Tragically Little Help for Sick and Wounded Civilians in Baghdad

Nearly three quarters of the wounded brought to Iraqi hospitals die.

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Capt. Yuri Rivera feels the tonsils of a young Iraqi. (Alex Kingsbury)

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BAGHDAD—Marwa Jasim has two children and a pair of metal rods in her legs. The latter are a result of injuries she received when a mortar shell crashed through the roof of her house, blowing out the windows and killing her husband.

She is 16 years old and slowly bleeding to death internally.

Her mother speaks about her daughter with desperately pleading eyes. "Her blood is sick," she says, standing in the doorway of the local clinic near the Dora market in Baghdad, talking about her daughter's infection that the clinic's rudimentary antibiotics won't defeat. Dr. Mohammad, who runs the facility, is certain of two things: that his patient doesn't have long to live and that there is very little he can do about it without the trained surgeons Jasim needs for an operation.

The Americans visiting his clinic don't have the antibiotics on hand that he needs, but they'll try to procure some. Jasim, who's family is essentially penniless, will need to find $1,500 for a private clinic to fix her legs, if they can do it in time. "Maybe we can get her a microgrant to cover the surgery," offers a sergeant, suggesting getting American funds designated for businesses into the hands of a dying patient. "I don't think anyone will sign off on that," says the American commander.

If this were the only case, perhaps arrangements could be made to find Jasim treatment and the care she needs. Granted, the Red Cross—or the Islamic equivalent, the Red Crescent—doesn't have a presence in the war-ravaged neighborhood of mostly Sunni residents, but some aid organizations are able to help in select cases.

But Jasim is only one of thousands here who badly need better medical care. A report last year from the Iraqi government found that 70 percent of critically wounded people brought to Iraqi hospitals die due to lack of proper drugs, equipment, and doctors.

The task is so overwhelming that the Army limits what its medics are allowed to do. For long-term care, Iraq needs its doctors—many of whom have left the country by the thousands during the continuing conflict—to return home. Capt. Yuri Rivera, 38, a physician's assistant with the U.S. 2-4 Infantry, goes out on patrol only once every few weeks. When he does, the endless parade of ailments is heart-wrenching.

In a quiet cul-de-sac near Dora market, he talks with a local cafe owner whose son lazily clips his fingernails with a pair of rusting wire cutters. Where, Rivera wants to know, is the local woman whose husband is dying? The cafe owner eventually points out the gate of a house, which is opened by a woman in her mid-30s who looks far younger than her recent experiences would suggest.

Her husband lies covered in blankets on the floor, where he has suffered for the last eight months from kidney failure, hepatitis A (and possibly B), and a nagging lung infection. His dialysis costs around $130 per week, a price the family can meet only by gradually selling off its possessions and borrowing money from the neighbors.

When Khalid Hussein Ibrahim was healthy, the 35-year-old provided for his family of three children as the only person in the house who earned a salary. But he was a grocer, not a government worker who can enjoy a pension, and now the family has increasingly less money the longer he is alive.

His 7-year-old daughter, who draws designs on a scrap of paper in the living room as ak-47 fire rings out like popping corn in the street outside, doesn't seem to understand her father's grave condition. Her mother alternates between insisting that doctors somewhere have created an artificial kidney that will save her father's life and trying to convince Rivera that her husband is on a nonexistent transplant list. Rivera's Iraqi interpreter quietly unfolds a $50 bill that he keeps folded in his wallet for emergencies and puts it into the man's hand as he coughs up some blood.

"Were they Sunni or Shiite?" One soldier asks the Sunni interpreter.

"Does it matter? No one should have to sell all their things to keep living," says the interpreter, who needs to carry an Arabic to English dictionary when he travels with Rivera to handle the medical vocabulary.