citizens. She helped make sure ambulances were not concentrated in one area, making response times faster.
Wishner also volunteered at the fire department, eventually earning the rank of lieutenant. She pursued medical missions whenever she could, demonstrating her passion for helping as many people as she possible.
At the time, her husband, Alan, had an apartment in New York and on Sept. 11, 2001, Wishner was visiting him there. Her flight back to Panama was scheduled for the next day.
“I was in my apartment when I heard the noises of ambulances — too many noises — and I said, ‘Something is wrong. Something is not good,’” Wishner recalled. “I turned on the television and at that moment I could see the airplane hit one tower.”
Wishner said at first it seemed like she was watching a scary movie because she could hardly understand English at the time. She changed the channel to Univision, a Spanish-language television network in the United States, where she learned that what she had seen was real.
She called her husband’s office shortly after, and he told her to stay at home and stay safe. But Wishner had other plans.
“I took my camera, I put my shoes on, and I walked to the hospital,” Wishner said. She told a Spanish-speaking doctor there that she had her medical degree and she wanted to help.
They asked her to be at the hospital at 1 p.m. Wishner used the time she had before then to stock the apartment with food and water, returning to the hospital early.
Soon after, Wishner found herself in a car packed with volunteers and medical equipment on its way to Ground Zero, driving into the chaos, while others ran in the opposite direction. They set up a makeshift clinic, and people flooded in.
“A few people started coming. They were tired, exhausted; they couldn’t breathe very well,” Wishner said. “We washed their faces, talked to them, cried with them. It was chaos, very sad. Everyone was wondering, ‘What else is coming?’”
Wishner worked to help as many people as she could, not calling it quits until early in the morning.
“Nobody knew where I was until two o’clock in the morning,” Wishner said. “My husband thought I was dead because there were no emails, no phone calls, nothing. I was disconnected from him until I came home.”
Wishner continued to go back every day to help, and on Sept. 16, Wishner and her husband attended the mass memorial service held at Ground Zero. The weight of those few days finally hit Wishner, and she cried on her husband’s shoulder. A picture of this moment was put in The New York Times; Wishner keeps a copy of it in her home.
She left Panama in 2005; in 2006, she moved to Maumee with her husband and daughter, Caroline. In May 2011, she began the master of public health degree program at The University of Toledo, since her medical license is not valid in the United States. She has a dual major in public health administration and public health epidemiology, with a grade point average is a 4.0.
Wishner hopes that by earning her degree at UT she will open new windows of opportunities to help others. She wants to continue doing what she loves and believes that by furthering her education here at UT she can do just that.
It is clear that Wishner is dedicated to helping those in need, no matter what it takes. This makes her the perfect recipient of an award inspired by Raoul Wallenberg, a man who risked his life to save tens of thousands of Jews during World War II.
“I appreciate them choosing me,” Wishner said. “My best legacy I can leave is to help in any way.”