For U.S. doctor, daunting task to rebuild Kabul medical school

Md. native oversees revival of university devastated by fighting

March 23, 2002|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

KABUL, Afghanistan - Strolling from a lecture hall to his office at the Kabul Institute of Medicine, Dr. Gordon Hadley is surrounded by a jostling flock of students in flowing Afghan dress.

They ask: Can he delay the makeup exam for the 45 percent of students who failed last summer? When will the electricity be hooked up? When will there be textbooks instead of Hadley's photocopied notes?

"They're being told by the administration that everything is up to me," said the 80-year-old former dean of the School of Medicine at Loma Linda University in California. "They're desperate. I understand that. But I just can't come here and run the school."

Hadley returned to Kabul this month to help resuscitate the oldest institution of higher learning in the country. Since 1960, he has spent a cumulative total of five years in Afghanistan as a visiting professor. He has been the guest of the exiled king, an acquaintance of warlords and a consultant on medical education to the Taliban.

"We're dealing with the fate of this country," said the white-haired physician, wearing jeans and an olive sport coat in a cold, dark office. "They want to be pro-Western. They want to be part of the mainstream world."

Decades of fighting have given Afghanistan one of the world's poorest and unhealthiest populations. Life expectancy is a meager 46 years. The World Health Organization estimates that one-fourth of the country's children die before age 5. An Afghan woman dies of a pregnancy-related disease every 45 minutes.

The minister of public health, Sohaila Siddiq, calls the Kabul Institute of Medicine, the country's medical school, vital to the country's future.

"Do you think a man without health can work?" she asked. "Can he be productive? The making of doctors is very important for Afghanistan."

But the school is barely functioning. The campus bears the scars of bullets and rockets. Most buildings lack plumbing, and all of them lack central heat, depending on smoky wood-burning stoves.

Thirty-three faculty members teach 3,000 students, who show up for classes only in the morning - they work to support themselves in the afternoon. There are few textbooks, only three microscopes and no working laboratories. The school has two computers but no electricity to run them.

Loma Linda, affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, built a library, which opened July 4. The library has a pitifully small collection of books, including old English anatomy texts and crumbling Afghan medical journals. The portion of the collection not in boxes is randomly stacked on the shelves.

"I pray for guidance because every day is a challenge here," said Hadley. "It's almost beyond comprehension."

Colleagues say he seems to tap a hidden energy source. On every visit to Kabul in the past three years, he has given two lectures each morning and met with as many students as time allowed. He and his wife, Alice Ruth Hadley, perform free biopsies for the poor.

"He is really patient," said Ebrahimi, a lecturer in pathology who, like many Afghans, has only one name. "All the time, the students have questions and come to him. But he is never exhausted. He is a special-type man, a kind that I haven't seen before in my life."

Students pack his lectures. "Doctor Hadley is the best professor here," said Farouk Sidiqyar, a 25-year-old in the fourth year of the seven-year medical course, which begins after high school.

Hadley was born in Takoma Park, Md., the son of a prominent Seventh-day Adventist physician who ran a medical mission in inner-city Washington. (Washington's Hadley Hospital is named after the elder Hadley.) The younger Hadley attended what is now Columbia Union College in Takoma Park and earned his medical degree from Loma Linda, near Los Angeles.

As a conscientious objector during World War II, Hadley served in a hospital in Germany. After joining the faculty of Loma Linda, he began medical missionary work in Vellore, India.

And there he met an Afghan physician, a meeting that led to an invitation to visit Afghanistan, a country long closed to Christian missionaries. In 1960, he and his wife - trained as a nurse - traveled to Kabul's school of medicine.

Kabul was a more exotic, more trying city than Vellore. Conditions were primitive. "It was very hard on my wife and I," he said of that time. "We really didn't know what we were getting into."

But he returned many times in the next 40 years. In the 1960s and early '70s, Kabul began to acquire the trappings of modernity, and educated women stopped wearing the burqa. But those trends began to be reversed in 1973 after the coup that toppled the king, Mohammed Zahir Shah. Hadley left in 1974 and did not return for nearly 20 years.

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