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From One Ordeal to Another in Baghdad

Victims of this week's embassy car bombing in the Iraqi capital face a new nightmare with the rudimentary care at the city's hospitals.

August 09, 2003|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Pockets bulging with U.S. dollars and Iraqi dinars that took him four years to earn, Mohammed Jumaa was in high spirits as he rode past the Jordanian Embassy on Thursday morning. He was with a friend who was going to use the money to buy a car in Jordan for Jumaa and his brother, so the two could work as drivers.

Moments later, his life was irrevocably changed when a powerful explosion ripped through the embassy.

He lay Friday in the poorly equipped Yarmouk Hospital, where a single orderly wandered the men's surgical ward, tending to patients only when their relatives screamed at him. No doctor had been to see Jumaa since he was operated on nearly 18 hours earlier.

Both of his crushed arms were oozing blood onto a soiled sheet. He couldn't feel his left arm below the elbow.

"My situation is urgent," said Jumaa, 23, his low voice steady although he complained of pain throughout his body and beads of sweat stood on his forehead. "The doctors have to act quickly or I will lose my hand. I am still a young man. I am a driver."

Thursday's car bombing killed at least 17 people and injured three times that number. Flung into Baghdad's wholly inadequate hospital system, many of the wounded faced a new nightmare. The institutions, insufficiently staffed and equipped before the war, now have wards that are bare except for beds and an occasional IV. Morphine is available only for the more dire cases, leaving patients crying in pain. Blood and grime are cleaned from the floors sporadically.

For Jumaa, the rudimentary treatment will probably mean that he will lose the use of one -- if not both -- of his arms.

That he is alive at all is a combination of luck and determination. At the time of the explosion, his Jordanian friend was driving him and two Iraqi acquaintances.

"At the moment of the blast, I could not see anything," Jumaa said. "I thought I was dead."

Seconds later, he saw a terrible scene. His three friends were burning like torches. "I smashed the window and jumped out of the car. There was fire all around me," he said. "As I ran away from the car, it exploded."

Jumaa fell on the median of the road, and he lay there for some minutes. He thinks people mistook him for dead. Indeed, initial reports from the scene described a car in which all four passengers had been killed.

But a young boy saw him, and soon a car picked him up. Someone gave him a bottle of cold water, "and I didn't realize until I took a swallow that my mouth was full of glass," Jumaa said.

Like all of the wounded, he was taken first to the pediatric hospital, the nearest medical center. But, lacking facilities for adults, the hospital began to refer cases elsewhere, a time-consuming process that meant some of the wounded went without critically needed care for hours.

When Jumaa arrived at Yarmouk, there was no room on the orthopedic ward, although his most serious injuries were compound fractures in both forearms, so severe that major veins and arteries, as well as nerves, had been cut. His hands were burned, as was his left ear.

Doctors worked on his arms, cleaning out the dead tissue and removing useless muscle. They said he would need three or four more similar surgeries.

"It's a severe crush injury. Both arms were terribly damaged," said Arkan Badr Hassan, 30, one of the orthopedic residents who worked on Jumaa. "He will have only partial sensation. We did our best."

As the day wore on, Jumaa became increasingly nervous that the doctors would be unable to treat his hand and it would be amputated.

"Please help me to get out of here. I want to go to Jordan, even if I have to pay for the hospital myself," he said, near tears.

His younger brother Ali stood fanning him with a woven straw fan sold on the street for 35 cents. From time to time, he tenderly washed his brother's face or tilted a metal cup of water into his mouth.

"I heard an Islamic organization is responsible for this accident," Mohammed Jumaa said. "All these organizations want to hurt the reputation of Iraqi people. Maybe they wanted to create a problem for Jordan and Iraq, but they have damaged innocent people."

*

In a nearby bed, a professor of mechanical engineering tossed and turned. Although covered with shrapnel injuries and suffering from serious hearing loss, he was fixated on what had happened to his family's passports, which he had been dropping off at the embassy for visa stamps.

Mahmoud Rasheed Ismail, 44, needed the documents so he could take his family with him to Libya, where he has a contract to teach engineering at a provincial university.

While his brother, who sat watching over him, worried that the hospital had done nothing to help his brother recover his hearing, Ismail worried about his travel documents.

"The hearing is not so good," he said after asking a visitor to speak directly into his ear.

The only moment his passports left his thoughts, he said, was in the seconds just after the explosion.

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