EVEN living in one of the most dangerous cities on earth could not prepare Dr Ammar Al-Abdali for one afternoon in late 2003.
The fifth year medical student was sitting in the lecture theatre at Baghdad’s Al-Mustansiriya University when the door burst open.
A panicked Emergency Doctor from the adjoining teaching hospital rushed in.
“There’s been a big explosion and we need as many people as we can to help,” he told the students.
“I don’t want to pressure anyone, but we could really use a hand.”
The horror that confronted them was worse than anything he’d seen on the bomb-blasted streets of Iraq.
Two hundred people were littered around the emergency department: kids, parents, grandmothers, grandfathers – a tangle of lives blown apart by a roadside bomb.
Something instinctive kicked in. Instead of panicking, the 23- year-old rolled up his sleeves and began sewing wounds with a needle, patching up patients and triaging the dying.
“It was like a scene from a movie,” he recalls.
“People were screaming and crying, lying on the ground and on beds everywhere you looked.
“Everyone was running around and no one knew what was going on. I’d never seen anything like it, people with third degree burns and missing arms and legs.
“My first patient I had to suture up a big wound above his eye. It was not an easy experience as a fifth year medical student.”
The scene is a world away from his job as an in-hospital medical officer at Western Health, but the memories are ever-present.
Dr Al-Abdali and his family fled Iraq in 2007 after surviving three wars, including the Gulf War, and witnessing too many friends and family members lose lives, limbs and loved ones.
He says his work was becoming too dangerous in Iraq, particularly his research into why people use violence to express their ideas.
They moved to Malaysia first before relocating to Australia in 2012 where job prospects were brighter.
But it wasn’t an easy path to securing a job overseas as a doctor. He had to start from scratch in both Malaysia and Australia despite having worked as a doctor for three years in Iraq, and says the tremendous support from his family during the at times challenging journey was crucial.
“A lot of people weren’t interested as I didn’t have local experience,” he says.
“For two years in Australia, I did volunteer jobs, research jobs, anything to pay the bills.
“Eventually, I got lucky.”
Western Health had been running teaching sessions after hours for foreign doctors trying to get work in Australia, giving advice and education about the exam process.
A doctor and a nurse involved in the training were particularly helpful and eventually helped him get a job at Footscray Hospital, where Dr Al-Abdali worked for several years – he has now moved into a GP training pathway.
The father-of-two was one of about a dozen Iraqi doctors at Western Health sharing unique skills and experience with patients and staff.
For Dr Al-Abdali, being exposed to the coalface of terrorism in Iraq has made him not just a better doctor, but a better person.
“You see two things happen – it can be positive, gives people a different perspective and they want to help others and try and implement change,” he says.
“Or people isolate themselves, and don’t want to talk about it. We’d see bombings every day. You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. You don’t know if you are going to see tomorrow. It made me realise just how lucky I am in life. I feel like I can relate more to people and care for them.”
He says in a hospital setting, it helped him remain calm during big events – like the deluge of patients last year experiencing thunderstorm asthma.
His career as a doctor seemed predestined, with a string of family members working in the medical profession and his late father proving a particular muse.
“Dad was an Ear, Nose and Throat surgeon, and when I was a kid, he used to treat people once a week for free,” he recalls.
“Seeing the look on patient’s faces, and how appreciative they were, was a big inspiration for me.”
The Greatest Need Project is an online story-sharing website with two major goals – to help patients facing significant hardship and disadvantage, and to facilitate research, at Western Health.
As a former Western Health staff member, Dr Al-Abdali is sharing his story in bid to help those at Western Health who need it most.
By making a donation on Dr Al-Abdali’s behalf – and sharing his story on social media – you are making a difference too. Thank you.