One Doctor Aims For Better Health Care In Iraq

Dr. Adel Hanson, who works for the U.S. Army, is trying to help piece together Iraq's medical and health systems. He is combating corruption, training nurses to treat mass  casualties, sending Iraqi physical therapists to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and  helping to rebuild Iraq's Army Medical Institute. i i

Dr. Adel Hanson, who works for the U.S. Army, is trying to help piece together Iraq's medical and health systems. He is combating corruption, training nurses to treat mass casualties, sending Iraqi physical therapists to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and helping to rebuild Iraq's Army Medical Institute. Mike Shuster/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Mike Shuster/NPR
Dr. Adel Hanson, who works for the U.S. Army, is trying to help piece together Iraq's medical and health systems. He is combating corruption, training nurses to treat mass  casualties, sending Iraqi physical therapists to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and  helping to rebuild Iraq's Army Medical Institute.

Dr. Adel Hanson, who works for the U.S. Army, is trying to help piece together Iraq's medical and health systems. He is combating corruption, training nurses to treat mass casualties, sending Iraqi physical therapists to Walter Reed Army Medical Center and helping to rebuild Iraq's Army Medical Institute.

Mike Shuster/NPR

After nearly a decade of war and, before that, more than a decade of economic sanctions, Iraq's medical and health systems are in shambles.

Hospitals have been destroyed, doctors have fled the country, and the Ministry of Health is riddled with corruption.

The problems are overwhelming, but one individual — born in Iraq but now a citizen of the United States — is not discouraged.

Dr. Adel Hanson works for the U.S. Army, specifically in the office of the deputy commander. He works alone, though — sets his own schedule and his own priorities.

But Hanson is involved in a dizzying array of projects: combating corruption, training nurses to treat mass casualties, sending Iraqi physical therapists to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, helping to rebuild Iraq's Army Medical Institute and many more.

Somehow he finds time to keep track of a couple of individual cases for Samir Hassan, the Iraqi army surgeon general. One of those is a police commander who was shot three times in the head and neck. His family called Hassan for help. And Hassan called in Hanson.

Hanson has developed a close relationship with Hassan — and their collaboration is a key factor in many of Hanson's projects. Take prosthetics, for example. There are thousands of amputees in Iraq, victims of one of the most dreaded weapons — the improvised explosive device, or IED.

"We funded a prosthetic clinic for them, and now ... they are on their own," Hanson says. "We funded them, from the building to the equipment to the training, everything. And now they are completely independent and doing a great job in helping the Iraqi amputee."

Until recently, Hanson had about a dozen others working with him. But with the big withdrawal of U.S. forces last year, his team has dwindled to just himself, to Hassan's regret.

"Everyone left, and he's the only one, a senior medical official, who stayed. ... We are lucky to have him speaking Arabic, Iraqi," Hassan says. "And he is a U.S., so he has multiple benefits for us, you know."

An Odyssey

Hanson's odyssey from Iraq to the United States and back again is a story of tragedy and reconciliation.

Hanson comes from a Christian family. In 1963, his brother was shot and killed when gunmen invaded their home on the night of the Baathist coup. Six years later, his father, also a doctor, was imprisoned after the security police accused him of being an Israeli agent. His father was killed in prison.

A few years later, he and his mother left Iraq and eventually ended up in the United States.

After the U.S. invasion, Hanson thought his medical and language skills could help the U.S. effort, and he volunteered. It took a few more years for the Army to realize how much of a benefit he might be, and he returned to Iraq after 35 years.

One of Hanson's biggest projects is fighting corruption in the medical system. He cites just one example.

"[The] Iraqi population is 30 million people, but the drugs they imported and used is almost for 80 million people. ... They imported more drugs than they needed because of the kickbacks," he says.

So Hanson came up with a solution that could fight corruption at all levels in the medical system. It's a computerized medical records system called WorldVista. It was developed for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and has now spread all over the world.

Hanson wants to bring it to Iraq, and so far he has the agreement of the minister of defense, the minister of health and the Kurdish minister of health.

After a meeting a few days ago with Dr. Quraish al-Qasser, adviser to Iraq's prime minister on health, the proposal is now on the prime minister's desk.

"It's one of the ways how to help people and to prevent the corruption that we are having regarding these drugs," Hanson says. "So we ended with a solution to inform the prime minister himself about that, because it's a big project that we may introduce to our health care system."

The Future

All of Hanson's projects require more health care professionals with more and better skills. To accomplish that, Hanson goes to the Defense Ministry's training and development center. He has nurtured a close relationship with its director, Wael al-Janabi, who frets that after this year, there will be no more American forces in Iraq — and no more Dr. Hanson.

"Training not like any job," al-Janabi says. "Training you must stay — no[t] should [stay], you must stay — because you need first teach teacher to be, and this teacher not one month. They are specialists to teach, to change the life. No, you need more time."

"This is what they think of our role here in Iraq, is not just give them the fish — we have to teach them to fish and how to be a good fisherman," Hanson says.

Hanson argues that good medical care is all part of winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis and ending the insurgency for good. That's the contribution he wants to make to his native land.

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