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American Plastic Surgeon Sets Up Program to Help Afghans

An American doctor is setting up a program to train Afghan medical teams to perform complex plastic surgery, something Afghanistan needs. It has a high number of burn victims, war injuries and birth defects.

American plastic surgeon Kaveh Alizadeh looks at a birth defect on an Afghan baby just 12 hours old. Its spinal cord developed outside its body, probably because the mother didn't eat right during pregnancy. Correcting the defect is the kind of surgery Alizadeh hopes to teach his Afghan counterparts.

"The special circumstance in Afghanistan is that you have a country of 29 million and there's really 2 well-trained plastic surgeons that are both in the Kabul area," he said.

Alizadeh plans to return here in January with two other surgeons and a medical team to perform 30-40 complex plastic surgeries and in the process, teach Afghans how to do them.

Afghanistan not only needs plastic surgeons, but all kinds of medical staff. The country's health care system has made great strides since the fall of the Taliban a decade ago, but there is still a shortage of facilities and qualified medical workers.

"We want to bring in the expertise from the U.S., the local hospital that's here as well as the help with the Ministry of Public Health, to create a curriculum for educational program for plastic surgeons so that they can be trained and take care of some of these complex cases," said Dr. Alizadeh.

Medical student Breshna Rahimy welcomes the opportunity to work with the Americans. "So we need them to train us, because they are here for a short time and we are here for the whole life so we need to be expert and know everything very good. And the same medical helps that are outside the country, we want it inside the country. We have the ability, but we don't have the chances," she said.

The medical director of the hospital that will host a number of the surgeries echoes Rahimy's sentiments. Dr. Rick Manning says training Afghans is key to ensuring the future of the country. "They live here, they know the culture, they're the ones who are going to be here for generations to come. If we are not into training we don't want to be here," he said.

But he says one of the biggest problems facing Afghanistan's health care system is the system itself. "The biggest challenge is after we train people to keep them here, because they get frustrated. You know they're trained, they have all these skills and they work in a system that's corrupt, not allowing them to use their skills, so then we have to find ways for them to stay in country to continue to educate their next generation," he said.

Alizadeh says in his project, the learning will not be a one-way process. "We run some of the major centers back in New York and we never get an opportunity to see things of this magnitude, so I think it will be a great collaboration. We're going to learn as much as the local surgeons," he said.

He emphasizes the important element is not the operations, but the learning experience. "The surgeries will always be around. I think creating the infrastructure so that the locals can take care of those cases is really going to be our legacy," he said.

The Americans will continue to help mentor their Afghan colleagues even after returning to the United States through weekly Internet video conference calls.