Marines put An Najaf ministry of health in doctor's hands

27 Jul 2003 | Army Sgt. Mike Sweet

Since coalition forces liberated Iraq from the former regime, more daily health care issues in the An Najaf province are falling to a local physician who was elected by his peers this month as general director of health.

Falah Nomass Azooz Almuhana, a physician who began his career in An Najaf 18 years ago after completing his education at Kufa University, is the general director of health. The new director is responsible for the management of five hospitals, 39 clinics and about 5,800 employees, according to Sgt. 1st Class David M. Lukowski, a reservist for the 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion, based out of Green Bay Wis., which is working with the 1st Marine Division in Iraq.

With a litany of challenges to overcome due to years of Saddam Hussein's inattention to southern Iraq's medical system, Almuhana is focusing on providing good primary care to the people of Najaf.

"It is difficult," said Almuhana, who was elected on July 12, after a run-off election.  "But my goal is not a personal goal.  The people of Najaf have suffered a lot in the past and it is my duty to try and make this better."

Lukowski, the public health advisor for the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment government support team, also has tapped a local pharmacist, Laith Zainy, to work with the director to manage medical supplies and the repairing of medical facilities.

"I wanted to make sure everything was in place and working before I left," said Lukowski, a Marinette, Wis., resident who has been working with the director to keep the province's health care system on course. "All I do is sit back and watch.  If they have any questions I'm there to assist, but he is the one responsible now."

The task of rebuilding and reforming the medical infrastructure is a daunting one but Lukowski is confident in the new director.  As the public health care advisor, Lukowski had been coordinating with international relief agencies and foreign countries to bring much needed aid to An Najaf's medical community.  When the Marines arrived here at the end of April, years of neglect by the former regime had left this region with a health care system that was on life support.

"I had to prioritize my resources right away," said Lukowski who has drawn on his management experiences in the banking industry as much as his nursing background during his tenure here.  "The hospitals did not even have any medication.  We had to take care of the essentials first before we could even begin to look at rebuilding the system."

Aside from restoring basic services to the community, the team also has surveyed the clinics and hospitals in order to determine what needs to be done to get them operating again.  Although some rehabilitation projects have already started many more are needed.

"There are some outlining clinics that are in such bad shape that I am looking into having some former Baath buildings converted into clinics," Lukowski said. 

The director will have to make hard choices and direct where limited resources will go.  Meeting with advisors from his staff and the Coalition Provincial Authority, which overseeing Iraq's reconstruction, Almuhana is learning quickly that nearly everyone in the Najaf medical community wants some of his time.

"The old system had many barriers," said Zainy. "We want to remove those barriers." 

Zainy joins the team taking up many of the responsibilities that Lukowski now has.  He is visiting area clinics and hospitals and evaluating what services and repairs that they need, as well as with international aid organizations to find new ways to build up the health care system.   

"We need to fix the problems right away," said Almuhana.  "People wait for hours at hospitals and sometimes they would leave before they received treatment.  We must fix that."

As Almuhana goes over reports on medical facilities throughout the region, one of his aids points out that they have to leave for a meeting with the governate's council soon.

"We have many problems because of the former regime," he said.  "We must look to the future, and not to the past, to find solutions."