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Alfred Didn't Have To Die: A Story Of Illness And Care In Baghdad

CBS News reported this week that despite millions of dollars flowing out from Iraq's rich oil resources every day, some of the country's social services, including basic hospital care, are sorely neglected. You can read the story here. Larry Doyle, our Baghdad bureau chief, saw the effects of this firsthand, when his friend and neighbor needed care. What follows is his story, told by Doyle.

It was about 120 degrees the day I met Alfred. One of those furnaces-like Baghdad days that come blazing in every June. Alfred had found about the only relief on our rock-covered dirty street. He looked pretty comfortable in a worn, formerly white plastic chair propped in a little shade supplied by a 12-foot-high concrete blast wall.

Damn, I whispered, I'm melting. Why isn't that chair?

"Salaam alaikum," I sweated out in fractured Arabic.

"Sit, my friend, please sit," was the perfect English response. And that simple exchange started a great friendship.

Almost exactly a year later, Faried Yacob George lay in an emergency room in Baghdad Hospital, one of five in the Medical City complex.

Faried was my friend Alfred. I never wrapped my tongue around his real first name so we decided "Alfred" would do just fine. Actually Alfred was in the emergency room two days and nights and eventually was given a saline IV the second day because he was dehydrated. Sitting a long time in a sweltering room will do that to you. It will do that to a healthy 20-year-old. My friend was 76.

I had come to see Alfred because CBS News was moving our office to three houses next to his little place. I wanted his permission to put some protective walls around the properties, better securing a compound in which Alfred would now be included. I was braced for a long, long negotiation and even a demand for a lot of what we'll call "compensation."

The conversation about the walls was over in about a minute. Alfred, better than any westerner, understood the value of security and as for compensation: "be a good neighbor, be a good friend, be my friend." Hardly a demand anyone could turn down from an old man with an almost-as-old toy poodle on his lap. And the twinkle in his eye and the crinkle of his smile sealed the deal on the spot. Alfred and I shook hands, embraced in the local manner, and Prince the poodle yipped and yelped approval.

Before Alfred went to Medical City he spent a day in Yarmouk Hospital. This may be one of the worst care centers in the Middle East but it was closest the day Alfred fell ill. His daughter Luna described his stay there as "inhumane and torturous."

"My father had to use a co-ed bathroom, the doors were broken and hanging loose, the filth on the floors made us sick and the staff told us it was better than nothing," she said.

The humiliation the old gentleman felt was beyond imagination. Alfred was a true gentleman, impeccably turned out at all times, courteous to an extreme and always observant of the traditional public role of men and women in this society.

Eventually a young doctor – they're about the only ones left after a lot of specialists fled or were murdered – inserted a catheter and left Alfred alone. Later it was determined he had inserted it incorrectly causing a massive infection. The doctor had six-months' experience.

Alfred and I had wondrous times during which he would talk about his life working for the national railroad. He was "Mr. Railroad," wildly proud of the train system – his train system: "beautiful cars, the most clean engines, we were always on time, we went everywhere…life was good on the railroad."

He was still receiving a pension for his train days but "money is worthless, life and family hold value."

Alfred, in his 20s, traveled to Munich just in time for Octoberfest. I asked if he drank any beer and in a most mischievous way he winked, left the room, and brought back a stack of faded black-and-white photos from the only time he left Iraq. As I thumbed through his memories it was clear young Alfred was a dashing, vibrant fellow and enjoyed a good time. Each picture included steins of beer in the foreground. I asked how this could be – Muslims usually don't imbibe.

With great gusts of laughter that almost knocked him down his secret came out. "It's okay, I'm a Christian, you know." Once a week after that I'd bring two beers to my friend and we'd toast "the railroad days."

When a "real" doctor reached Alfred it was far too late. His infection was raging uncontrollably and his fight against it had weakened both his immune system and his heart. I'm sure the infection never damaged his spirit.

There are lots of reasons for the state of the health care system here. We know them all. But not one is acceptable to me. My friend shouldn't have died. We should still be sneaking our "railroad beer" past Luna, still be hiding from the boiling sun, still remembering his only trip.

On another bright, scorching day the street is full of light but in a little house a young daughter grieves, fruitlessly, endlessly searching for the reason she and an old dog are left alone in a house that's gone very dark.

Alfred didn't have to die.

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