Medical mission to Iraq plants seeds of hope for city woman
Claudia Lefko, center, with a delegation of American and Italian doctors and nurses who travelled to Baghdad for a collaboration to improve the quality of cancer care, a mission known as Baghdad Resolve, from March 2 to March 8.
Purchase photo reprints »
Dr. Mazin F. Al-Jadiry, a pediatric oncologist who works at the Children’s Welfare Teaching Hospital in Baghdad, addresses a delegation of doctors about medical needs in war-ravaged Iraq. The visiting doctors, from Harvard Medical School, Dana Farber Cancer Institute and University La Sapienza in Rome, spent a full week at the Iraqi hospital.
Photo courtesy Claudie Lefko Purchase photo reprints »
Claudia Lefko looks at her image printed by Jon Goodman. Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — On the 10th anniversary of the 2003 United States invasion of Iraq, one city resident returned from a trip to the war-ravaged country with renewed hope for change.
Claudia Lefko, a local activist and founder of the Iraqi Children’s Art Exchange, joined a delegation of American and Italian doctors and nurses who travelled to Baghdad for a collaboration to improve the quality of cancer care, a mission known as Baghdad Resolve.
From March 2 to March 8, responding to an invitation from the Iraqi Ministry of Health, the group of visiting experts from Harvard Medical School, the Dana Farber Cancer Institute and University La Sapienza in Rome, spent a full week at the Children’s Welfare Teaching Hospital.
In 2000, Lefko founded the Iraqi Children’s Art Exchange with the goal of fostering dialogue and connection between children on both sides of the conflict. She made her first trip to Baghdad as part of a delegation bringing medicine to hospitals in the city in January 2001.
During the trip, she met Dr. Mazin F. Al-Jadiry, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist who works at the Children’s Welfare Teaching Hospital in Baghdad, and Dr. Salma al-Haddad, another pediatric oncologist and the director of the hospital’s cancer unit. That meeting marked the beginning of a friendship that would eventually result in the formation of the Baghdad Resolve project.
Delegation members worked with hospital staff, evaluating their knowledge and practice of patient care and their methods of diagnosing leukemia and its subtypes, as well as giving lectures and presentations on leukemia, lymphoma and other types of cancer.
Together with the Iraqi doctors, they went into labs and viewed slides to properly diagnose, give second opinions on and adjust the treatment of hospital patients.
“Every day, they have to get up and go to work to try to cure these kids, and they have very specific needs,” said Lefko, who accompanied the trip. “They are for medical consultation, and medical upgrading and training, they need things that the international community can actually give them. Even more than they need money, they need collaboration at this point, they need the expertise.”
Lefko said she believes the visit will be the first of many, as everyone involved with the trip made commitments to return within six months. Delegation members are in the midst of preparing a report on their accomplishments and their recommendations to present to the Iraqi Health Minister.
The trip was the result of a visit by Al-Jadiry who had come to the United States through the St. Jude Children’s Hospital’s International Visitor Program. He contacted Lefko to inform her that he would be coming to the United States for the month of September 2012, and Lefko arranged to have him brought to Boston to visit Harvard Medical School and tour the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
“I’m always speaking on his behalf, but that’s not as good as having a doctor who’s actually on the ground and experiencing all that speaking, so through a mutual friend we had an invitation to come to Harvard Medical School and to get a tour of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston,” said Lefko.
During the visit, Al-Jadiry made a presentation to a team of medical professionals at the institute about the kind of issues Iraqi doctors are facing. He asked them if any of them would be willing to come to Iraq themselves. They agreed, and Baghdad Resolve was born.
“They were very moved by his presentation,” said Lefko. “Harvard has a global health initiative for cancer, and so it’s not out of the realm that they would be interested in a serious problem — we essentially fell into a group that has global concerns around cancer.”
Since the professionals Al-Jadiry met with are all focused on cancer from an international point of view, Lefko said, it wasn’t a stretch for them to expand their perspective essentially “to fold Iraq in.”
The needs of the medical community in Iraq are great, and not all directly caused by injuries from the war, Lefko noted.
Years of tough financial and trade sanctions on the country affected the medical field as well as many other arenas of life in Iraq.
“It set the country upside-down because they couldn’t import anything, including medicines and medical equipment and all these things,” said Lefko. “The whole top part of the economy, everything about it has just been thrown off by all that.” According to Lefko, the combination of the sanctions and the 2003 invasion resulted in over half of the country’s doctors either fleeing the country or being killed. Training new professionals was difficult, as textbooks became difficult for medical students to come by due to the trade embargo.
Though Lefko says it would be easy for Al-Jadiry and Al-Haddad to leave because doctors can get work outside the country, she said they are determined to stay and be of help in reconstructing the country.
“Despite everything, these two amazing people have gone on, and it’s my luck to know them,” Lefko said.
“Yes, we can be sorry, and yes, we keep revisiting how horrible the history was... but to move forward what they need is actual help,” she said. “We have capacity they don’t have.”