Adrian Pearson wrote this feature on the work of the Newcastle-Gateshead Medical Volunteers in the Journal on 22 April.
Northern Iraq may not at first glance seem like the ideal place to travel to twice a year, but for a growing number of North East medics this is a much-sought opportunity.
The Newcastle Gateshead Medical Volunteers are now an increasingly important part of the health system in Kurdish Iraq.
The orthopaedic surgery team put together by Dr Deiary Kader now regularly helps people who in some cases have gone their entire life without much-needed medical treatment.
In his day job, for which he also offers up valuable volunteer time, Dr Kader is a consultant orthopaedic and trauma surgeon at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Gateshead.
But after almost 20 years in the UK, he says he wants to give something back to his native Kurdistan.
His small team first set off in 2010, making two trips that year, and volunteers have repeated that process ever since. Those earlier trips saw the team work with only basic equipment, using home drill kits to help meet the various medical needs.
Since then they have built up some of the best clinics in the region to provide the type of surgery few in Kurdistan would otherwise be able to afford, a service provided for free by his small team.
“These are people who are destitute, they are very poor and just could never afford the £10,000 needed for a knee replacement,” Dr Kader said.
“We see out there some of what we might see here in the UK, but a lot is related to the situation there.
“We see military guys with injuries from war, while the other problem we see a lot is the consequences of the bad health system.
“We see people who have, for example, dislocated a hip as a baby and no one has recognised it or treated it. They have suffered from childhood and come to us in their mid-20s and limp badly, are in pain and suffer a devastating life. We can offer a chance to change that. It’s that potential treatment that over here is more routine. We sawa lady who hadn’t walked for five years due to arthritis.” He added: “At the beginning we did not have much to work with when we went out there – we couldn’t just fly out the equipment. “But over the years the local charities have recognised that we are here for the long term and they have started buying stuff for us.”
Every trip out there saves local groups £200,000, with the Kurdish charities helping costs for nurses and some others. Those nurses and doctors originally include just a few from the North East, but Dr Kader now has frequent support from Oxford, London and across the country. Indeed, medics are lining up to get involved despite the hard work. A typical trip sees 46 major operations in just seven days. So far the organisation has done 200 operations of the hip and knee joint and seen 1,200 patients at the clinic .
“At first it was difficult to get people to agree to go, because of what they have heard about Iraq,” Dr Kader said. “And it was a big responsibility for me, to take 10 people over there and be responsible for them, when 50 miles away from where we were there was some pretty bad bombing. “But we have had reassurances from the regional government that there is nothing to be concerned about. “Now we go there, and there are no signs of insecurity or problems, we go and there are no scares, everything goes smoothly. “So now we have a waiting list for people to go, with Continued interest from the Freeman, the RVI, from Wansbeck and elsewhere in the region.
“That’s partly as a result of the help we get both out there and here, where in Parliament we have the support of MP Dave Anderson and (parliamentary assistant) Gary Kent.” Support in Kurdistan comes from the Nechirvan Health Aid Office and Barzani Charity Foundation, which provide social, cultural and humanitarian aid in Kurdistan to the people who need it most.
That means working without discrimination and regardless of a person’s belief or ethnicity to help rebuild the shattered lives of the many thousands of displaced this devastated society. Dr Kader is also a professor of sports science at Northumbria University, and tries to give as much of his time locally as he has internationally. The doctor has done 40 free theatre lists for the NHS in the past year, offering up his own time on what would otherwise be days off to help keep NHS bills down. He said: “I think charity begins at home.
I just feel that if I am doing something for Kurdistan, I am obliged to do something for the country that has trained me, that has given me all I have. “It’s unusual I know; a lot of people think I am crazy. But it’s a nice thing I can do, an example maybe someone else will follow one day. It’s very fulfilling work.” His work out there has earned him frequent praise, including from Blaydon MP Dave Anderson, who has seen the team in action in Kurdistan in his role as secretary of the cross-party parliamentary group on Kurdistan. Mr Anderson said: “Deiary has done wonders in inspiring fellow medics in the North East to put their expertise to good use in Kurdistan and enjoy themselves into the bargain.
“They have brought much relief to dozens of people who needed hip and knee operations and have literally helped them stand on their own two feet.” Mr Anderson, who will table a Commons motion saluting Deiary and the initiative, added: “The Kurdistan region is increasingly able to use its new-found wealth to provide better public services but having been isolated for so long and oppressed by Saddam Hussein, they need British expertise.
“The wider story is that there are many other trade and investment opportunities for North East businesses in this safe, hospitable and pro-British place.”