- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2006

BAGHDAD — It was a little before 2 p.m. last Monday when a group of Interior Ministry soldiers carried a wounded colleague into the emergency room at Yarmouk hospital.

Waving their weapons frantically, two of the soldiers demanded immediate attention from Haider Hussein, 25, a resident with only three months’ experience.

The soldiers did not react well when Dr. Hussein requested time to prepare before examining the patient.

“They told me, ‘We’re authorized to kill you if you don’t help us now,’ ” Dr. Hussein said.

Two armed men left and, according to several doctors, returned with about 15 more soldiers who blocked the entrances to the emergency room, holding the attending doctors prisoner. The standoff didn’t end until the hospital’s security force fired into the air to persuade the ministry soldiers to release the doctors.

The confrontation turned out to be a breaking point for doctors at Yarmouk. On Thursday afternoon, they went on strike, saying they were accustomed to dealing with the worst of the capital’s unrelenting violence but no longer could handle the intimidation and aggressive tactics of the military and police.

“We don’t feel safe anymore,” said Haider Brahim, 28, the chief surgeon in Yarmouk’s emergency room.

The one-day strike did not resolve their problem, but it did win them a promise that authorities will look into three main demands: a public apology from the Interior Ministry, a ban on weapons inside the hospital and a ward exclusively for armed-forces physicians to care for military and police casualties.

It was the third time that Yarmouk’s doctors have walked off the job in three years because of the harsh working environment, said the hospital’s director, Haqqi Razzaiki. He said 16 physicians had quit in the past two months because of miserable working conditions.

“The whole situation is bad, and we’re getting no help from the Ministry of Health,” Dr. Brahim said.

Yarmouk’s 24 emergency-room physicians earn a little more than $135 a month.

Most of the hospital’s 150 doctors live in dilapidated residence halls on the hospital grounds. In one cramped room with no bathroom, six doctors who work alternate shifts share three small beds pressed against the walls.

About 50 doctors share a narrow restroom in a hallway. Dust covers the floor, and a hole in the floor serves as a toilet. Another restroom on a separate floor lacks running water.

The food, prepared in large metal pots in a room tucked away from the first-floor corridor, is a frequent target of criticism.

“We tried to give the food once to stray cats, but they wouldn’t eat it,” said Dr. Hussein. “Some prisoners live better than this.”

The hospital’s location in the southern Baghdad neighborhoods that are flash points for sectarian and insurgent attacks also makes it an epicenter for urgent cases. Dr. Brahim estimates that his staff treats 100 to 300 emergencies a day.

Yarmouk also attracts patients from the violent western Anbar province because it is one of the first large government-run hospitals along the highway into Baghdad. As a government-run hospital, it is obliged to provide free health care to all Iraqis.

Before the strike Thursday, the triage area was filled with the wounded, their families, paramedics, hospital administrators, nurses and doctors. The building smelled of perspiration, blood and human waste.

A young resident working without plastic gloves examined a gaping wound in one man’s thigh, the result of a roadside bomb. Another man on a bloodstained gurney wailed in agony as a male relative gently kissed his face.

And 9-year-old Amer Yousef, a bandage over the bullet wound in his lower abdomen, tried to fight back tears as a group of women in black abayas watched over him.

Outside the hospital’s gates, an Interior Ministry pickup truck swerved to a sudden stop and uniformed men frantically escorted the injured colleague inside. A soldier in the back of the vehicle fired a machine gun into the sky to halt the oncoming traffic.

“There’s no magic solution to resolve these problems,” said Dr. Razzaiki, who has practiced medicine in Iraq for 27 years. “If we had better security, the problems would solve themselves.”


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