Everyday hero

Doctor recalls excruciating outcome while treating patient during a Taliban siege

Dr. Marzia Salam Yaftali, the chief doctor for Kunduz Regional Hospital, visits with patients at the hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, December 2016. A battle in the fall trapped Yaftali at home. But the most dire test of her career appeared just a few doors away. (Najim Rahim/The New York Times)

When the Taliban stormed the Afghan city of Kunduz in autumn last year, Dr. Marzia Salam Yaftali, the hospital’s chief physician, was told not to come into work, despite the mounting pressures being placed upon the hospital, which was the city’s primary care facility for the city’s quarter-of-a-million population. In 2015, a U.S. airplane destroyed the city’s best hospital in an attack intended for a Taliban-controlled site located 400 meters away.

Speaking to The New York Times, Yaftali said she had called the director at the start of the siege and said she “would come to the hospital, even if it rained fire.” But, as many of the hospital’s staff had already fled, he warned that it was too dangerous — if she made it into the hospital she would be the sole woman and thus a potential target for both the extremist Taliban and the militias fighting on the side of the government.

Yet it was while she was trapped at home, the streets outside her home a battlefield, that Yaftali ended up risking her life nonetheless as she tended to a neighbor nearby who had gone into labor with twins. Unable to get the woman, Fatima, safely to the hospital, the woman’s family had called upon Yaftali to help her at home. Despite the house being only about 200 meters away, the government forces were locked in a violent battle with the Taliban and both sides were ruthlessly firing at anyone who got caught in between them. But, leaving her two children at home, Yaftali made the perilous journey and arrived just as the young woman was about to give birth on the floor. The second child, however, got stuck and although Yaftali knew a Caesarean section was needed, without any medical equipment there was little she could do.

The baby died in a scene that still haunts her. In an interview with The New York Times, Yaftali said, “It was very painful for me. The scene was not tolerable, as I saw a child dying in the womb of the mother, and I was not able to help him, to help him even a bit,” She continued, “That was the darkest night, and I will never forget.” Yet it is with immense gratitude that Fatima remembers Yaftali. “In a time that no one could be relied on, the doctor came, and she went through so much trouble with me,” she told the Times. “How can I not be thankful to her? Everyone was trying to get rout of Kunduz, and Dr. Marzia came to help me.”

Yaftali was able to return to the hospital shortly following the siege. But as a female health worker, her job carries significant challenges. “For some people, it is very difficult to take orders from a woman,” she told the Times, saying that many find it difficult to accept a woman as a boss.

Afghanistan remains a deeply traditional country that continues to struggle with the notion of women in the workplace. Fifteen years after the fall of the Taliban, the group nonetheless remains a strong and threatening presence and, despite its claims that it has reconsidered its stance on women in education and in the workforce, its activities suggest otherwise. When the group stormed Kunduz in 2015 it targeted professional and educated women, driving them violently from the city along with any organization or individual working to protect women.

Will young girls growing up in the city today similarly be able to become doctors like Yaftali? She hopes so. But, she says, a lot depends on whether the security situation there improves. Watch more about the challenges she faces each day in the video below.

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Read the full article at The New York Times.

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