John A. Hovanesian
Phillips Kirk Labor, MD, met Gazi B. Zibari, MD, FACS, FICS, when both
were attending medical school at Louisiana State University. Dr. Labor was a
medical student; Dr. Zibari was a surgical resident.
Dr. Labor did not know that their friendship would lead him, some 20
years later, to a medical mission in Kurdistan in northern Iraq, or that it
would bring him not only a sense of accomplishment, but also a new
understanding of his country and profession.
“I don’t really see myself as doing that great a thing, as
there are so many great ophthalmologists in this country,” Dr. Labor said.
“There are people that are much better than I am. I’m not diminishing
my skill, but because I’m surrounded by it all the time, I don’t
really appreciate it. … But when you go over there, I had never been
treated like that as a physician, anywhere. It’s just amazing. It’s a
real eye-opener, not just from the standpoint of helping others, but it’s
also an eye-opener in terms of the opportunities that we have in this country
that we take for granted every day. It really changes your perspective.”
Dr. Zibari is a native of Kurdistan, an autonomous region within Iraq.
He had to leave the country in 1975 during an expulsion of thousands of Kurds
by the Iraqi government.
“He has a very interesting story about how he was forced to walk
out of Kurdistan to Iran and then ended up in the United States in the
mid-’70s,” Dr. Labor told Ocular Surgery News.
“[He] basically worked his way into medicine and through medical school,
and that’s how he ended up being a resident when I saw him. He’s
probably one of the most industrious people I’ve ever met.”
|Phillips Kirk Labor,
MD, performed surgery at the Azadi Hospital in Duhok, Kurdistan.
Image: Labor PK
In the late 1980s, an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 Kurds died when the
Anfal genocide was carried out by the Iraqi government, according to human
rights groups. Dr. Labor followed the Kurds’ plight in the news and
discussed the situation with Dr. Zibari when they were at Louisiana State
“I told him back then, I felt sort of a — I don’t know if
‘kinship’ is the right word, but a duty to help these people who had
been very pro-American in the Middle East and … if the opportunity ever
arose, I’d like to go over there and help,” Dr. Labor said.
Time passed, and Dr. Labor became an ophthalmologist, while Dr. Zibari
became a general surgeon. They lost touch, Dr. Labor said, but met again 3
years ago by chance.
This year, the Kurdistan region was safe enough for Dr. Zibari to travel
there with foreign physicians. In April, on a medical mission sponsored by the
charity Operation Hope and the International College of Surgeons, Dr. Labor
kept his promise to the Kurdish people.
He traveled with Dr. Zibari to Azadi Hospital in Duhok, Kurdistan, for a
1-week ophthalmic outreach stay.
Dr. Labor was the first American ophthalmologist to work in Duhok, Dr.
Zibari told OSN, and the first ophthalmologist to perform phacoemulsification
in the area. Dr. Labor’s outreach work was beneficial to the Kurdish
people in multiple ways, Dr. Zibari said.
“[Dr. Labor] took great care of many patients, both at the clinic
and in the operating room,” he said. “He gave lectures and educated
local ophthalmologists, residents and students, in addition [to] introducing
new technologies to that medical community for the first time. Dr. Labor
donated operating … equipment and suture materials.”
Dr. Labor reached out to Kurdish ophthalmologists who did not have
access to new medical techniques for more than 20 years, in addition to
providing a phaco unit, Dr. Zibari said.
“I have been going to Iraqi Kurdistan since the first Gulf War for
medical mission work,” Dr. Zibari said. “This trip with Kirk and
other colleagues was very fun, and yet it was extremely productive. We need
more physicians like Kirk in this world, who are very warm, caring and
Dr. Labor said that he felt relatively safe when traveling in Kurdistan
with Dr. Zibari and others, and was surprised by the region’s stability.
He was also surprised by how many people awaited his arrival.
“The clinic was absolutely jam-packed with people,” he said.
“I could have sat there until midnight seeing patients all day. Even
though I specialize in doing LASIK and cataract surgery, they brought
everything to me. People that had blast injuries who were old to infants with
corneal disease. Everything.”
He examined patients in the morning, followed by operations with one of
the hospital’s two “beat-up” slit lamps, indirect ophthalmoscope
and the newly donated equipment. During the examinations, if the hospital door
between the waiting room and examining room was not guarded, when it opened,
“the room would just flood. It felt like I was working in a sea of black
because of all the people in there, all the women in burqas, and they would
crowd right up to the slit lamps,” he said.
Patients’ records and ophthalmologists’ equipment showed
evidence of the conflicts in the country, Dr. Labor said. There were no medical
documents or eye charts, and patients had only scraps of paper with information
written in Kurdish.
Ophthalmologists in the region performed extracapsular cataract
extractions under air, a technique not used often in Western medicine since the
1970s, Dr. Labor said. Because intravenous sedation was not available, all
patients – including children – underwent surgery with only
peribulbar or retrobulbar blocks.
“They were absolutely the toughest people I have ever seen,”
he said. “They did not complain at all.”
Leading ophthalmic companies donated key equipment to the hospital, but
more ophthalmic supplies and equipment are needed to help the Kurdish people,
“There’s a world of work that could be done there by anybody
doing any medicine,” Dr. Labor said. “The people there are very, very
appreciative for what we do there.” – by Erin L. Boyle
- Phillips Kirk Labor, MD, can be reached at Eye Consultants of Texas,
Southlake/Grapevine, 1643 Lancaster Drive, Suite 305, Grapevine, TX 76051;
817-410-2030; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Gazi B. Zibari, MD, FACS, FICS, can be reached at LSU Health Sciences
Center, 1501 Kings Highway, Shreveport, LA 71130; 318-675-6405; fax:
318-675-6358; e-mail: email@example.com.
- For more information about donating supplies or equipment to the
Kurdish people, contact Dr. Labor at firstname.lastname@example.org or Dr. Zibari at