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Iraq: Medicine, Compassion Slowly Returning To Baghdad's Hospitals

The situation in Baghdad's hospitals is slowly improving. Patients are receiving more and better medicine than during the rule of Saddam Hussein. Electricity cuts are also less frequent. However, doctors say there is still a lot to be done and that hospitals should get more assistance.

Baghdad, 7 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Baghdad's hospitals still remain in a shabby state but the situation is improving slightly day by day.

Wahid Ashur Rihan is a man in his 60s. For six years, he suffered from heart problems and had several heart attacks. He was hospitalized many times during the former regime. Now, he is a patient in Yarmuk Hospital in central Baghdad.

He said he was in really bad shape when he came to the hospital several weeks ago, but he said his treatment has been good and that he is back on his feet again. He said not only the treatment but the whole atmosphere in the hospital is different now. "The treatment, as I see it now, is better. This is the truth. [Under Saddam Hussein], there was a government and hospitals were functioning, but there was little medicine," he said. "Now, I feel it is better."

He said the doctors are visiting patients and care about their condition. "It wasn't this way before," Rihan said. "I am very optimistic. We are treated with equipment that I've never seen before. The drugs I am taking now are better, and I feel the difference because my health has improved rapidly, not as before when I had to stay a long time until getting better."

Yasser Muhsan Khangar is in his 70s and has problems with his lungs. It is not the first time he has been hospitalized in Yarmuk. He agrees with Rihan and said that what strikes him most is the more humane attitude toward the patients. "Now, [doctors] are very merciful, compassionate. They are fulfilling their duties. They don't take money from us," he said. "Before, they used to come into your ward and took money and went away."

He said that during the Hussein regime, patients had to pay bribes for everything, especially for drugs, probably because of the sanctions imposed on Iraq by the UN.

Adel Khalid is the chief doctor at Yarmuk Hospital, which has some 500 patients. He said the hospital was looted during the last days of the war. Air-conditioning equipment, surgical gear, and many beds were stolen. The hospital is getting back on its feet. He said the Americans have helped to restore electricity and that there were no electricity cuts in October. Such outages made work difficult last summer.

However, Khalid said most of the assistance appears to be coming from nongovernmental organizations, such as CARE, Premiere Urgency, and others, and not from the U.S. government. "No. Some American [NGOs] come to the hospital and give some drugs," he said. "Not on a large scale but some small amounts -- some antibiotics, something for orthopedic surgery, plasters -- things like that."

"We hope things will be better in the future," Khalid added, "but we need actions, not promises."

Khalid said the hospital is almost on the same level of service as during the best years of Hussein's rule, and a little better than it was several months before the war itself. He said there are no sanctions and that it is easier to get medicine. "Drugs are not such a big problem as they were before," he said, adding that the biggest problem is that the whole health system is rotten and outdated.

Kasim Rahy Issa is director of Baghdad's Children Hospital. The hospital houses some 200 young patients, most of them sick with digestive illnesses. It is as shabby as Yarmuk Hospital.

Issa agrees the situation is improving but says it is getting better very slowly. He also said the main assistance is coming from NGOs, which donated new equipment, including refrigerators and cleaning machines.

Issa said the sewage system is in bad shape and that the hospital lacks air conditioning. He complains there is no money to reconstruct the building. "For reconstruction, the big problem of the hospital is that money for repairing or rehabilitation does not come until now. We are meeting with the Ministry of Health, with [representatives] of a Spanish company, and there is an agreement that the Spanish company will come to our hospital and reconstruct it," Issa said.

He said U.S. help mainly came during the first months after the war. "The Americans helped us to restore electricity. They gave fuel for our cars, gave some medicine, but that is all," Issa said.

"I am still desperate and not happy," he said. "Everybody is promising. I don't trust promises now because many NGOs came to our hospital. They promised me that they would do this or that, and they didn't. Now I work with the reality. I don't work with what they talk, with what anyone talks [about]."

However, what can be seen very clearly is the increased security at the city's hospitals. Heavily armed guards now protect the facilities. Guards with Kalashnikovs are outside and inside the buildings. Foreign journalists are not allowed to enter hospitals without written permission from the Health Ministry. People say the situation was the same during Hussein's rule.