The average lifespan of an Afghan citizen is only 45 years and over one-third of children do not survive to age five according to the World Health Organization. A key reason for these appalling numbers relates to the extreme lack of trained health care providers in this war-ravaged crossroads of southwest Asia. Operation Medical Libraries (OML) in California and the American military in Afghanistan seek to improve this as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
OML started when the UCLA Medical Alumni Association (MAA) responded to a request to send medical textbooks to medical schools in Iraq. From these beginnings in the spring of 2007, OML grew from soliciting other medical centers and schools in California, such as Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center and the University of California campuses in Irvine and San Diego, and distributing to medical universities and facilities across Iraq and Afghanistan. These efforts reached fruition on 22 July 2008 when over 1500 pounds of texts and medical journals were distributed to the Herat Medical Faculty at Herat University and the Herat Regional Military Hospital in and near Herat, the provincial capital in western Afghanistan.
Colonel Dr. Said Azim Hussaini, Executive Officer and Deputy Commander of the Herat Regional Military Hospital welcomed the 5 visitors from the Herat Medical Faculty. He noted that the military hospital had received several hundred pounds of textbooks as well and expressed his thanks to OML and the American medical mentors who are nearing the end of their one-year deployment. Dr. Azim also said he was pleased that this project will continue when the current team of 14 Navy active duty mentors are replaced by a new team.
The Dean of the Herat Medical Faculty, Dr. G. N. Aram declared his great pleasure and surprise at this extraordinary gift from OML and hoped that this begins a long fruitful relationship. He noted: “We share the goals of education that go beyond borders.” He articulated his and his faculty’s desire that his school could partner with an American medical school for the benefit of the Afghan people. Joining him in thanks and hope for further collaboration were Dr. Mohammad Jan, Chief of Surgery; Dr. Mohammad Hassan Farid, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology; Dr. Khalil A. Aazar, Chief of Medicine; and Dr. Mohammad Anwar Anwar, Internal Medicine.
Lieutenant Commander Bruce Deschere is a family physician and mentor to the military hospital and point of contact for the OML program in western Afghanistan. The 12 physicians on staff of the military hospital shared stories that brought chills: an ophthalmologist fled to Pakistan during the Taliban rule and now must retrain to regain skills lost while providing general practice care to other refugees. Those who stayed related that Taliban forbade any image of the human body; the Taliban would confiscate anatomy texts and burn them, as well as monitor lectures to ensure that no images were even drawn. Dr. Deschere notes that it is nearly impossible to train future doctors without illustrations of the human body. He says, “As Afghanistan rebuilds its health care system, the lack of texts was critical. OML is meeting that need.” He observed that education is the greatest gift: it makes lives better and can never be stolen. While the books benefit the 400 medical students now, ultimately it may benefit millions of patients. Similar stories are occurring around the country at other medical schools and hospitals, both regional and in the capital of Kabul.
The Herat Medical Faculty was established at the Herat University under the Ministry of Higher Education in 1990. All 42 faculty are trained practitioners in the breadth of specialties and willingly provide education in this challenging environment. Students must compete to enter the government-funded curriculum with a total of 400 students in the 7 year program. The students enter after graduating high school and about 60 receive their degrees each year. The government then expects service in government programs like the military as repayment for the free education.
The donated literature will benefit the 42 faculty and 400 students at the medical school and the 12 doctors and 40 nurses at the military hospital. “We will take whatever you can send us,” said Dean of the medical school, Dr G. N. Aram as he and his colleagues expressed heartfelt gratitude. The Executive Officer of the hospital, Col. Said Azim Hussaini was instrumental in facilitating the distribution and hopes this will continue for the foreseeable future.
OML has provided medical textbooks and journals to six cities/regions in Afghanistan: Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-e Sharif, Zabul, Bagram, and Herat. All 3 of the U.S. Military Medical Corps branches have benefitted from OML donations. Over 6 tons of medical textbooks and journals have been distributed to Afghan medical universities and hospitals through the project. Says Valerie Walker, founder of Operation Medical Libraries, formerly known as UCLA MAA Books without Borders: "It is an honor to support the U.S. military nurses and physicians in their efforts to improve the quality of medical education and healthcare for the Afghan citizens. May these medical materials cause ripple effects throughout the country for decades to come."
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