Meet Libya's new minister for health . . . a doctor from Drogheda

Tue, Nov 29, 2011, 00:00

A consultant ophthalmologist at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda is heading to Libya to be the country’s new minister for health

IN ONE week, the life of Dr Fatima Hamroush has been turned upside down.

As we speak, the consultant ophthalmologist at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda is preparing to fly home to her native Libya. The mother of four living in Julianstown, in Co Meath, has heard in the preceding 48 hours that she is to become Libya’s new minister for health.

“I got a phone call unofficially on Sunday saying, ‘It’s you’, and then on Monday it was announced on TV by the head of state,” she says, still somewhat wide-eyed at events.

“The first time I heard it, really my heart sank,” she admits, referring to the road ahead.

Training as a surgeon in her hometown of Benghazi, Hamroush came to Ireland in 1996 as the stranglehold of corruption on Libyan society and in medicine began to tighten.

“It started getting harder,” she recalls. “Some instruments were not working because somebody had made sure they were not working because they wanted to keep their private practice . . . or after doing cataract surgery, you need to give people drops so their eyes don’t get infected. They didn’t have that because somebody decided not to bring it.

“It was getting worse and you cannot complain because that person is very powerful . . . I was scared, because how can they do this? But that’s the way it was,” she recalls.

Working here unpaid for the first year, the senior registrar in surgery in Libya had to start from scratch as an SHO (senior house officer) in Ireland before going on to accept the consultant role in Drogheda in 2000.

Hamroush’s last visit to Libya was in 2003. Though Libyan authorities, and one female official in particular, unhappy with her stance on health service corruption had summoned her to return, she knew it would be dangerous to do so.

“That woman was notorious. People know her by one particular case of execution where she was the prosecutor, the judge and the executioner. She hanged him in a stadium and then she hung on to his legs to make sure he was dying and, when the man didn’t die, she took him to the hospital and made somebody inject air into his veins. People just hated her and that’s the type of person who wanted me to come back.”

Already on the radar of the authorities, Hamroush felt she had nothing to lose and started writing articles that were distributed in Libya.

“They were peaceful, but showing people their rights and duties towards themselves and their country. People were so isolated, the didn’t even know certain things were their rights.”

Hamroush says by October last year, the surge towards revolution had begun. “We started feeling people were moving towards something and by mid- December, the date February 17th was set. This was going to be our day.”

Watching the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts on TV swelled her hopes that Libya’s time had come, and two days before February 17th, things began to move.

“People started gathering, and more gathered thinking, is the revolution now this day . . . it was midnight and all of the streets of Benghazi were full of women calling, ‘Benghazi, come out.’

“We are a very conservative society and to see women at midnight running in the streets . . . and they were saying, ‘Wake up! Wake up Benghazi. This is the day we are waiting for’,” says Hamroush tearfully as she recalls the scenes she watched throughout the night on YouTube.

Free to return to Libya again in October this year, what awaited her on a hospital tour brought home the devastation suffered by her country.

“It was sad to see these young men, going to be disfigured forever, but looking really smiling and brave . . . I am sorry I cannot hold my tears . . . and still raising the victory sign.”

The job of health minister is one she says she did not seek. “I was always hoping the somebody who would take it would deliver on their promise. To my surprise, I was asked to submit my CV.”

That was just three weeks ago.

“I heard from a lot of people that whoever takes this post is going to burn themselves, that it’s a no-win situation, and I thought, it’s true – but I thought if everyone like me, who is so devoted to the country, fears being burned, the head of state would be surrounded by people less devoted.

“If he gets surrounded by people as devoted as I am, we are going to go forward and the government will succeed.”

But leaving Ireland and her four children, aged 17 to 25 isn’t easy. “It’s a sacrifice and nobody can say otherwise, to be honest. I have a family, I have children and I’m sure they need me.

“I am useful to them as a mother. I am useful to my patients here as a doctor, but I’ve always said, if I get called for a bigger good, I’ll do it, and this is a bigger good.”

She will also miss her team in Drogheda, who had hosted a small party for her the day before.

“I love them with all my heart and we work in that atmosphere. Patients are like our family, our sons and our daughters. It really is a lovely atmosphere there.”

She says corruption and helping the war-wounded are her first priorities – in fact, as we speak, she is already fielding calls about the treatment of 30 wounded due to arrive in Ireland in the next few days for orthopaedic and ophthalmic care.

“None of them is going through the public system, they are all being treated privately,” she clarifies.

She also fields calls from international media and various embassies in Ireland wishing her well, while messages from Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital to say she can go only if she finds a locum to cover for her seem absurd in the context of the task ahead.

“I’m not going to find a red carpet ready for me. I know where I am going will be like a battlefield,” she says.

“Yes, it’s not like being in the middle of snipers, but it’s a total disaster and I am going to try to pick something right and start from there.

“It is a great honour.”