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Surgeon Finds Calling in Afghanistan

By Sgt. Frank Magni, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan, Aug. 5, 2004 – When Army Col. (Dr.) Richard Gonzales arrived in Afghanistan, his mission was to serve 90 days before he could return to his family and private practice in Puerto Rico. Now, six months later, his private practice is sold and he has signed on for an entire year.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Army Col. (Dr.) Richard Gonzales, an orthopedic surgeon, operates on an Afghan boy at the Pfc. Jerrod Dennis Combat Hospital on Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. The boy suffered injuries to his elbow and wrist falling into a well. Photo by Sgt. Frank Magni, USA

(Click photo for screen-resolution image)

One of three surgeons at the Pfc. Jerrod Dennis Combat Hospital on Kandahar Airfield, Gonzales said he immediately found his calling when he came to Afghanistan.

"After I was here for just a month, it was obvious that this country needed a lot of training in all medical areas," said Gonzales, an orthopedic surgeon. "With the projects I wanted to begin here, there was not much I could accomplish in 90 days."

It was at this point that Gonzales volunteered to remain an entire year and follow through with a plan to bring modern orthopedic medicine to Afghanistan. He began with a young medical student he met within his first month here.

A recent graduate of Kandahar University of Medicine, Abdul Wali had expressed an interest in orthopedic medicine. Now, five months later, he is a contracted medical assistant at the combat hospital. He also is working as a resident, well on his way to learning methods and techniques common in the United States but rare in Afghanistan.

"When I first arrived here, they had no modern ways to treat fractures," said Gonzales. "They were not using any surgical techniques. Everything was being treated with traction."

Taking Wali under his wing, Gonzales began teaching him modern orthopedic procedures. He even had his entire medical library sent from home to assist in Wali's education. "He has required reading and completes assignments," said Gonzales. "Even though this is somewhat of a crash course, because his education is being done with one-on-one mentoring, it can be done faster."

Although the training is fast-paced, Gonzales feels it will be fruitful. "I'm being very thorough with his training. I know in a few years he will be teaching other Afghans," he said.

"There is only one other orthopedic surgeon I know of in Afghanistan," said Wali. "This is a very good opportunity for me and my country."

In addition to mentoring Wali, Gonzales works with other physicians from Mier Weis, the local hospital in Kandahar. Because they are attending physicians with years of experience, Gonzales said he is only trying to demonstrate modern procedures so they can eventually be used here.

With a small class of interpreters and service members, Gonzales also teaches a science class for college credit.

As Gonzales works tirelessly to educate, his efforts have not gone unnoticed. Cure International, a non-governmental organization, is assisting his efforts. "Right now Cure International has pledged a 20-bed orthopedic facility in Kandahar city," he said. "Cure International normally attends to the needs of children but is expanding its role in Afghanistan because of my commitment here."

With six months still remaining on his current tour, Gonzales said he would not stop his efforts to bring modern orthopedic medicine and education to Afghanistan. He is so committed that he has already applied to return to active duty, with the eventual goal of returning to Afghanistan for another rotation. Gonzales said he didn't expect to become so passionate when he initially came to the country, but there are many factors that encourage him.

Being from Puerto Rico he knows the positive effects that come from U.S. aid, and setting up educational programs is one of the best ways for Afghans to stand on their own two feet, he said. "In my contact with the people of this country (I've found) that they are very eager to learn," he said. "I see that many of the younger generation here appreciate the importance of education."

Wali affirms Gonzales's efforts with his plan for his education. "When I finish my training here, I want to remain in Afghanistan and serve my own people in my own country," said Wali.

Gonzales said he already is very encouraged by the progress made in a short time. "There is a lot of fertile soil for education and growth here," he said. "If you practice medicine for the sake of what it truly is, what I'm doing right now is the most pure form of medicine."

Even with his full schedule, Gonzales still is canvassing the country for other doctors like Wali to come and train with him.

"Even after I retire, I will return here with an NGO," he said. "That is how strongly I feel about improving medicine for the Afghan people."

(Army Sgt. Frank Magni is assigned to the 17th Public Affairs Detachment.)

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