A Decade-Long Struggle to Rebuild Iraq’s Health Care System

I first joined International Medical Corps’ Iraq team in May 2003—just a few weeks after the conflict began. Although ten years have passed, it is a period of my life that I will never forget and remains as clear in my mind as if it were yesterday.

We began working in the south of the country in areas where multinational forces and the Iraqi army had fought devastating battles. Many of the health facilities we came across had been damaged or destroyed in the fighting; central control and supply lines were cut off. International Medical Corps arrived with huge quantities of medicines, supplies and trained medical professionals. It was important to be able to treat the people at the center of this terrible conflict, but the most important thing we did was to begin hiring and training the local doctors and nurses who knew the local health services best. This lay the foundation from the very start of how we would hand back control of these facilities once the Ministry of Health was capable of taking them on.

Between 2006 and 2008, the sectarian fighting in Iraq reached its peak. This was a dangerous and painful time to live in Iraq. Yet International Medical Corps was able to maintain and extend the services we delivered throughout this period in order to fill gaps left by the government and other NGOs that had fled. I will never forget the time I spent in the city of Telafar, one of the places worst affected by sectarian violence. All of the primary health centers had been destroyed, the hospital was closed and medical professionals were too afraid to go to work. Every time I entered the city, I was afraid that this time I would never leave it alive. But I always did, and over time we rebuilt four medical centers and reopened the hospital, saving many lives.

The key to our success in Telefar was building relationships and establishing trust. I made many good friends during that time—including Shi’a Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Christians and every other group—making sure that everybody knew that International Medical Corps was there to build a health system for all Iraqis. The moment I knew our mission would succeed was the day that the most powerful Sheikh in the city invited me to marry his daughter. As a married man, I politely declined, but I am very proud of what we achieved in Telfar and across Iraq at this most difficult of times.

Today, when I look back at the Iraqi health system and compare it to what I knew a decade ago, I am amazed at the progress we have made. The most remarkable advances have come in the strategy and planning of the healthy systems, as well as the skills of the people running it. International Medical Corps has played a vital role in this transformation. For example, we introduced a nation-wide emergency medicine strategy, which has significantly improved the survival rates of injured people in need of paramedic and Emergency Room (ER) care.

I remember a very experienced ER doctor coming to me after many casualties were brought to his hospital following a car bomb in Baghdad during 2010. He had recently attended an International Medical Corps training on the importance of treating the injured that do not make any noise, ahead of those who are screaming, because they are likely to be the most serious cases. The doctor admitted, “I thought I understood emergency medicine for the past 20 years, but I realize that even now I have much to learn.”

There is still much to be done in Iraq. It has been a privilege to work with the Iraqi people to rebuild my country, but I am not ready to rest until we are done with our task that began 10 years ago this week.

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