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Pennsylvania Medical Gifts Will Help Afghanistan Heal
by Pamela Varkony

The Morning Call

''When no fixator is available, the alternative is amputation of a limb that otherwise might have been saved.''

Picture a young boy herding goats or a little girl collecting firewood. These should be quiet, pastoral scenes — unless those children are in Afghanistan, where land mines lie hidden beneath much of the landscape. Afghanistan, one of the most heavily mined countries in the world, contains 10 percent of the 60-70 million land mines that have been laid during conflicts around the globe. According to UNICEF, close to 5 percent of Afghan households have at least one person who has been affected by a land mine or unexploded ordnance.

While the conflict for control of the country continues, thousands of Afghans are injured by land mines every year. Legs and arms usually take the brunt of the damage. Shattered limbs, if not severed by the explosion, can sometimes be saved by external fixation devices, orthopedic ''cages'' that surround, stabilize and immobilize limbs, holding them in place with metal screws. The object is to force bone fragments together until they can mend.

Dr. Ismail Wardak, considered to be Afghanistan's leading orthopedic surgeon, performs miracles with the Russian-era, out-of-date fixators he has on hand. But, the need far outstrips the supply. When no fixator is available, the alternative is amputation of a limb that otherwise might have been saved.

Earlier this year, after three weeks spent in Afghanistan, I returned home with a strong message from Dr. Wardak: ''Tell America we need your fixators. You throw them out after one use. Here, we sterilize and reuse them. They could save hundreds of people from a terrible fate.''

To be disabled in Afghanistan is, for many, a fate worse than death. Physical therapy, rehabilitation and occupational retraining are not widely available in a country where more than half the population has limited or no access to health care. The disabled are often dependent upon charity or forced to beg in the streets. Recently, efforts have been made to raise awareness of such conditions through Afghan-based civic organizations like the Council for the Improvement and Development of Disabled Afghans.

After speaking publicly here about conditions in Afghanistan, I was contacted by Dr. Raymond Haslam, a dentist living in Hamburg, who is a member of the board of directors of the Shriners Hospital of Philadelphia. Dr. Haslam said he thought the Shriners could help ease the need of Dr. Wardak and his patients.

Just eight weeks later, a shipping container holding hundreds of pounds of fixators arrived in a brightly painted Shriners van at the loading dock of the New Cumberland Defense Depot. New Cumberland, which occupies 2,500 acres west of Harrisburg, is the largest Department of Defense wholesale distribution depot in the United States.

Within days, the fixators were on a military flight, on their way to Dr. Wardak and his patients in Kabul, where they were officially received by Maj. Gen. Yaftali Ahmad, Afghanistan's surgeon general, on Oct. 18. He said, ''Three years ago, we started with nothing. Today, slowly, we are recovering and standing strong because of our friends. These orthopedic supplies will benefit many people in my country, including children.''

Col. Don Thompson, an American command surgeon with the Combined Forces Command in Afghanistan said, ''We are putting much of our energy and resources into building the capacity of this country to be able to care for its citizens. Such generosity from America helps to build relationships and reinforce our message that we are partners, not occupiers.''

This serendipitous chain of events had begun with a chance meeting on the other side of the world between Dr. Wardak and me. It continued Oct. 19 when Afghanistan's Ambassador to the United States Said Tayeb Jawad, arrived at the Shriners Hospital of Philadelphia to express his country's deep appreciation for the gift of life and mobility emanating from the heart and soul of Pennsylvania.

Gracious in his praise of the donated fixators, Ambassador Jawad spoke of the values that Afghanistan and America share — honor, patriotism, and love of family. ''By Afghan tradition, children are considered the fruit of heaven. Each of them is a blessing,'' he said. As he toured the Shriners Hospital, that belief was on display. He took great care to spend time with each child he met.

By that evening, the tone had returned to realities of the deteriorating security situation in his country. Addressing the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia, Ambassador Jawad spoke of the need to defeat all forms of extremism, not just the Taliban. The religious schools, or madrassas, of neighboring countries came in for particularly harsh criticism.

To prevent the enemies of freedom from taking root, Jawad said, it is necessary to rebuild the capacity of the Afghan government to deliver services to its people as quickly as possible. The recent success of the resurgent Taliban has been blamed on the disillusionment felt by many Afghans over the ongoing lack of infrastructure and services five years after the United States invaded.

To make his point, he provided a startling set of statistics based on the per-person expenditure by the world community to rebuild post-conflict regions. According to Ambassador Jawad, $679 per person has been invested in Bosnia, $206 in Iraq, and to date, only $57 per person in Afghanistan. Yet, Afghanistan is where the war on terror began, where it is reigniting, and where I believe we have the best hope of establishing a self-governing democracy in the region.

''We have been victims of terrorism, too,'' the ambassador said. He pointed out that before terrorists blew up the Twin Towers, they blew up another cultural icon in Afghanistan, the twin Buddhas. Before terrorists took over his country, women were respected, not beaten in the street. Now, women make up 27 percent of the Afghan parliament, a higher percentage than in the U.S. Congress.

The reports I am receiving from the friends I left behind in Afghanistan are worrisome. The Taliban are making their presence felt throughout the country. Even in the capital city of Kabul, which has been seen as an oasis of reform, notices have been posted on telephone poles warning women not to be on the street after 5 p.m. One woman I met, who serves in a government position, said, ''We will never go back to how it was under the Taliban. We would rather die.'' I hope it doesn't come to that.

Pamela Varkony is a writer and commentator living in Allentown. She is a former member of city council. Her blog, ''Perspectives ... public and private,'' can be found on-line at

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