Imagine cutting out a diseased appendix without ever having seen a Gray’s Anatomy diagram, or calculating drug doses without a Physicians’ Desk Reference, and you’ll have an idea what it’s like to practice medicine in Afghanistan.
Nearly three decades of war and religious extremism have devastated medical libraries and crippled the educational system for doctors, nurses and other health professionals. Factions of the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, singled out medical texts for destruction, military medical personnel say, because anatomical depictions of the human body were considered blasphemous.
“They not only burned the books, but they sent monitors into the classroom to make sure there were no drawings of the human body on the blackboard,” said Valerie Walker, director of the Medical Alumni Association of the University of California, Los Angeles.
Walker is helping lead an ambitious effort by American doctors and nurses, both civilian and military, to restock Afghanistan’s hospitals, clinics and universities with medical textbooks and other reference materials.
The project, called Operation Medical Libraries, began modestly in 2007 with a plea for books from a UCLA medical graduate serving in the Army. It has since been embraced by 30 universities and hospitals, more than a dozen professional organizations and scores of individual doctors and nurses.
“It’s hard to imagine working in an environment where you don’t have access to medical literature or the Internet,” said one donor, Dr. Lawrence Maldonado, director of the medical intensive care unit at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Like most others involved in the program, Maldonado heard about it from a colleague. And word has spread among medical officers stationed in Afghanistan, who act as volunteer points of contact to shepherd books to the libraries.
Donors can contribute directly by visiting the project’s website.