Violence and shortages hamper medical care, so one physician directs her energy toward sending patients abroad. Her work became more personal when her own son was hurt.
Amid the bombings, kidnappings and assassinations of war-torn Iraq, Dr. Eaman Al-Gobory has made the rounds of hospitals, searching for sick or wounded children who could best benefit from specialized care outside of the country.
Her work has helped a young boy receive a kidney transplant in Jordan. Another boy — who lost both legs in a bomb attack — was outfitted with prosthetic limbs in England, while a girl who lost her leg above the knee gained new mobility in Germany.
Al-Gobory works for the International Organization of Migration (IOM), one of the few international aid groups to risk working in Iraq. So far, the IOM has arranged for some 300 people to receive treatment in hospitals in 19 nations, including the United States.
But for every injured child and adult who gains outside care, there are hundreds of others without such assistance. As the violence in Iraq rages on, the list of potential medevacs compiled by the Iraq Ministry of Health keeps getting longer. It now exceeds 6,000 people.
“This is the hard part,” said Al-Gobory. “You have to take your heart and put it far away and only use your brain to try to get the people who will really benefit the most.”
Al-Gobory, 45, is a graduate of a Baghdad medical school who balked at joining the Baathist party of Saddam Hussein and ended up working in Yemen. After the U.S. launched the 2003 invasion of Iraq, she returned to Iraq to work in a civilian-hospital emergency room. Later that year, she began working for the Geneva-based IOM.
The organization has more than 100 member nations, and tackles aid projects around the world. In Iraq, it has operated on a modest budget, spending less than $1 million during the past three years, and gaining an additional $3 million to $5 million in donated health care from hospitals around the world. The program’s account balance has dwindled to about $75,000, according to IOM officials.
IOM officials view evacuations as only a stopgap measure, and also are trying to help rebuild an Iraqi hospital system that during the 1970s was considered among the best in the Middle East.
In the ’80s, the Iraqi hospital system entered a long period of decline as Iraq went to war with neighboring Iran. Then in the early ’90s, Iraq invaded Kuwait, triggering U.N. sanctions that made it much more difficult to secure medical supplies.
Since the early days of the U.S. occupation, the hospitals have continued to struggle, buffeted first by looting and then by shortages of supplies, equipment, drugs and even IV fluids, which patients sometimes must purchase at the market before showing up at the hospital for surgery.
Many doctors have fled for the safety of other countries as security emerged as a dominant concern. Some have been beaten while trying to care for patients; others have been killed while traveling between their homes and the hospital.
“There is a huge decrease in the number of specialists and even the students; they are departing to Jordan or anywhere else that will accommodate them,” Dr. Hussein Al Hilli, radiologist at Ibn Albitar Hospital for cardiac surgery in Baghdad, said in a telephone interview.
The hospital staffing problems make it increasingly difficult to handle patients in need of major surgeries. Al Hilli, for example, says his hospital has a list of some 200 children who need heart operations.
Then there are the escalating numbers of grievously wounded victims, whose severe burns, amputations and other injuries are often in need of long-term rehabilitation.
For Al-Gobory, the limitations of the Iraqi hospitals took on a searing personal note in winter of 2005, when her son, Zain, then 5, was riding in a taxi forced off the road by an American military vehicle. The taxi flipped several times, killing the boy’s grandmother and leaving Zain with a severe skull fracture.
Four Iraqi hospitals refused to admit Zain due to a lack of police documentation about the accident, according to Al-Gobory. A fifth one finally took the boy, who was in a coma.
He later was transferred to the U.S. Army Combat Support Hospital inside the Baghdad’s Green Zone, which treats injured U.S. soldiers, injured insurgents and some civilians. There, Zain began to heal.
“I owe the Americans my son’s life,” Al-Gobory said. “At the Iraqi hospital, they said he was going to die.”
At the time of the accident, Al-Gobory was in the United States, serving as an escort for an injured orphan girl who underwent surgery in Texas. She returned to Iraq, helping her son in his healing process as she resumed her rounds of Iraqi hospitals.
In the months that followed, Al-Gobory faced increasing risk in her travel about Baghdad. As a doctor working with an international organization, she could be considered a collaborator by insurgents. Moreover, as a working woman in a senior position, she further risked attacks from Shiite fundamentalists and their militia allies.
Earlier this year, Al-Gobory’s car was pulled aside by three men, who beat her and tried to pull her out of the car. She was able to escape, sustaining cuts to her head that required more than 20 stitches to close.
Meanwhile, her son’s recovery seemed to stall.
He had learned to walk but only with difficulty, and was falling down from 10 to 20 times a day. “We have a hard culture, and I know that he won’t be perfect but I wanted him to be more acceptable to this society,” Al-Gobory said.
So, in May of this year, Al-Gobory brought her son to America for treatment at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Washington, D.C. The medevac was assisted by the IOM and Project Hope, an American aid organization that has been involved in Iraq.
Al-Gobory said her son’s treatment over the past six months has been a big success. His gait has improved, and his falls are much less frequent.
Meanwhile, the sectarian violence in her home country has intensified. Even the hospitals appear dragged into the battle. The Iraq Minister of Health is a political supporter of Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite leader whose militias have sometimes targeted Sunnis within the hospitals..
Last month, Al-Gobory lost two friends — a doctor and his pharmacist’s wife — to an execution-style slaying as they left a hospital.
Some of Al-Gobory’s friends urged her to stay in America.
She decided to return, and was scheduled to fly home to Baghdad last week.
In Iraq, she plans to set up a new Internet site for patients in need of donated care abroad. She also will resume her hospital rounds.
“I know I will be vulnerable,” Al-Gobory said. “I am committed to making a change. I want people to know that Iraqi women are not cowards.”
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or email@example.com