MMH’s Cannington returns from Iraq
By Jessica Blomquist
In a country where 44 percent of its physicians have left since 2003 and whose infrastructure is seemingly torn apart by war, Morgan Memorial Hospital CEO H.D. Cannington worked as part of a team trying to secure a hopeful future for Iraq’s new healthcare system.
Through the thick, tinted windows of the vehicle Cannington rode in on the way to the green zone from the airport, he could easily see the effects of war on the country. Amidst the palm trees and towering domes of mosques, concrete barricades, trash, rubble, observation towers, and checkpoints all served as indications of the heavy military occupation of the country.
“You could see the result of bombings, of conflict,” Cannington said. Driving through the city, Cannington’s car was accompanied by decoy vehicles to provide safety for the visiting health professionals.
At one point midway to the green zone, Cannington and his luggage were transferred to another vehicle when their safety was thought to be compromised.
“I was never really worried about my safety,” Cannington said. “I felt that I was doing what I should be doing and my faith in God gave me a peace. I never really had any fear.”
Going into the green zone, the driver had to weave through concrete barricades in a system that is changed weekly to make it more difficult to enter the base for international presence in Baghdad. Before they were allowed into the international zone, the car, luggage, and passengers were all searched by the military and dogs trained to sniff out explosives and other illicit materials.
“It was like going through a maze,” Cannington said. The temperature was almost 120 °F, creating a dry, sweltering heat unlike the sticky, humid heat during the summer in Madison. “One thing that surprised me was one afternoon at four o‘clock I was sitting in a coffee shop and you could not hold your hand on a window and leave it there,” said Cannington.
“It was that hot. Windows in the car were the same way.” Cannington returned from his trip to Iraq on June 23. He left on June 15 as part of a group of eight health care professionals recruited and sponsored by the International Medical Corps, a global nonprofit organization, which deals with humanitarian and medical issues throughout the world by providing reconstruction relief and healthcare training.
Three members of the group - Cannington, Dr. Wayne Myers, and Paul Moore, PhD - were chosen to help instruct members of the Iraq Ministry of Health on how to create a new healthcare infrastructure. As former director of the federal office of Rural Health Policy, Myers is “a rural health pioneer,” said Cannington. Moore holds a doctorate in pharmaceuticals, owns a private drug store, and is also president of the National Rural Health Association. Myers recommended Cannington for the trip because he served on the National Advisory Committee for Rural Health, a group that advises the Secretary of Health and Human Services on rural healthcare. The three men went to provide instruction on several topics: financing, health insurance, pharmaceuticals, capital improvement, public health vs. private health, emergency medicine, work force issues, and collaborative care.
The rest of Cannington’s travel companions were specialists in emergency medicine, including four emergency room physicians, three from Yale and one from UCLA, and a mental health researcher from New Zealand devoted to the study of suicide.
The group flew from Atlanta to Paris to Amman, Jordan where they stayed for two nights due to a sandstorm, which prevented the pilot from being able to land their plane in Baghdad. In Baghdad, they stayed at the Al Rasheed hotel, located in the green zone.
During their stay in Iraq, the group attended a two-day work session in preparation for a conference on the new healthcare system in Iraq. “They have no infrastructure for healthcare,” said Cannington.
“They have no experience in developing a healthcare system or the thought processes involved in developing a healthcare system. I think a lot of this comes from having been under a dictatorship.”
At the workshop, attended by about 40 people, Cannington helped to come up with recommendations for the conference and met with other IMC advisors, Iraqi physicians, and directors of different departments under the Iraq Ministry of Health, including the Minister of Health. Though Cannington doesn’t speak Iraqi, he met the Director for Emergency Services of Iraq, who translated for him during much of the work session.
“I learned that in Iraq, they really want to have a good healthcare system and they have the money to afford it,” said Cannington. “But they really need a lot of outside help in developing it.”
About 450 people, including Parliament members, American troops, and other national groups trying to provide direction to Iraq, attended the conference. At the conference, PowerPoint presentations offered information on what was developed in the workshops. Background information was given, papers were presented and recommendations were offered to the Iraqi people.
“They’re a very smart people and a proud people,” said Cannington. “I think they have the wisdom to look outside their borders for help developing a medical system. But they want their system, not America’s. They want their own.” The entire conference was presented in Iraqi, but interpreters were provided for those who didn’t speak the language. “My overall experience was very educational,” Cannington said. “Never being in that part of the country, with a different culture, that was an eye-opener for me. It made me appreciate what we have here. But it also gave me insight into how our healthcare system has evolved.”
In addition to attending the conference, Cannington had the opportunity to tour the American Embassy in the green zone. The embassy is located in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces which features 18-ft. mahogany doors, marble, huge chandeliers, and gold inlaid in the walls. “It was ostentatious,” Cannington said. Another part of the trip that Cannington enjoyed in his downtime was a tour of Amman.
"The most enjoyable part besides meeting Iraqis and hearing about their plans for the future was when a driver in Amman gave us a personal tour of the city, including a Roman amphitheater built in 180 A.D.,” said Cannington.
Overall, the trip was a learning experience for all who were involved.
“I think it will make me a better administrator for the hospital and a better advocate for improving healthcare at this hospital and in this country,” Cannington said.