In Baghdad, hospital feels growing crisis

Iraq: A hospital ward reflects the life-and-death struggle, the violence and intense emotions that have focused on American occupiers - who are blamed for everything.

October 02, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq - The man with the sweat pants stained deep red had just finished a day baking bread. The little boy with the bandaged head two beds over had been playing soccer. A man to the boy's left, moaning loudly in pain and clutching his thigh, had been sipping coffee at an outdoor cafe just a few minutes earlier. And the woman screaming frantically and pacing the room had been at home wondering why her husband was so late.

Now they were all in the same place, the surgical emergency room of al-Yarmouk Hospital, among the busiest places in Baghdad. The man with the blood-stained pants might live, might die, the doctors simply did not know yet. The little boy? The medical equipment that might help save him exists, but not at this hospital. The man from the outdoor cafe was in no danger of dying, not that night, but it would be some time before doctors would know whether he will walk normally again. And the husband of the frantic woman was still missing.

In this pale-green room, with 16 beds packed side by side, was a picture of life and death in Baghdad, a snapshot of fear, relief and inconsolable grief, and an indication of why emotions have been growing with such ferocity against the American forces, who are blamed for everything from car accidents to missing husbands.

"Where is my husband? Where is my husband?" screamed the woman who had run into the emergency room. She was dressed head to toe in black, only her worried face and wringing hands exposed.

She scanned the room. Blood had spilled on the floors, blood soaked the beds, blood stained the hands and forearms and brows of the doctors and nurses, and its literal meaning was that Baghdad was a much more dangerous place than before the war.

"Welcome to my zoo," said Dr. Amar Abid-Magid, a 29-year-old resident in charge of the surgical section of the hospital's emergency room, the place where people are taken when they are shot or stabbed or hit by a car. "Tonight, you will see how animals live. We will be very busy."

The doctor was speaking from experience, and the constant flow of the wounded proved him correct. Such a flow of patients might be normal in emergency rooms of big American cities, but not here. And the high number of patients combined with dwindling medical supplies and nonexistent or broken equipment adds to the misery.

This is one of the institutions that is doing worse than before the war. The emergency room used to be a lazy place. Now it was filled with patients, the hallways with distressed families and a dozen guards armed with Kalashnikov rifles. The patients do get one break: Emergency medical care here is free, down from the 25 cents or so people had to pay when Saddam Hussein's government was in power.

Bloody violence

Since the end of the war, about 60 people a night arrive here, more than half bleeding from bullet or knife wounds. Before the war, about one person a week with such an injury was treated at this hospital, built in the 1950s and showing its age in the cracked linoleum floors and chalky paint.

The doctor in charge and two others who worked with him through the night said they were glad that the United States had overthrown Hussein. In the long run, they agreed, Iraq will be better off. But not now. Now, the bodies are piling up, and each of the doctors said that the violence will get worse if the United States does not act with more urgency to impose order.

As the doctors talked, six people gripped a gurney missing a wheel and were pushing it. The man with the blood-stained pants was on the gurney. As he brushed past Abid-Majid, he smeared more blood on the doctor's white smock.

"Help me! Help me!" the man yelled. He was trying to pull down his sweat pants but was too weak, though he was strong enough to be panicking. His name was Abdu-Rada Hassen. He was 25 and from Najaf but worked in a bakery in Harthiya, a neighborhood near the center of Baghdad, a few miles west of the Tigris River.

A burly nurse named Abid-Kareem Ahmed cut the pants off, then yelled to another nurse to get an intravenous tube. The second nurse had to run to another part of the hospital for the tube because there were none in the emergency room. The hospital is short of that basic piece of equipment, which can be obtained only when a doctor sends a note to the pharmaceutical department.

"He is critical," said the doctor in charge, discovering three holes made by two bullets, both of which entered the left thigh and remain lodged in the pelvic area. "He has lost a lot of blood." The nurse got the needle for the intravenous drip into Ahmed's arm and started a drip of saline solution to keep the arteries expanded while refrigerated blood was being warmed.

In most emergency rooms that see so many patients, blood would be ready to go. But here it is in short supply, like the intravenous tubes, so it is warmed only as needed.

"What happened?" the nurse asked, putting an ear close to the patient's lips. "Who did this to you?"

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