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"I Was a Doctor for the Taliban"

Aaronsingh72x721_5Aaron Singh -- Thanks to all who commented on my last post. Whilst some of you misunderstood what I wanted to convey (I was not, repeat, WAS NOT insulting surgeons, I was commenting on a minority who do the profession no good by flaunting their egos beyond reason), I found the comments enlightening, especially since I harbour dreams of joining the ranks of surgeons myself someday. My curiosity piqued, I was driven by the reaction generated by my post (and by the crowds of angry surgeons baying outside my door) to delve deeper into the world of surgery. This opportunity presented itself when Mr Philip Henman, an orthopaedic surgeon, came to Cambridge to deliver a talk called "Conflict Surgery: The Great Game from the Sidelines." (By the way, in the UK surgeons are referred to as "Mr.")

Mr Henman has a special interest in providing surgical care in war-torn areas and has served with both the International Red Cross and the British Territorial Army. His most recent assignment, and the one that formed the bulk of his talk, was in Afghanistan, where he served before the war broke out. At that time, the Taliban were seen as bringing modernisation to the country, and indeed he found that whilst theoretically his camp was there to treat and augment the British forces in the area, many of his patients came from the local population.

In fact, he was essentially a doctor for the Taliban.

After a long, harrowing bus journey to the Cambridge hospital (which is some distance away from the University) involving a delay of more than an hour, a huge angry Scottish bus driver, and a storm intent on blowing my umbrella away, I stumbled into the lecture theatre just as Mr Henman was being introduced. He started off with gory pictures of injuries sustained from landmines, a step-by-step run-through of the types of injuries caused by projectile weapons and different calibres of bullets, and some weapon-related operations he performed. (It was at this point that I realised it was probably not a good idea to be stuffing your face full of the refreshments provided when a picture of a blown-off leg flashed onscreen.)

Then came the part everyone was waiting for: tales from the frontier. Mr Henman gave us a firsthand picture of what life really was like out there in war zones: the lack of proper resources and First World operating theatres, the eventual desensitisation to gunfire in the distance, the need to keep yourself going with simple pleasures like taking a walk in the hills. The patients weren’t the only ones at risk of dying out in the field hospitals.

Working with the locals also gave him an insight into their ways and lives. Mr Henman put up a picture of a smiling Afghan man with a flower in his mouth; this playful-looking dude with a huge beard was, in fact, the local Taliban commanding officer. He explained that whilst today’s world might view this man as a dangerous terrorist, back then he just wanted to open a hotel. "All the Taliban wanted to do was to start from scratch, restore order to Afghanistan, settle down and then, you know, open some hotels," he told us, grinning widely.

And then, as all surgeons do when speaking about surgeons, he got onto the surgeon’s ego bit. Just like any other surgical specialty (or indeed any other part of medicine, for that matter), conflict surgery can be dangerously addictive. Many surgeons volunteer for missions abroad to add a little spice to their careers, and maybe to tack a little glory onto their CVs. But then you get the adrenaline junkies, the ones who relish being in control and having so much power, the ones who go out repeatedly on missions to the most dangerous locales, risking life and limb. Often these were surgeons who had no families to speak of, and many were also disillusioned with medicine in their home countries (here in the UK the culprit is often the National Health System).

Mr Henman also added, however, (and here I completely agree with him) that these surgeons, whilst demonstrating personality quirks like a massive ego and obsession with their work, were also tremendous assets to international aid organisations, simply for their willingness to be sent out into the field repeatedly.

His talk was enlightening in more than just a medical way. Many of the questions he fielded after the talk were about Afghanistan, and how rather than being a nation of bloodthirsty terrorists as painted by the media, it contained ordinary people living ordinary lives, just like anywhere else. But the medical aid worker’s perspective is unique. Often medicine is not so clear-cut out in the field as it is in a hospital.

February 15, 2007 | Permalink


This is definitely a man's persepctive. Did the good doctor treat and women while he was a "Doctor for the Taliban'? I highly doubt it. A man may seem very nice if he holds a flower in his mouth and smiles, and seem very different when he beats a woman down in the street for having the audacity to go out with a man with her or not covered from head to foot. Yeah. Great man who wants to open a hotel. I think not.

Posted by: DocRox | Feb 18, 2007 4:45:48 PM

Although I do not condone terrorist tactics I do have to speak up about Doc Rox comments. I have many friends from around the world. I find it humbling to hear what they thought about America the first time they came here. They had seen all the news reports from here...think about it. If you only believe what is posted on the 6:00 news and prime time TV, you would think that every American is a gang member, murderer, or rapist. Children are disrepectful of parents (think Simpsons), men all beat their wives and every family is totally disfunctional. Thankfully they were able to see past the media stories and got to know the average American.

I also have a friend who served as an ER doc on the front lines in Iraq during the first year of the war. His stories are humbling, heartwrenching and often totally different from what we hear on the news. I could not have done what he did. I am very grateful for his service and for all the other medical providers over there who treated men and women reguardless of their nationality.

Posted by: Midlife Midwife | Feb 20, 2007 10:14:57 PM

very well done!
aron...actually the problem with this world is stereo typing...once any one shown on the media the way they want is actually that peson is in the minds of the people arround the world...its high time that instead just making judgments of our own we should find what ground reality is...no one in this world want to live in the hostility and war evey one wants peace but some time war is imposed....as doctors truly as my friend said above doctors should rise above nationality to the ethics of humanity....

Posted by: sam | Feb 21, 2007 11:47:20 AM

DocRox, you dont know the man with the flower in his mouth, so why judge him? You are espousing hatred against people who you have never met, seen, or known.

Posted by: Asim | Feb 21, 2007 4:41:05 PM

After reading asim's post, all I can say is,"No matter what we think, unless we are there we will never truly know what happened."

Posted by: Saraiderin | Feb 21, 2007 4:52:05 PM

I totally agree with DocRox - There is so much media mis-reprentation going on in the world that you will never know how exagerated the our news reports really are. The people in the east are also getting their views of America and the UK from what they see on their news.

Doctors are trained to save lives no matter what colour or nationality the patient may be and I think all surgeons leaving their safe, comfy homes behind and going to war torn countries to treat patients should be highly praised.

Posted by: Anisa | Feb 23, 2007 3:54:55 AM

Physicians are trained to treat sick people with respect no matter what color or nationality the patient may be, and I think all surgeons who leave their safe, comfy homes behind and go to war torn countries to treat patients should be highly praised, except those who help Taliban!

Posted by: Farshad | Feb 23, 2007 1:31:18 PM

it is really true that we tend to judge places before we go there. Just like people tend to think that there is nothing good in Sub-saharan Africa and that all what is there are the poor people. we may be poor but come down and see how proper and peaceful life is like her in Sub-saharan Africa

Posted by: cc | Feb 24, 2007 1:43:01 AM

Yes, this is an excellent example, why medics live a difficult life, having to save the world while deciding on moral and ethical issues. Personally, although we are suppose to treat everyone who needs us (yes, some doctors DO live by this creed), we should nevertheless take into account our safety as well. I really respect those who throw their safety out of the window and help everyone, even their enemies. Reminds me about how everyone says that doctors are noble.

I really want to meet that surgeon now. Too bad I missed the talk.

Posted by: CambMedic EL | Feb 26, 2007 5:43:49 PM

It is good that doctors know to treat people regardless of who they are. But when going into countries like Afghanistan while the Taliban were in power, does compassion for all the patients he has access to have to preclude sympathetic awareness of others the political situation prevents him from seeing? The horrors the Taliban visited on families and especially women and children were not just "media hype". To come away extolling the Taliban and trivializing the plight of the rest of the population makes you appear dangerously and deliberately naive.

Posted by: peggy | Jun 18, 2008 4:01:45 PM

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