- The Washington Times - Monday, June 25, 2007

THE WASHINGTON TIMES

BAGHDAD — Wounded American troops with spinal-cord injuries get top-quality medical care, but Iraqis are not so lucky.

Iraq has just one hospital that specializes in spinal injuries. Its beds are full, and patients are being turned away.

Mohammed Abdul Hussein, a 26-year-old police officer rendered a paraplegic when he was shot while riding his motorcycle home from work, is one of the lucky ones who made it inside the Ibn al-Kuff Hospital for Spinal Cord Injuries in Baghdad.

He moaned as he tried to shift his limp body in his bed.

Down the corridor, 12-year-old Saddam Radi, who lost the use of his legs after a bullet ripped through his torso during a firefight, struggled to raise his arms during an intensive therapy session.

Nearby, Jassem Tharaya, 51, a retired civil servant, repeatedly pulled a cord from a machine to work the muscles in his right arm. He has no use of his legs.

“This is my lot in life,” Mr. Tharaya said. “It’s God’s will. I must accept it.”

Some wounded Iraqis must wait more than a year for a coveted bed at Ibn al-Kuff, said Safaa Mahdi, the hospital’s director. The struggle to cope with the casualties is compounded by shortages of staff, medications and equipment.

“There’s more pressure on us than at any time before,” said Barazan Majeed, 46, a physiotherapist who has worked at the hospital since 1984.

Built in 1983 on the outskirts of Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood, Ibn al-Kuff has undergone many transformations.

It was looted after the U.S.-led invasion four years ago, but the humanitarian relief agency CARE International led the restoration of the building and helped replace its equipment.

Today, staff members say money is available from the government to make other improvements, but security problems in this part of the city make the facility off-limits to most.

With 105 beds, hospital workers struggle to keep up with an estimated 200 serious spinal-cord injuries every year.

Because Ibn al-Kuff is the only hospital of its kind in the country, Iraqis have few options. Most can’t afford to travel abroad for treatment, and even those with money are hindered by security and travel restrictions.

Any Iraqi seeking medical treatment in the United States first must find a physician or hospital willing to provide care. Then he or she must apply for a medical visa at a U.S. Embassy outside Iraq.

The staff at Ibn al-Kuff is heavy with inexperienced personnel. Mr. Mahdi said 60 highly trained members of his staff — many who had worked at the hospital since its inception — have abandoned their jobs and fled the city during the past year.

For those still working, including one doctor, seven nurses and a handful of physiotherapists, the strain is tremendous and the pay meager, roughly the equivalent of $200 to $300 monthly.

Netham Kamel, 44, a nurse who has worked at Ibn al-Kuff for more than a quarter-century, says she now performs many duties once exclusively handled by physicians.

It doesn’t take long for visitors to notice the hospital’s problems.

On a scorching day last month, the corridors and rooms were sweltering because the hospital’s air-conditioning system was broken. The bathrooms lacked running water and reeked of human waste. And the only exercise equipment available were parallel bars and hand-pulled cords used for weight training.

“I have 25 patients now,” Miss Kamel said, stopping for a moment while hustling between rooms. “I can’t care for them all properly.”

Still, the staff of Ibn al-Ruff manages to plant small seeds of inspiration through its skillful care.

Abdullah Mehdi, 10, said he has gained more feeling in his legs since beginning therapy earlier this year. A car bomb attack in the Adhamiya district of northern Baghdad in February paralyzed his lower body. Now, the resolute youngster is working to walk again and plans to return to school this fall.

Mr. Tharaya, the retired civil servant, said he “feels much better with the daily exercise and therapy,” though physicians warn he is not likely to walk again.

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