Baghdad Medical City

Lynn Veach Sadler, PhD
Pittsboro, North Carolina, United States

 
 Image of plaque owned by Armand Burgun and
lent to Lynn Veach Sadler

Can humans build and destroy simultaneously? Can they erect a gigantic, sprawling hospital complex as bombs drop, scud missiles home in, and anti-aircraft fire fills the air with flak?

The Medical City of Central Baghdad perhaps cleanses some of our views of history. Few of us are aware that the earliest known Islamic hospital (bimaristan, from “ill person” + “place”) was in that ninth-century city or that hospitals were among the most significant achievements of Medieval Muslims and were generally secular and multi-purpose, with founders and sponsors morally committed to treating all, even prisoners. Those Iraqis who promoted Baghdad Medical City, then, had tradition behind them and, despite more recent history, doubtless wanted to continue the high principles of their past culture. Saddam Hussein (President of the Republic of Iraq, 1979-2003) met an unpleasant end but championed literacy, free education, and religious freedom—he had a Catholic Vice-President—and gave women equal pay and let them study and work alongside men, drive cars, and go unescorted to public places.

I know the person ultimately in charge of the design and construction of this massive complex. Armand Burgun is a rare man, still active at ninety, and chairman emeritus of the architectural firm of Rogers, Burgun, Shahine & Deschler, Inc. He has an extraordinary memory and bounteous humanity and is in consonance with Arab medical history.

Armand was visited at his New York office by Tony Whiting, whose father died and left him a small London firm and the multi-billion-dollar Medical City project. Armand and his partners agreed to take it on; formed Rogers, Butler & Burgun; and named him partner-in-charge. When Armand went to London to assess the task, Phase I (the 1000-bed teaching hospital) had been completed. II-A (medical school, school of nursing, out-patient facility, medical laboratory, and housing complex for medical personnel) was under construction by Iraq’s State Construction Company. Next up was Phase II-B—the 750-bed surgical hospital, 400-bed maternity hospital, 300-bed pediatric hospital, 250-bed VIP hospital (for Baath Party members), 400-bed nursing home/rehabilitation center, medical library, conference center, laundry, administration building, student dormitories, and hotel (for patients, visitors, and families). Supporting these would be a central power plant, chillers with cooling towers, roads, a 3000-car underground parking garage, riverbank cladding, and landscaping. Within six weeks, Armand had the business moved to London (15 Lower Regent Street), tripled Tony’s staff, and hired British and American hospital specialists and an American Project Architect/Office Manager. He then went to Baghdad to get Iraqi Government approval of the joint venture and met with Faqura Dogramaji, head of the Hospital Division, Iraqi State Organization of Buildings. She added to the contract that Iraqi architects and engineers must learn hospital-design specialties in Armand’s Baghdad, London, and New York offices and that a portion of the fee must be accepted in dinars. As they talked, Saddam Hussein entered, shook hands, and welcomed Armand. He was very pleased because he wanted an American hospital and added to the task renovation of the (British-modeled) Teaching Hospital to conform to American Standards. Armand would later receive the plaque pictured above and a watch with Hussein’s picture. (At an early construction meeting, President Hussein told Armand he would free the American hostages when Iran was defeated.)

At that early stage, the project looked bleak. The contract documents formerly prepared by Whiting and Associates were incomplete, erroneous, and contradictory, with engineering drawings worse. The Bagdad office did not know what to do. Addenda, corrected drawings, etc. were stacked in unopened bundles on the floor. When Armand returned to London, he found the two left in charge squabbling but in agreement on inviting bids on each building separately, one at a time, while Iraq wanted the project completed as soon as possible. He fired, hired a new firm (Clifford and Nasser) and staff, assembled British and American hospital architects and engineers, and returned to Baghdad, where he replaced the Chief Resident Engineer.

In two months of working seven days a week, Phase II-A’s design documents were corrected and completed. In 1980 Armand opened the project (the package weighing over a ton) to international bidders. The Korean Hyundai Construction Company won and imported 3000 journeymen, electricians, plumbers, laborers, and security personnel and housed them in a camp. When Hyundai would not commit to completing the project in the specified time if it had to hire/train Iraqi workers/subcontractors, the government exempted it and also agreed to additional funding for its helping complete Phase II-A. Hyundai ran three shifts and worked all night. Armand says he could literally see buildings emerging from the ground.

Although Armand was warned of imminent struggle between Iraq and Iran, he never gave up on the project but went to Baghdad when the Iraqis requested him to. He was staying in the Omar Kayam Hotel, and, one morning while shaving, heard the air raid sirens. He saw a flak screen go up and realized that the predictions were correct. The first Iran-Iraq War lasted 1980-1988.

Work on Medical City halted. The airport was destroyed, and Iran held Basra, Iraq’s only seaport. Hyundai marched its construction crew into its camp and displayed the Korean flag. The only connection with the outside world was by bus, car, or truck. All construction material and equipment was shipped overland by truck from Jordan, Syria, Turkey, or Kuwait. The war was eventually stalemated, but, when Iran had no more pilots and aircraft, the air raids stopped, though SCUD missiles attacked every night until war’s end.

Armand eventually had his company’s twenty-five employees and their families leave for Amman, Jordan. The United States had no diplomatic relations with Iraq but arranged with the Belgian Embassy to hire a bus and evacuate the remaining Americans. Two weeks later, after doing nothing but watch the nightly air raids and going to the British Club for news and food, he, along with five other Americans and eighteen Belgians, boarded the bus at his hotel. As they were leaving Baghdad, the air raid sirens sounded. The driver pulled off the road and into the state-owned Dora Oil Refinery, a major Iranian target.

Armand returned to Baghdad to repair the damage done by Iranian bombing raids. The Nurses Quarters had been hit, and eighteen Irish nurses killed. The Administration Building, which housed his offices, was struck, with one killed and severe damage to the Boiler Plant and cooling towers. Life in Iraq crawled toward almost normal. Hyundai resumed work on Medical City, using three shifts, night and day. Armand’s multi-national employees slowly returned, though at first without their families. The London office supplied the Baghdad office with appropriate personnel and office supplies. To conduct monthly inspections, Armand flew into Amman and took a bus or taxi to Baghdad. Eventually, British Airways offered an air/bus trip from London to Iraq’s capital.

When Armand met with Ms. Dogramaji to collect the final 5% of his fee, she said that the money was in Rafidan Bank and that he would receive it when all damage was repaired and every system was working. Then President Hussein decided to invade Kuwait. Armand never received the remaining $750,000 he was owed.

As recently as 2008, Dahr Jamail and Arkan Hamed wrote “In Baghdad, Even the Hospitals Are Sick.” It uses Medical City, with only one working elevator (whose priority is those who have lost legs), as a symbol of the country. Their picture here is grim. Formerly, an elevator was designated for doctors and professors, but many of them left the country, and some were killed. Doctors, patients, and students in the teaching hospital of the complex take stairs to the various eighteen floors. Patients send family members to describe their conditions and get medicine. The writers cite lack of air-conditioning, antibiotics, and intravenous basics, as well as almost no qualified staff. Students at the teaching hospital educate themselves. It is not safe to drink tap water, and physicians sometimes lack water to wash their hands. Equipment often goes unsterilized, and medicines are generally out of date. Security is lacking; corruption is rampant. The black market charges exorbitant prices for equipment and medicines needed by patients. The hospitals are lucky to have two hours of electricity a day, and the generators available have to be cut off frequently. We hope that, by now, if not at the original wonderful level Medical City attained, it continues to rebuild/renew.

Perhaps Iraq could look to Armand Burgun again. He has never been one to give up; after thirty years of trying, he made federal guidelines mandate that all new hospital rooms in the US be single-bed. When he lost his wife—he still speaks of how long he “was blessed to have her” by year, day, and minute—, he was determined to maintain what she stood for and worked for. One of her commitments was to animals. Armand continues to take in strays and underwrite their medical and nourishment needs. He currently has an opossum, who visits nightly and sleeps in a heated tent in winter, and three cats, who share his bed and whatever else, in his home, they want to. I cannot forbear thinking of the irony of Udai/Uday Hussein’s lions!

Nor have Armand’s contributions to the medical field been only his work on Baghdad Medical Center. As a member of the International Executive Service Corps, of the US Department of State, Armand Burgun assisted hospital projects in such undeveloped countries as Colombia, Ecuador, Jordan, Morocco, and Brazil. He has planned, designed, and constructed health-care facilities throughout the world and was particularly known for innovative solutions. The very internationalism of Baghdad Medical City is a lesson for all.

 


LYNN VEACH SADLER, PhD, is a former college president who has published 5+ books and 72 articles and has edited 22 books/proceedings and three national journals and publishes a newspaper column. In creative writing, she has 10 poetry chapbooks and 4 full-length collections, over 100 short stories, 4 novels, a novella, 2 short story collections, and 41 plays. As the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet 2013-2015, she mentors student and adult poets. She works as a writer and an editor. She and her husband have voyaged around the world five times, with Lynn writing all the way.