July 2, 2008

AMA Interviews OML for American Medical News

Interview (written because phone service went out in Herat) of LCDR Bruce Deschere for the American Medical Association’s weekly publication, American Medical News.

I am the physician mentor to Herat Regional Military Hospital in west Afghanistan. Apparently, Books Without Borders, now Operation Medical Libraries, started in 2007 to send donated texts to Iraq medical schools. Through the chain of events, it became clear that the situation for medical schools in Afghanistan was just as bad or worse. During the 6 years of the Taliban, any book with any illustration of any part of the human body was destroyed and even drawings were forbidden. While some medical schools remained open in Afghanistan (e.g., Kabul University), teaching anatomy and clinical skills became quite difficult. Therefore, there is a severe shortage of any printed medical literature. When our embedded training team arrived last September, we noted few texts and most were quite old. The texts they had were either hidden or taken with them when fleeing to neighboring countries. We solicited a few donations from back home on our own, but the OML organized effort has trumped our attempts 50-fold.

LCDR Bradford Volk, National Military ETT, Command Surgeon was the first Navy Medical Corps physician to contact Operation Medical Libraries and request textbooks. After a favorable response and the organization's ability to donate enough materials for more than the capital city of Kabul, LCDR contacted us in the regional hospitals to determine our needs and interest. We have received about 1000 pounds of literature in Herat and will shortly deliver them to the Herat city hospital (2000 visits a day), the maternity hospital (55-60 deliveries a day with mom and baby discharged 2 hours post partum), the eye hospital and the medical school. We will have pictures of the distribution event; date is not firm but we hope next week. These books will be used by premed students, medical students and practitioners alike. Internet access is extremely limited and slow, so that is not yet a viable means of education. Add to that the average per capita income of $500 per year and donated texts seems to be the only practical current option. Women have full access to schooling as well, despite the repressive history of the Taliban; however, the doctors are still overwhelmingly male and most women physicians end up in obstetrics. Still, we see progress even in just 10 months here.

My own story is practicing in the Detroit area of Michigan for 26 years and 15 concurrent years of teaching at the Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit. Then I made a career move by volunteering for the Navy in 2006. One year later, I was training for the one year deployment to Afghanistan. I am most gratified to be able to transfer my clinical and teaching expertise, and the docs here are very receptive. It’s a great mission and will do more to stabilize the region than the security forces in the long run.

The photo shows LCDR Bruce Deschere having chai (tea) with one of the Afghan docs at the hospital. Sharing chai is how things get done in Afghanistan.

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