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Iraqi nurses, corpsmen learn to fight disease, parasites

24 Jul 2006 | Cpl. Antonio Rosas

Iraqi nurses and Iraqi Army corpsmen will soon be able to treat patients for diseases caused by lack of clean drinking water, thanks to U.S. military physicians serving in this region along the Iraqi-Syrian border.

Navy doctors provided the Iraqis with two days of training which will enable them to treat patients for parasites – such as hook worms – which have caused a variety of health problems in locals here, to include mental retardation and anemia in children.

The Iraqi medical personnel were also given training in crucial life-saving skills for treating casualties in combat, such as suturing wounds.

The training, which consisted of several hours of classroom time and practical application, is designed to teach the soldiers how to provide emergency-trauma care for patients in a combat zone.

Perhaps most importantly, the group of a dozen or so Iraqi medics and nurses learned ways to stop severe blood loss – one of the important skills medical personnel must master in a combat zone, according to the American medical professionals here.

“Probably the most important step while providing emergency-trauma care is to immediately stop the bleeding,” said Navy Cdr. Tara J. Zieber, the medical director for the surgical suite here.

Blood loss caused by combat wounds, such as gun shot wounds and shrapnel from roadside bombs, is deemed as one of the top killers of Coalition and Iraqi military forces in Iraq.

Zieber and her team of doctors have treated an average of 30 Iraqis a month, including Iraqi soldiers and police officers, who have been victims of insurgent suicide bombers. Just last month, the doctors were able to save five Iraqi police officers from bleeding to death after a suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest at a police station in the Iraqi-Syrian border city of Husaybah.

Although the training is a step in the right direction to keep Iraqi medical personnel trained, a much larger problem in healthcare in this region exists – a lack of medical facilities and supplies, according to Navy Cdr. Charles S. Blackadar, an emergency medical provider from Bremerton, Wash.

“It would be nice if the Iraqis had a bigger plan to train and educate their nurses and corpsmen,” said Blackadar. “But in the meantime we are doing what we can to get them as much training so they can do their job and we can start to transition out of here,”

The 45-year-old believes the next step in improving the region’s medical care is the acquisition of medical support from the Iraqi Ministry of Health.

Regional tribal leaders and sheikhs have voiced concerns over diseases stemming from the lack of clean drinking water at monthly meetings with U.S. Marine leaders here. Local leaders have sought the aid of the provincial governor, Maamoon Sami Rasheed al-Awani, for construction of a hospital to improve health conditions of locals. 

During a visit to Husaybah earlier this month, Rasheed told local mayors, sheikhs and other Iraqi leaders that the construction of a hospital in the region is “a top priority.”

Health problems which stem from parasites, such as hook worms; have remained unchecked in the region for years because local nurses do not have the training or supplies to treat citizens suffering from the parasites, according to Zieber.

Now that the Iraqis have been given medical supplies to treat the parasites, Zieber said the hook worms can be eliminated in just more than a month.

The parasites have caused an abundance of children and women with anemia, said Zieber. The Navy doctor became aware of an abundance of anemia in locals when she noticed many children eating dirt – a clear sign anemia.

U.S. Navy doctors here have conducted several medical evaluations in local villages along the Iraqi-Syrian border to determine what additional medical problems the locals are facing.

Last month, U.S. military physicians and corpsmen spent two days traveling through several Euphrates River villages, providing free medical evaluations to locals. They evaluated more than 100 Iraqis, and found that more than 80-percent of the locals had skin rashes and muscular pain – all treatable with most over-the-counter drugs and improved living conditions.

American medical personnel here are involved with treating locals because the tribal sheikhs from various local villages have expressed concern over the lack of support from the provincial government on health issues.

Local leaders are hoping Rasheed will hold true to his word, and build them a hospital.

“We have (needed) a bigger hospital for many months now,” said a 32-year-old Iraqi nurse through an interpreter who preferred to remain anonymous. “The government has only promised to help us but we have heard only promises here.”

A growing problem revolving around the presence of disease in the area is the lack of a medical facility that can accommodate patients with more complex medical conditions, according to Blackadar.

The only options locals have when seeking medical care is a string of clinics where care is limited to less severe cases.

Without medical facilities with the capability to provide a higher level of care, families often have to travel long distances to receive adequate care, according to Marine officials here.

For Iraqis near the Syrian border, high-level health care means a referral to a larger health facility hundreds of miles away.

“It’s time-consuming and right now the ability to make the system work is frustrating,” said Lt. Col. Larry L. White, the civil military operations center director for the Al Qa’im region. “We are trying to build the legitimacy of their health system so they can handle these cases. We need to get the Iraqi system up to speed.”

White is with the 3rd Civil Affairs Group – a U.S. military unit responsible for assisting Iraqi civilians rebuild local government infrastructure, commerce and economies

“Any type of medical training we can give the Iraqis is a tool they can use to move forward,” said Zieber, 39, from Soldotna, Alaska.

The medical training is a milestone for the Iraqi health professionals in this region because they do not receive any type of enduring medical training throughout their careers, according to a 36-year-old Iraqi nurse who’s been working at a local health clinic for 17 years.

Ahmed said the only way he keeps his medical skills up to snuff is through trial and error. The only way he learns of new medical breakthroughs and practices is by word of mouth – until now.

“This training is a good re-fresher course for me because I have never been given any type of training after receiving my license to work in medicine,” said the male Iraqi nurse, named “Ahmed,” through an interpreter.

The Iraqi nurses were given some medical supplies during their training by the American physicians, such as vitamins and bandages, specifically donated by various private organizations in the U.S. to help the Iraqis.

The Navy doctors said there is a lot of support from charitable organizations back home. They’ve received numerous donated medical supplies throughout their seven-month deployment.

“These are the first steps in giving the Iraqis medical training to treat their own soldiers and I’m definitely glad to be a part of it,” said Blackadar. “I hope in the near future the Iraqi government can establish a bigger plan to address their health care issues.”

Email Cpl. Rosas at rosasa@gcemenf-wiraq.usmc.mil