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Visionary doctor helps hundreds of Iraqis

ALI BASE, Iraq - A single doctor, a retired Air Force colonel, arrived here without much fanfare May 18 and left four days later. He left in his wake improved sight for many Iraqis and priceless training for Nasiriyah General Hospital physicians.

He traveled with a few bags and a 50-pound box containing a microscope. A specialized, portable, eye surgery microscope he used to work on people who may not have otherwise afforded it. He also carried 200 prescription glasses and 300 sunglasses to hand out freely to those in need.

He performed his wonders at a place called Camp Mittica, which the Italian Army called home before they turned it over to the Iraqi Army. It sits adjacent to Contingency Operating Base Adder and Ali Base, in Southern Iraq. Hundreds of Iraqis from the local area traveled there to see him.

"It's a wonderful experience to be able to make a little dent in lives around the world," said retired Col. Stephen Waller, a contract ophthalmologist from Wilford Hall Medical Center, Lackland AFB, Texas. "Most people don't know that more folks today, in 2008, are going blind than are being cured. There is so much left to do in ophthalmology and eye surgery around the world it would be immoral not to contribute in a small way at least to make mankind better."

His contributions here have had a big effect on the lives of the Iraqis who saw him and the Iraqi physicians who worked with him.

Khalid Abid Alshaheed is a doctor's assistant who works almost every day in the general hospital in Nasiriyah, Iraq, which is about 11 miles from here with an estimated population of more than 560,000. He comes to Camp Mittica whenever a western doctor does so that he can learn from them. A few months prior to helping with the eye surgeries, he was here helping with cleft surgeries.

"The patients are very happy to receive this help, this has a very positive effect," he said through a translator. "What we are doing here is so helpful and it's completely free. For the eyes, here now, it's very useful for the people, and the doctors are doing their job in a very perfect way."

As for what he learns from the doctors, he said that 40 percent of his medical knowledge has come from the training he's received at Camp Mittica.

"[I am] learning additional information on the medicine and operations, and I am able to help out the Iraqis," he said. "The patients we aren't able to help at the general hospital we are able to help out here."

Mr. Alshaheed isn't the only Iraqi gaining experience. Mountadher Tahir, is a medical administrator that has worked for the Provincial Reconstruction Team here for two years. He said, "I've gained a lot of experience, I've learned from the westerners how to do this the right way and how to work hard. For every person it takes 20 to 30 minutes to diagnose them here ... in Nasiriyah it takes our doctors three or four minutes, and they check about 200 patients a day."

"A lot of the patients yesterday asked me to translate for them and say they appreciate the coalition forces and PRT teams. They hope our doctors see how the western or foreign doctors work," he said. "We [also] hope from them to take care of the patients like the [western] doctors."

Doctor Waller was able to carry out the training and surgeries here in a mobile medical center, a semi-truck trailer that the Italian government gifted to Iraq, which cost $2.4 million. It meets every requirement and code a full U.S. hospital operating room does - plus it has wheels and can be towed around.

In this trailer, he performed surgeries on the surface of the eye, like removing cancerous growths and pterygiums [pronounced ter ig' ee um, which is a small white growth that extends out onto the eye.] He couldn't go inside the eye because although the ophthalmologists in Nasiriyah are "U.S. quality," Doctor Waller said, "I didn't know what they would be willing to take on and I don't want to give any kind of difficult procedure to follow. One time in a 1,000 you get an infection, even under perfect conditions and [we don't want] that to happen here."

The trailer sat next to rows of other facilities containing rooms where patients waited to have their eyes checked. When Doctor Waller wasn't in the trailer performing surgery, he was found here, peering into patient's eyes and checking their prescriptions. Four boxes of prescription glasses and sunglasses were around him. If the doctor had a set that could help a patient, they could have them for free.

Just like in America, the Iraqis would come in to talk about laser eye surgery or what they could do to help their children with lazy eyes; the doctor worked through a translator to give them advice.

"The people are so eager to see foreign doctors," Mr. Tahir said.

The doctor also freely handed out sunglasses, because, for one reason, they could help keep pterygiums away.

"[Pterygiums are] very common in Mexico, Latin America and certainly in this type of environment," the doctor said. "Dust, sun and wind are the three main risk factors. So I'm sure a lot of Iraqis have it."

Also in the corner of the room were bags of antibiotics and eye drops.

"I'm giving out a lot of artificial tears because people's eyes get dry in this part of the world," he said. "And I brought a little bit of medicine and antibiotics ... I probably won't use all of those, but I'll be able to give them to the Iraqis, for their use."

The list of supplies the doctor brought and the skills he used in the operating room are the result of his 31 years as an Air Force ophthalmologist. During that time he helped people in Korea, Thailand and the rural Philippines. He was also a member of the first portable eye surgery team from Wilford Hall to go to Latin America. During that time, and the four years since his retirement, he has gone on more than 20 of the 50-plus missions the team has gone on in the past 15 years.

But regardless of whether the doctor or the Wilford Hall team is busy performing wonders around the world, the Iraqis still hope to see them again. "I just want to ask the coalition forces doctors and the foreign doctors to come here because this is a great job done by them to come to such country like Iraq and to help the poor people ... because for me they come from the heaven to work in the hell," Mr. Tahir said.

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