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ELIZABETH HOFHEINZ, M.P.H., M.ED., Orthopedics This Week – December 16, 2022 –

August 2021…As the world winced at the desperate people struggling to leave Afghanistan when the Taliban took over, a member of the North American Spine Society (NASS), Sayed Abdullah Ahmadi, M.D., Ph.D., his wife, and children, were trapped in Kabul’s chaos.

Dr. Ahmadi was the director of Afghanistan’s only national public hospital for orthopedics and traumatology…and he was being chased by the Taliban.

His Backstory

After graduating from medical school in 2007, Dr. Ahmadi served as director of a small hospital in northern Afghanistan for three years, after which time he did an orthopedic and trauma residency. “I began working in Kabul in 2011 and then got a Ph.D. spine scholarship in Japan. I was in Osaka from 2014-2019 and then returned to Afghanistan, where I took up the position as director for the orthopedics and traumatology hospital.”

Unwelcome Patients, but Patients Nonetheless

“Given the nature of our facility, Taliban fighters were amongst the injured. However, they were sometimes disguised as civilians. While government intelligence agents found and arrested some Taliban patients, some of them died—we were unable to save them. But the Taliban always thought that the hospital director was responsible for these deaths. So, when they ultimately took over Kabul a friend of mine said, ‘You need to leave the hospital because there is a good chance you will be taken by the Taliban.’”

With the Taliban “blowing up” his phone and trying to blow up his car, Dr. Ahmadi fled the hospital on August 15, 2021. “I grabbed my passport at home and went to the airport, where thousands of people were fleeing. There was no way I was going to get on a plane, so I went to a friend’s house and hid there.”

WHO to the Rescue

“Two days later the World Health Organization (WHO) called me, said they would provide a safe corridor, and sent a security guard to accompany me back to the hospital. I was able to then give some advice to my assistant, but there were lots of Taliban in the hospital—many of whom knew me because I had been interviewed on TV. They were asking people where to find me.”

Taking up residence with a friend, Dr. Ahmadi sent a message to a NASS member asking for help. “Eric Muehlbauer did his best to help get me out of the country, but nothing was working. Then I received a formal invitation letter from a professor friend in Japan and was able to secure a Turkish visa. After five months of hiding, on January 12, 2022, I was able to flee from Afghanistan. I went to Dubai then Turkey and then bought a ticket for Japan.”

A Finnish Finish?

During his layover in Finland, Dr. Ahmadi had a brainstorm. “I went to the police and asked for political asylum. The young officer took me to the senior officer, who happened to have worked in Afghanistan and agreed to facilitate things for me. Eric and the NASS board sent a letter to the Finnish government on my behalf, which I know helped because they mentioned this letter in my decision notice.”

Dr. Ahmadi was initially sent to a refugee camp.

Stuck in a small room with 10 people, Dr. Ahmadi again turned to NASS. “The situation at the refugee camp was bad…it was a lot of people from different countries with different attitudes about how things should be. Eric sent me a list of NASS members in Finland, who were quick to say they would help me. One member invited me to his hospital, introduced me to the spine team and helped me find a place to live. I know this was a hardship for the NASS members because doctors’ salaries are not very high in Finland. I hardly ate for 10 months but was so thrilled when I received my residence permit card. Things began to flow, and I was able to go observe spine surgeries at a hospital several times a week. I also began learning Finnish.”

The Family

The Ahmadi Family, during happier times / Courtesy of Sayed Abdullah Ahmadi, M.D.

Once Dr. Ahmadi got his residence permit card, an Afghan friend helped his wife and four children escape from Afghanistan into Iran. Fighting crowds, Taliban pursuers, and hunger, his wife was then told it would take three months to get an appointment for an exit interview.

“There are Taliban in Iran, so my family has to take extra care and change locations frequently. This is incredibly difficult with my wife having to handle everything for our children, who range in age from 2-12 years of age. In the background there is the looming threat that the government will deport my family back to Afghanistan, something they have done to many people. I am particularly concerned about what may happen to my wife and young daughter as the Taliban have made women’s lives very difficult.”

After much back-and-forth, Dr. Ahmadi’s family had their interview in Iran on November 28, 2022, and are now awaiting their residence permit cards. “Eric sent a recommendation letter for them, and I forwarded it to the immigration office. Although I am in touch with my family often, now it is a bit difficult because of the ongoing demonstrations in Iran, i.e., the internet only works intermittently.”

Thanks to a NASS member in Afghanistan, Dr. Ahmadi’s family has received some funds as they await their departure. But it is not enough. And they are stuck in Iran until the government sees fit to allow their departure.

“The family has been apart for almost a full year now,” says Eric Muehlbauer, “and their bank account has been locked by the Taliban. I have recently begun a GoFundMe campaign to try to support them in their quest for a new life.”

At this giving time of the year, please consider donating as a way of supporting a courageous spine surgeon and his courageous family.

RRY Publications is donating. We strongly urge all our readers and fellow NASS members to also contribute. Every little bit helps. – Robin Young, Publisher

Josh Sandberg

Josh Sandberg is the President and CEO of Ortho Spine Partners and sits on several company and industry related Boards. He also is the Creator and Editor of OrthoSpineNews.

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