Miracle Surgeon

Amid the despair of Kabul's under-resourced hospitals, an Afghan surgeon is working small miracles.

Miracle Surgeon

Amid the despair of Kabul's under-resourced hospitals, an Afghan surgeon is working small miracles.

Given the sad state of Afghan hospitals, there would seem little hope for people with severe disfigurements.

But Dr Ulfat Hashemi is somehow transforming their lives with advanced plastic surgery of a standard that rivals the best work of European and US hospitals.

Working out of the French-funded Maiwand Surgical Hospital in Kabul, Dr Hashemi treats some patients who have already been failed by doctors abroad and, unlike them, his hospital does not charge for the service.

Over the years, the surgeon has tended to people suffering from diseases, terrible war wounds and injuries resulting from accidents.

"I was operated on twice in Iran and they took two million toman (2,500 US dollars) from me without benefit," said Anar Gul, whose face had been ruined by a suspected nose or lip infection, which made it difficult for him to breathe and eat solids.

"The patient had been to Iran where they had created a small opening to serve as a mouth, which he could only use for liquids or food put through a juicer," explained Dr Hashemi, 38, who rebuilt Gul's face, using cartilage from the patient's rib. The process took a month.

"Before the operation I had a lot of problems. I could not talk, breathe easily or eat well. Now I can do all these things," said Gul.

Dr Hashemi was born in the village of Islampur in Kooz Kunar in the eastern province of Nangarhar. He qualified locally and went on to specialise in reconstructive plastic surgery at Dar-es-Salaam hospital in Peshawar.

"I chose the speciality because there was no programme of plastic surgery in Afghanistan," he said. "People would wait for years to raise enough money to go abroad for treatment. There are many who've been disabled by war injuries and disease who need surgical treatment. I chose it, finally, I think, so I could be of some service to my compatriots."

He is now sharing his expertise with a new generation of surgeons as a trainer in a project run by the European NGO Medical Refresher Courses for Afghanistan. MRCA has been organising programmes in Peshawar since 1989, moving to Kabul in 1995.

Dr Hashemi, who is married with two sons and a daughter, spends most of his time working on relatively minor reconstructive surgery - such as the recent case of a boy badly bitten on the face by a donkey. Such operations would normally be considered impractical in a country whose health services are in such a parlous state.

"When I told a visiting American specialist that I had conducted 4,000 operations (since 1998), he was surprised and said that this sort of figure was impossible in this backward country. I showed him the medical reports and photographs, and he had to believe me," said Dr Hashemi, who claims an 80 per cent success rate with patients who have already been operated on abroad without success.

His expertise has often saved patients from unnecessary surgery and suffering. There was the case of the young man from Badakashan, a province in the north of the country, who came to the hospital two years ago, after his doctor advised him to have his leg amputated.

Dr Hashemi discovered the patient had operable skin cancer. "We removed the cancerous section of his skin and gave him radiotherapy," recalled the surgeon. He was eventually discharged and went back to Badakashan.

The patient was clearly extremely grateful. And a few days ago he returned to Kabul to thank the surgeon. "A gentleman wearing chic trousers entered my office with lots of gifts. I asked him if he was the patient whose leg was supposed to have been cut off. He said he was. He'd made such a recovery that I didn't recognise him."

Mohammed Haqmal is a journalist with the Bahktar News Agency in Kabul.

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