Beyond the call of duty
Published in the Sunday Times (26/01/2020)
Going Back *****
Munjed Al Muderis
Allen and Unwin, R350
In 1999, a 27-year-old first-year resident doctor named Munjed Al Muderis working in Baghdad's Saddam Hussein Medical Centre fled Iraq in fear for his life. His crime? Refusing to cut off the ears of deserters from Saddam Hussein's army. Eighteen years later, associate professor Al Muderis returned to Baghdad as an Australian citizen and an internationally renowned orthopaedic surgeon restoring mobility to amputees.
He first agreed in May 2017 to the Iraqi government's request to operate on military and police amputees wounded in the war against Isis (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria).
The Iraqis weren't the first to come knocking. Amputees from all over the world flock to Muderis's Sydney practice; even Prince Harry had visited his clinic to learn about his surgery on British military amputees. But, as he describes in Going Back, a follow-up to his 2015 biography, Walking Free, that didn't prevent him feeling nervous about returning to Baghdad.
"There were moments," he says, "when I was fearful for my life." But that's because, he cheerily admits at the close of a long day in the operating theatre at one of Sydney's major hospitals, when confronted with injustice of any kind "I can't keep my mouth shut." Indeed, spend any time with Muderis, one of the world's leading practitioners of osseointegration surgery - a revolutionary procedure fusing titanium rods with the patient's existing bone, thus enabling robotic limbs to be attached - and you'll realise his inability to hold back gives new meaning to the epithet "frank and fearless".
But it is also what makes Going Back such a page turner - along with serving as a rare window onto both the old and new Iraq. Like the moment he reveals when, during his fourth visit to Iraq, he confronted Iraq's powerful ex-prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki, in the crowded corridors of Ibn Sina Hospital to ask why the new robotic limbs that were promised for the 48 patients from the military had vanished - along with the $3.5m (about R51m) allocated for them. "Maliki replied: 'This is not my problem'," recalls Muderis, "and I lost it. I said, 'How can you say this? You were prime minister when these people
lost their limbs fighting for you and now you're trying to wash your hands of it?'"
In Going Back he describes the swift official fallout but now insists, "Life is too short to remain quiet about these things."
He refuses to charge his Iraqi patients for operating and is returning with his Australian team to continue his work there.
"If I refuse to go, no-one will help these people. I'm not treating these bastards, the politicians, I'm treating the common people. Among non-educated people in the Middle East or Asia, they look at a disabled person as someone who has been cursed by God, so these people hide in their homes or often end up on the streets. So that's why I keep going."
The World Health Organisation estimates there are 185,000 amputees in Iraq, says Muderis, who also risked official Iraqi wrath by insisting on operating on civilians, including the congenitally deformed or those suffering major trauma.
He includes the stories of many individuals in Going Back, including that of Ghadban, a 22-year-old civilian who lost both his legs when a mortar shell exploded in front of him in 2017. And 29-year-old paramilitary volunteer Haithem, whose right leg was blown off when he stood on an IED (improvised explosive device) while on patrol. Haithem, the first person in Iraq to walk on a robotic limb, declared on his release from hospital: "I feel as though a new life is opening up for me."
To date Muderis and his team have performed more than 400 life-changing operations pro bono in Iraq. His long-term aim is to train young Iraqi doctors and to build the infrastructure for the future generation.
Transforming lives in this way is a hard- won dream for Muderis, who first conceived of attaching artificial limbs to Iraq's disabled people as a teenager after he saw the 1985 movie, Terminator. In this, he admits, he is utterly driven.
"I believe that our time on earth is very short and we need to leave something behind. And it's not just Iraq, I will go anywhere." @BronSibree