Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2009 | People

Daring Doctor: Thomas Cromwell

By Shelbi Thomas
Thomas Cromwell, 63BA, 67MD, gears up to train doctors in Iraq.

Thomas Cromwell lives in San Francisco, where gridlocked traffic is a fact of life. Yet, the Californian never experienced the "World's Toughest Commute" until this past October, when bomb-sniffing dogs, eight security checks, and a full body pat-down from Peruvian soldiers ushered him into Baghdad.

Cromwell, an anesthesiologist and member of the Medical Alliance for Iraq nonprofit organization, visited Iraq to train doctors whose medical education is nearly 35 years behind the times. Under Saddam Hussein's rule, Iraq's health care went from the best in the Middle East to the worst in the world. Hussein forbade Iraqi doctors from leaving the country for medical training and gave them no voice on how patients received care. After the Iraq War began in 2003, more than half of Iraqi physicians fled the country—many out of fear of being kidnapped by insurgents for ransom.

To reverse what he calls the "Rip Van Winkle effect," Cromwell and three of his colleagues from the California Pacific Medical Center held medical seminars in Baghdad and Erbil. More than 100 anesthesiologists attended the lectures to learn how to reorganize their health system and receive updates on medical advances. They've missed everything from non-invasive techniques for joint replacement and heart surgeries, to the rise of regional anesthesia.

Since his last visit to Iraq in February 2004, Cromwell has witnessed a vast improvement in the country's security and Iraqis' willingness to play an active role in securing a stable future for their nation. He was particularly heartened when the Iraqi Minister of Health pledged to help the Medical Alliance for Iraq establish teaching centers in Kurdistan, Basra, and Baghdad, where doctors from across the globe can give Iraqis hands-on medical training.

Though it may take years to turn Iraq's healthcare system around, Cromwell says he's in it for the long haul. In fact, he's already planned his next trip. "The Iraqi physicians really need help, and this type of mission is the only way they're going to get it," he says. "That stimulated me to return, even though significant risk is involved."