Fleeing death threats, Iraqi surgeon starts over

By Diane Carman

Dr. Muthanna Jabbar was approached by some men outside his home in Iraq on the day his life changed forever.

They pulled me over and said, Are you Muthanna? Quit working with the Americans or were going to kill you.

Jabbar turned and walked toward his home a few yards away. I was almost closing my eyes, anticipating a bullet or something in my head, he said. When I reached my kitchen, I thought, Its a miracle. Nothing happened. They left.

It was just the first of many miraculous circumstances that led him to Fort Collins, Colorado Welcome Back and his first steps on the rugged path toward a license to practice medicine in the United States.

Jabbar, 34, graduated from the Al-Mustansiriya University College of Medicine in Baghdad in 2002, specializing in general practice and surgery. His experience in the nearly six years he worked in Iraq was primarily in the emergency room trauma medicine. In Iraq, he said, We have a lot of issues. Its a busy, busy field.

His last job was as medical director of the police academy medical department near the Al Taqaddum Air Base where his patients included both Iraqis and Americans. It was his care of Americans that put his life in danger.

After he was threatened, Jabbar quit his job and left home immediately. He lived with his sister for four months while he assembled the necessary documents to leave Iraq.

On Aug. 26, 2008, he boarded a bus for Turkey. Forty-eight hours later, in the early hours before sunrise, he arrived in Istanbul. He got off the bus and sat, alone and bewildered, on a grassy spot near the transit center. He stayed there with his luggage beside him for 2 hours trying to get his bearings.

Finally, he asked a taxi driver for help. The driver took Jabbar to a hotel to sleep. From there he found his way to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the halting first steps toward a new life.

Of all places in the United States to land, Jabbar chose Fort Collins because one of his brothers had lived there for five weeks while he participated in a youth leadership exchange program in 2009. His mentor was Julie Sullivan, an instructor in ethnic studies at Colorado State University. When she heard that Jabbar was seeking asylum, she offered to help him get settled.

Julie is a wonderful person, Jabbar said. She picked me up at the airport and introduced me to the Fort Collins area.

Jabbar lived with Sullivan for a month in early 2010 as he sought work and a place of his own. She introduced him to hiking and biking, and helped him make an array of valuable professional contacts.

His sister and brother-in-law and their two children recently moved to Fort Collins. They were practicing physicians in Iraq and hope to navigate the licensure process as well.

Jabbars parents and two brothers remain in Iraq and, in the interest of their safety, he declined to have his photo taken.

Now he works part time at Lutheran Family Services, which has a resettlement agency in Greeley, and he is doing research on the impacts of pain medications on the cardiovascular systems of patients at St. Lukes Medical Clinic. He also is studying for the medical licensing examinations, hoping that good grades will help him land a coveted medical residency.

The process for licensure is like a long channel thats a little bit kinky, but there is light at the end, he said. Im optimistic. Im a go-getter and I dont give up easily. These challenges will make me a better person, a stronger person.

Jabbar said he believes he can get good scores on the medical exams. This is doable. Its a matter of studying very, very hard.

The more difficult part is landing a residency. That is a competition, and by the end of medical school, U.S. students have had internships or some kind of U.S. experience.

If Im lucky, Ill get a residency in Colorado, but Im ready to go to Alaska anywhere for my residency, said Jabbar. I dont mind.

Then, when he completes the process and has his license to practice, hed like to come back to Fort Collins. His dream job: working in a hospital, mainly in the ER.

Im alive and happy, he said, but real life for me is to be a doctor again. Its how I get my fuel.

I see a patient in the ER and see the change on his face, in his expression, when the pain is gone. I cant imagine my life without it.