Dr. Alex Garza, an Army Reserve captain and emergency room doctor
from Missouri, saw firsthand how hopelessly outdated Iraq's
medical libraries were.
Back in the United States, Dr. David Gifford, a retired Army
colonel, learned of the problem from a physician friend stationed
Unbeknownst to each other, the two men thought of a plan: to
modernize Iraq's health care system by getting up-to-date medical
textbooks and journals into the hands of Iraqi professors and
Garza and Gifford eventually joined forces, and soon medical
schools, publishing houses and people around the globe donated
boxloads of medical literature to the war-scarred country. More
than 100,000 items have been collected so far.
"This is really a big change," said Dr. Thamer Al Hilfi, a
tuberculosis specialist and professor at the University of Tikrit
College of Medicine. "Everyone here - doctors and students - feel
like they are born again."
Before the two Americans stepped in, most of Iraq's medical books
were at least two decades old and several editions out of date.
The more recent ones were photocopies of medical textbooks housed
at the Ministry of Health in Baghdad. Topics such as AIDS and the
latest surgical techniques were wholly absent from the editions
Iraqis medical students were using, Garza said.
Garza realized this shortly after the fall of Baghdad in March
2003, when he was dispatched to Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam
Hussein. Head of the public health team for the 418th Civil
Affairs Battalion, Garza was in charge of rebuilding medical
schools, hospitals and clinics in the region.
A tour of the University of Tikrit College of Medicine campus
revealed the library was woefully behind the times. The dean
explained that it was too costly to buy new reading material.
"It was shocking to me as a medical professional how anyone can
practice modern medicine with such limited resources," Garza
Garza's idea of a book drive did not become reality until he
learned that Gifford, at the Darnell Army Community Hospital at
Fort Hood, Texas, had been thinking about the same thing. They
started collaborating on the project.
Gifford made cold calls to dozens of publishing companies, at
first to no avail. Then he got in touch with Susan Yox, a nurse
from Orchard Park, N.Y., who previously rallied worldwide support
to deliver medical supplies to Afghanistan. Yox, who also
publishes a journal for nurses, ran an article by Garza about the
Iraq effort, and the project took off.
Publishers that had planned to destroy their old editions donated
them instead. Medical schools started campus book drives,
collecting books that students would have otherwise resold.
Individuals from around the world sent material.
WebMd Corp. donated 3,000 copies of its 2003 surgery and internal
medicine textbooks, valued at about $500,000. Among the largest
medical school donors were the University of Tennessee and the
Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, which sent more
than 2,000 textbooks and journals each.
To minimize shipping costs, Gifford arranged for some packages to
be delivered to stateside military posts, where they were
transferred to military cargo planes headed for Baghdad.
Donations ranged from basic science textbooks to specialized
medical texts in surgery and pediatrics. Medical journals and
reference materials such as medical dictionaries and manuals were
Language was not a barrier in Iraq since lessons in medical
schools are taught in English, a legacy of the country's
occupation by the British during World War I.
The first wave of books went to the University of Tikrit College
of Medicine earlier this year. Garza earmarked other donations
for the Ad Dialya College of Medicine, Tikrit Teaching Hospital,
Samarra General Hospital and dozens of clinics.
The project has expanded to include nursing, dental and
"It just boggles the mind. It's a wonderful thing to observe,"