Quillen ETSU Physician Reflects on 10 years of Outreach in Iraq
Photo--Dr. Martin Olsen, left, with colleagues Randall Williams and Charles Cox, in front of Saddam Hussein’s monument to “victory” over Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. The photo was taken in Baghdad in 2008.
It has been 10 years since Dr. Martin Olsen, a professor and director of the OB/GYN residency program at East Tennessee State University’s Quillen College of Medicine, first traveled to Iraq to teach physicians there the necessary skills to reduce the number of mothers dying during childbirth.
“We taught them some operative skills they didn’t have so they could work on lowering the maternal mortality,” Olsen said. “The trust was not there, though, when we first arrived. They were thrilled to see us – they were literally jumping up and down because of the opportunity to learn – but they had a lot of broken promises in the past.”
Over the next decade, Olsen and his three colleagues earned that trust by returning at least once a year to continue teaching physicians there everything from how to use laparoscopic instruments and how to deliver a breach baby to leadership techniques and debate practices.
In the time of Saddam (Hussein), if you were a leader, that was a good way to get yourself killed. So now, they don’t know how to be leaders,” Olsen explained. “It’s a very hierarchal environment so they’ve also learned that you don’t ever question the leader. We try to teach them that you should ask questions of the leader.
“In fact, it is not unusual for the four of us to challenge each other on fairly minor details just so they can see it is OK to do that.”While better preparing the physicians, predominantly women, for obstetric emergencies, Olsen said he couldn’t help but see their resilience.
“It is just inspiring,” Olsen said. “They are afraid for themselves, afraid for their families, yet they keep doing their job because their patients need them.”
Olsen, who returned from his most recent trip there in April, also noticed what he called “a tragic resilience” among the Iraqi people as a whole.
“Bombs are going off and they are inside buildings, talking,” he explained. “It’s tragic that they have become so accustomed to this type of thing, but inspiring to see them carry on.”
Olsen, himself, experienced several bombings by insurgents during some of his visits to Iraq.
“On one trip to Baghdad, we happened to arrive when there was a bomb going off every day,” he said. “We could look out the windows and see the burning 200 yards away. People were right there dying, and I couldn’t go help them. That was traumatic.”
Despite the heart-wrenching and sometimes scary moments of uncertainty, Olsen said each and every trip to Iraq has been worthwhile.
“As doctors, we try to help the patients in front of us, but if we can help other doctors help the patients in front of them, then we are making that much more of an impact,” he said. “If you think about it, the mothers are the glue of a family in that society. So we aren’t just helping to save the mother, we’re helping to save the family by doing this.”
Staff Enhancements to the ETSU/QCOM Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology
Dr. Hanns Haesslein, MPH has recently joined the department as Chair of OB/GYN, Interim.
Dr. Mark X. Ransom, HCLD has recently joined the Quillen Fertility & Women's Services. Dr. Ransom brings expertise in solving highly complex fertility issues.
In collaboration with Dr. Martin Eason, the resident education program has experienced rapid development in the area of simulation. Approximately 50 scenarios have been created which allow residents to test their knowledge and skills in all areas addressed by the six competencies. Highlights include:
More Advancements in Surgical Simulation
Outstanding Faculty Accomplishments