Dr. Judy Hall’s mission of medicine for the Iraqi people

By - May 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By John Hughes

On a recent unseasonably warm Monday evening, I sat with Judy Hall on the front stoop outside of her home, and as the breezes cooled us we watched neighbor children ride bicycles up and down the city street. Judy, an M.D. and psychiatrist, told me about her recent 10 day visit to Baghdad, Iraq, on a mission to teach Iraqi physicians.

“I’m not really an activist,” she says. “My interest in Iraq began in medical school days when an Iraqi woman was my supervising resident. I’ve been thinking about her and worrying for all the ensuing years. So, in 1991, I was actually hopeful about the sanctions, when they were imposed, because I thought that might be a diplomatic solution to the Hussein problem. But in the end those sanctions were worse than any war could have been, for the suffering they’ve inflicted on the Iraqi people, without bothering Hussein at all.”

“I was actually hopeful about the sanctions… But in the end those sanctions were worse than any war could have been, for the suffering they’ve inflicted on the Iraqi people, without bothering Hussein at all.”

Her blonde hair falls in her eyes, over her steel framed eyeglasses, dancing in the breeze. She is, I estimate, roughly 50 years old, relaxed and unpretentious, the highlight of her clothing being her bright red clogs. She speaks freely.

“In 1996, I became aware of a group called Voices in the Wilderness, who were bringing suitcases of antibiotics into Iraq. With the poverty inflicted by the U.S. sanctions, the water system was going bad, and people were getting sick. I thought these deliveries were good, but I also thought it would be more effective to clean the water system. So, although I supported Voices, I looked for a different group to be involved with.

“Now realize, it was illegal to help the Iraqi people like that, or in any way, against the sanctions, without a license from the State Department. And the penalty for doing so is 12 years in prison and a $1.25 million fine.”

I ask Judy how a person might go about giving a license. “In reality, they don’t give licenses,” she says, and laughs.

“Finally, I was called on the carpet, though. I heard about something called ‘Campaign for Conscience’, which was the American Friends Service Committee, working in conjunction with Pax Christi and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. And they were importing small chlorinators so that they could at least purify the water for hospitals and orphanages, and perhaps some villages.”

She then described to me a “Quaker Summit on Iraq” which she attended in January of 2002. During this event she learned of greatly increased incidences of birth defects and childhood cancer since Desert Storm, attributed to the depleted uranium casings left after the fighting 11 years before. She learned that Iraqi physicians had inadequate medication to deal with this endemic situation. She also learned that the U.S. sanctions apply to a ban on the introduction to Iraq of all new scientific literature, including medical books and journals.

Inflamed with a passion to help her Iraqi peers, she joined a tiny group traveling there, and wound up in Iraq in December, 2002, without the State Department license.

“I learned that the medical culture in Iraq is like here in the ’60s and ’70s. They’ve been isolated from the world for 20 years, first by the war with Iran, and lately by the sanctions. So, their evolution stopped…”

“I learned that the medical culture in Iraq is like here in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They’ve been isolated from the world for 20 years, first by the war with Iran, and lately by the sanctions. So, their evolution stopped. They’re enamored of specialists, like pediatric cardiothoracic surgeons, bone marrow transplant surgeons, retinal detachment repair experts. This is what the doctors want to be, and the equipment they were asking us for is to this end. Primary Care Physicians aren’t worth the time of day over there. It’s like the country’s medical culture is suffering an attitudinal delay.”

Judy tells me a story of an Iraqi psychiatric hospital, to which she was driven in a governmental Mercedes Benz. The drive was circuitous, taking much longer than it should have, and when she arrived the hospital was immaculate, but there were still telltale houseflies everywhere. In other words, her trip had been delayed so the dirty place could be cleaned, in order to impress her, but there was evidence of the prior state.

“Psychiatry has no prestige over there. The Ministry of Health was not interested in what I was offering. So, when I got to this sanatorium-style hospital, I was taken on a three hour tour, and then it was indicated that I should leave. But I worked it out so that I could spend 45 minutes with the docs. All that, for 45 minutes.

“The worst thing about that psychiatric hospital was, the only medicines are Haldol and Thorazene, and one month the patients are on Haldol, then the next month, they’re switched to Thorazene. I couldn’t survive that if I were them.”

Hall says that Iraq was one of the most medically advanced countries in the world 20 years ago, on par with Germany.

Judy didn’t get to do as much teaching as she wanted. She therefore wants to be invited to return to Iraq, which she says was one of the most medically advanced countries in the world 20 years ago, on a par with Germany. She wants to teach up-to-date psychiatry and family practice medicine. “With the sanctions gone, you do catch up. You can get supplies, medicine and gadgets over there. Bring the docs up to date. Work on the attitudinal delay.”

The hour is getting late and Judy’s dogs are growing restive behind the screen door, so in conclusion I ask her why she has such a concern for Iraq. Why did she go?

“I don’t know,” she says with a laugh and a shrug. “It’s in a context. I’ve been concerned about governmental violence since the Vietnam War, and I’ve tried to support the government as little as possible, tax-wise. I didn’t own a car and didn’t pay telephone tax during the Vietnam era, because the gas and phone taxes paid for that war. I’ve been trying to avoid paying income tax since Iran-Contra. But they’re still getting my money, of course, so I had to go, to compensate for my contribution to violence.”

“I’ve been trying to avoid paying income tax since Iran-Contra. But they’re still getting my money, of course, so I had to go, to compensate for my contribution to violence.”

She says this as nonchalantly as one might describe why they picked up a particular sandwich. And what is violence? She raises the question herself. Then she answers it, “Violence is any activity or institution which decreases understanding, communication and empathy between people. And non-violence is the opposite of that.”

When I bring up scheduling Vital Source’s photographer for a picture for this article, she says, “I don’t want a picture in the paper.”

I stand to leave. I lamely venture a parting statement: “You’re inspiring.”

“Don’t say that,” she says firmly.

Why not?

“If I answered that, you’d want out of the conversation. And so would I. So don’t say that.”

All right, Judy. What I really meant is, you’re challenging.

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