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American Academy of Ophthalmology President leads alliance work to rebuild health care in Iraq

SAN FRANCISCOOn the eve of the first international medical education conference in Baghdad in 2004, the organizers faced a problem all too common at the time: a bomb threat on the building where the meeting was scheduled. Fortunately, the conference organizers, United States physicians working with their Iraqi counterparts, were ready with a backup location. For more than 700 Iraqi doctors hungry for up-to-date medical information, the conference was an important step in rebuilding the country's devastated medical infrastructure. This December, for the first time in decades, international medical researchers will meet in Baghdad. They will find conditions considerably improved.

"Helping my colleagues in Iraq continues to be a unique opportunity and challenge" said Michael W. Brennan, MD, president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology and an organizer of the 2004 conference. "Working with them to restore the Iraqi medical system is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, professionally and personally."

Dr. Brennan leads a team of dedicated American physicians working with Iraqi physicians to provide improved care as the country recovers from the traumas of war. He was just honored by the Iraqi Ophthalmological Society with a humanitarian award, presented at the 2009 Academy - Pan-American Association of Ophthalmology Joint Meeting in San Francisco.

Dr. Brennan first traveled to Iraq in 2003 at the request of US Army Surgeon General, James Peake, MD, a fellow West Point graduate, and Command Surgeon for US forces in Iraq, Donald Gagliano, MD, and by invitation of the Iraqi Ministry of Health. Since then he has returned to Iraq yearly (except 2005, when it was unsafe to travel) for extended periods of time.

"I had reached a place in my life where I was ready for a new challenge," said Dr. Brennan. "My ophthalmology practice was going well, and our children were grown. I was honored to be asked to help with such an important cause." In 2003 he founded and continues to chair the Medical Alliance-Iraq (MAI), now an element of International Medical Corps (IMC), a non-governmental organization.

Dr. Brennan began by touring Iraq in a small car with a private driver. Within two months he visited most of the major medical schools and met at least a thousand Iraq doctors. He listened carefully as the doctors explained their needs. To meet those needs, he recruited US and United Kingdom colleagues, including Randall Williams, MD, obstetrician-gynecologist, and Robert Norris, MD, an emergency medicine specialist, and pediatrician Majeed Jawad, MD, England. Among the projects undertaken by team members are development of a national emergency medical system and mental health programs to help children with trauma-related problems.

"Thanks to Dr. Brennan's work and the support of Dr. Gagliano and US military medicine, we are seeing a transformation in Iraqi medical education and patient care," said Tara Reshid, MD, director of Ophthalmology at Al Kindi Teaching Hospital, Baghdad. "Before, many Iraqis could not get the surgery or medicines they needed, and so they suffered needlessly or died. But now, for example, our doctors can keep women from dying from hemorrhage after childbirth, because of training and resources provided by MAI volunteers."

Even as he continues working in Iraq, Dr. Brennan is taking on a new challenge. When he and his colleagues met with General David H. Petraeus, they were asked to bring MAI methods to another US war zone: Afghanistan. Dr. Brennan departs for Kabul this November.


Contact: Mary Wade
American Academy of Ophthalmology

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