Friday, February 27, 2009

Iraqi doctors treat the wounded in Jordan

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) - Ali Mizhir was on his way to a market in Baghdad to buy slippers three years ago when a car bomb exploded nearby, blowing away much of his lower left leg.

The 11-year-old was taken to a hospital, but doctors told his father they would have to amputate. His father refused, arguing the leg could be saved.

After five failed operations in Iraq and Iran, Mizhir and his father turned to a hospital ward in Jordan run by Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders.

"If I had not left Iraq, I would have lost my leg," Mizhir said. "All the doctors that I saw in Iraq wanted to cut it off."

He cannot yet walk, and he has a large gap in his leg where muscle and tissue were torn away. But his doctors are optimistic - they have fitted "tissue expanders" in his leg and hope to reattach the nerves and bones properly in a few months.

Since 2006, the international charity's hospital ward in Amman has been treating civilian victims of Iraq's war who are too severely wounded to be cared for at home.

Its staff, almost entirely Iraqi doctors and nurses who fled their homeland after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, specialize in reconstructive surgeries and have provided free treatment to more than 650 patients.

The ward, in the Red Crescent hospital in the Jordanian capital, costs about $4.5 million a year to run. There are now about 100 patients on a waiting list.

"The difference between working in Baghdad and Jordan is like comparing black and white," said Dr. Nasr Omari, an Iraqi plastic surgeon who works at the Amman hospital.

Iraqi hospitals often lack basic equipment and medicine and are frequently understaffed. And some cases are too complicated to handle in Iraq, the doctors said.

On a recent morning, doctors at the Amman hospital operated on a woman who had been hit in the face by a bullet and a man whose foot was maimed by an explosion.

The facility is the medical charity's most advanced reconstructive surgery unit. There is a similar initiative in Grozny, capital of Russia's restive Chechnya region, and it has more basic surgical operations in Haiti, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka.

"Anything that serves a gap in the Iraq health system is useful," said Dr. Nada Al Ward of the World Health Organization's Jordan office, who works with displaced Iraqis.

"If you need reconstructive or complicated surgeries, most of the time, you will need to travel outside Iraq to get it," she said.

Doctors Without Borders emphasized that the Amman hospital is meant to complement the Iraqi health system, not to replace it. Olivier Maizoue, the charity's head in Jordan, said the hospital might not be needed in five years, if the situation in Iraq continues to stabilize.

Al Ward agreed that Iraq might be able to assume some of the complicated surgeries now being performed elsewhere.

"Iraq had a functioning health system before the conflict," she said. "If the security situation improves, the health system will hopefully spring back."

Most patients are eager to return to Iraq.

Mizhir, now 14, says he misses his friends and wants to return to school. He and his father have been in Jordan so long that Mizhir now has a 2-month-old baby sister who he has never met.

"I would like to go back to Iraq to meet my new sister," Mizhir said. "But that is for the doctors to decide."



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