Iraqis welcome aboard Navy doctor

11 Aug 2003 | Army Sgt. Mike Sweet

A Navy medical team working with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment visited the Teaching Hospital in An Najaf, Iraq Aug. 11 to share ideas and new medical concepts with the physicians and students.

Lieutenant Cmdr. John M. Murray, a Naval reservist who works as an emergency room physician as a civilian in Honolulu, Hawaii, led the team made up of sailors from Shock Trauma Platoon 3.

The team visited a group of physicians and surgeons to discuss emergency room procedures, and on an earlier visit and talked with ambulance drivers and showed them a few new tricks of the trade.

The Iraqi doctors welcomed their Navy collogues warmly, but were worried at first that the Americans would perceive them as not being as technologically advanced as the Navy physicians. 

They even bragged that because of the austere working conditions, they might even be better physicians since they have to deal with such problems as occasional power outages during surgery -- something that isn't a normal worry for American physicians.

"We know how to be doctors," said Dr. Kureem J. Al Zubaidy, a surgeon at the Teaching Hospital.  "We need supplies we need resources."

While walking around the emergency room, Murray was surprised at how little his Iraqi counterparts had to work with.

"One of the most noticeable things missing is the lack of cardiac monitoring equipment," Murray said. "It is such a visible piece that we have in all of our (emergency) rooms."

Indeed, the emergency room at the Teaching Hospital in Najaf is extremely bare compared to most American hospitals.

"You could take any doctor here and drop him off at any small rural hospital and it would be like he stepped onto the Starship Enterprise," said Chief Petty Officer Michael S. Everhart, a physician's assistant from Louisville, N.C., and a reservist with the Naval Reserve Naval Hospital at Camp Lejeune, N.C.

During the medical team's tour, a third-year resident Dr. Ihsan Al Kuzae explained that it was simple things that kept him from providing better care for his patients.  Opening up a stainless steel canister filled a quarter of the way with gauze he explains that this is just typical of all of his supply problems.

"This is all we have for a eight-hour shift," Kuzae said.  "We need catheters for IVs and gauzes and syringes.  We have to use our syringes over and over again."

Aside from the lack of disposable supplies, Kuzae shows a tray of surgical tools that still have dried blood on its hinges.

"Our autoclave has been broken for more than a week," Kuzae said.  "We cannot even sterilize our equipment."

The Navy medical team looked in on some patients with the Najaf doctors and Murray, who is a member of 4th Medical Battalion, Surgical Company A, Pittsburgh, Pa., was impressed that his Iraqi counterparts were able to overcome so much adversity to provide basic care for their patients.

"They have been able to provide basic care in spite of the challenges and supply issues they face," Murray said.  "It makes me glad that I am able to draw on abundant resources to do my job."

When the medical team worked with the ambulance drivers they came upon similar resources problems that the doctors have but the Iraqi medics were eager to learn a few new tricks.

"They had not been exposed to the Heimlich maneuver," said Murray, describing the application for rescuing a choking victim.  "They also did not have any experience in using cervical collars and stabilizing patients with possible spinal injuries."

One of the problems that Murray discussed with the Najaf doctors was pre-hospital treatment that most Americans take for granted.  When an ambulance shows up American paramedics are equipped to begin advance lifesaving procedures.  The Najaf doctors complained that it took too much time to get patients to the hospital.

"This is something that they need to take ownership in," said Murray.  "At my hospital the doctors take it upon ourselves to teach the EMTs what we need them to do on the street.  There is no reason why they cannot do the same thing here."

During the visit, residents peppered Murray and his team with questions ranging from treatment procedures to American salaries for physicians.

"I only make 400 dinars a month," said Al Kuzae, who is a father of a two-year-old boy. "I have no car, I have no house. All I have is my clothes."

In spite of the frustrations at work and low wages, doctors in Iraq ply their trade because of one simple fact.

"I knew what I was getting into before I became a doctor," said Al Kuzae.  "This is my country, these are my people.  I must take care of them."