By Erich Langer
Special to American Forces Press Service
July 8, 2008 - With the delivery of two large truckloads of medical equipment, hundreds of mothers-to-be soon will benefit from the opening of a refurbished maternity hospital in western Baghdad's Karkh district. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Gulf Region Division managed the nearly $600,000 renovation, which includes a new heating, ventilating and air-conditioning system and electrical and mechanical upgrades.
Officials said the hospital had fallen into disrepair, receiving no upgrades and little maintenance during Saddam Hussein's regime. In fact, officials noted, no new hospitals were completed in Iraq since the mid-1980s.
"To date, GRD has completed 21 renovations at 18 hospitals across Iraq that will treat 15,000 patients per day," Army Brig. Gen. Jeffery Dorko, GRD commander, said. "Also, working with our government of Iraq partners, we have constructed 113 of 132 new primary health care centers that will treat 8,000 Iraqis each day. We still have more to achieve in helping provide health care to Iraqis, but we are making great strides in this important area."
The improving security situation is paying dividends, as the GRD Gulf Region Division and its contractors complete more and more construction projects. Dr. Eman A. Atta, Karkh's manager and hospital administrator, worked at Karkh Maternity for only six months, but has seen Baghdad and the neighborhood around the hospital improve dramatically.
"The security situation has improved greatly," Atta said. "It was very, very bad here for so long -- so bad that I refused delivery of vital medical equipment until it was safe from those who would rob and steal from the hospital."
Atta was painfully aware of the poor security situation after one large delivery of expensive diagnostic equipment that included X-ray machines and other high-end medical equipment was hijacked -- "stolen before it ever made it to the hospital," she said with anger and frustration in her voice.
"To keep this from happening again, Dr. Emad Sabry and I arranged to store the equipment in various secret locations around Baghdad until security improved," she said.
Iraqi army Maj. Hussain is in charge of security at and around the hospital, and echoed Atta's reflection of security in the neighborhood.
"It has gotten better; it is much safer here. My soldiers are always watching for any danger that would come to the hospital and its patients," he said.
"We hope to open the hospital to inpatient care, surgeries and deliveries within two months," said Sabry, an anesthesiologist and one of Karkh's 10 senior physicians. "The hospital still needs additional equipment --– all types from beds to incubators and most importantly the pharmaceuticals. The Ministry of Health has promised to provide these required items."
Army Sgt. 1st Class Hector Cruz, a construction representative from the GRD Central District, makes final checks on numerous hospital construction initiatives recently completed. He stays busy helping to manage scores of projects, and is frequently on construction sites four or five days each week.
"We rely heavily on our Iraqi engineers who are on project sites every day," he said. "They work directly with the contractors and provide our office with regular reports, photos and updates on project progress. We just couldn't do the job without them."
To minimize interruptions of essential hospital activities, the local Iraqi construction firm coordinated all construction work with the hospital and Atta.
Besides the HVAC and electrical upgrades, the renovation structural repairs, a reverse-osmosis water purification system, a new medical waste incinerator, a medical gases center, a nurse call system, a data communication network, a TV system, elevator upgrade, and a fire alarm with a firefighting extinguishing system.
"The new medical gases center is much improved over the old Iraqi way," Sabry said. "This is much more modern, efficient and safer, too. The old way had oxygen tanks in each of the rooms. Hospital staff had to frequently move and handle the tanks – very inefficient and more dangerous."
Cruz said the renovated facility is a vast improvement over the old one. "Previously, this was a facility in disrepair after years and years of neglect," he said. "But now, Karkh's patients will be able to come to the hospital and have their babies in a clean, secure functioning hospital. Dr. Atta and her staff will have the tools to provide full-spectrum medical care for women from a population of more than 250,000."
(Erich Langer is a public affairs specialist with the Gulf Region Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Iraq.)