26 April 2010

Truly remarkable people

In my previous posting, I reported on the desperate lack of medical care some countries face. I would like to offer some balance by recognizing some inspiring people I’ve encountered in these dismal medical circumstances.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been assigned to Kabul in 2003-04. The capital of Afghanistan was safer then, and I was able to network with NATO medical providers—all military—as well as some Afghan medical personnel. Since then, the security situation in Kabul has deteriorated and my successors have been confined to the embassy compound. As a result, they’ve missed excellent opportunities to meet some truly remarkable people.

Dr. Farid was educated in England during the Soviet war in Afghanistan. A man of good sense would have stayed in England and forged a comfortable life for himself. Why come back to a country that was embroiled in war, had a failed medical system and offered nothing but hard work, disappointment, frustration and poor financial return on his education?

But Farid is a rare man, and return he did. He stayed through the end of the war and remained when the Taliban came. He stayed because his people needed medical care and most doctors were not staying. He had a ramshackle clinic in Kabul that would make most Americans flee just at the sight of it. But inside the clinic were other Afghan doctors he had recruited who believed as he did. These doctors had gone abroad for solid educations, but had returned to Afghanistan to do the best they could to help the helpless.

Farid was a happy man, but he fully realized the sacrifices he had made. When I asked him if any of his six children would follow him into medicine, he shook his head and said they all recognized what a hard life it had been and wanted something better for themselves and their families.

Some months ago, I spoke to an American contractor working in Kabul. He knew Farid and told me he is still hanging on, still striving to make a difference in the medical care of his community. Against all odds, he continues to hope and aspire.

Dr. Faquir Amin was an epidemiologist who never let war or evil steer him off course, either. His life’s work was fighting leishmaniasis and tuberculosis of the skin, two conditions that are endemic in Afghanistan. He particularly worried about the disfigurement of young girls, because it can make them unmarriageable. If one is illiterate, one needs a supporter, and girls must look good to get offers of marriage.

Amin’s clinic was the best of what could then be found in Afghanistan. He was fortunate to have foreign researchers who came to study these diseases, and they gave him the supplies he needed to run a good clinic. He even had solar panels on the roof to provide clean electricity for the lab computers and equipment, at a time when the only electricity available was through generators.

The U.S. Army offered him a financial grant to assist his work. Their first offer was to give him cash to purchase whatever his clinic needed. He declined the offer. No, he said, money was a responsibility and sometimes could be a temptation. He would rather tell the colonel what he needed and let her donate the items. I was standing there when he said it. She and I were amazed. Are there really people who refuse cash? Amin did.

Watching Amin was watching a man who loved people and wanted only to alleviate their suffering. His clinic treated anyone who came, free of charge. His most ardent desire was to eradicate leishmaniasis, a wholly unreasonable wish since, to do so, would require the complete elimination of the disease’s host, the sand flea. The immensity of this task was no deterrent to Amin. If he still practices, I know he continues to work toward this end, and those nasty little sand fleas better watch out.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership, published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.

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