Chris Collins with an Iraqi patient

Dermatologist changes Iraqi girl’s life

The rays of the sun burned through her clothes and struck her skin. Sweat quickly formed on her forehead, evidence of extreme desert temperatures. At any moment a roadside bomb could go off, signaling the last step she or her parents ever took. But it didn’t matter. All the girl could do was keep walking the war-scarred roads until she reached CPT Chris Collins, MD, a combat physician and sole dermatology consultant for the entire Middle East region, eight hours away in Baghdad.

To the tall, thin, dark-haired Iraqi girl, Dr. Collins wasn’t just any doctor. He was the one who could give her hope for a more normal life.”In 2009, I was deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. While serving in Baghdad, I would go on medical missions. In some of those medical missions, we’d go to outlying villages,” Dr. Collins, founder and medical director of Collins Advanced Dermatology Institute in Leander, says.

It was in one of those villages that he met the young girl, who suffered from early onset psoriasis.

Thick, red, dry patches had formed all over her skin and particularly on her hands and feet. Even worse than the intense itch she suffered were the looks of disgust and misunderstanding from those around her. She felt isolated and different, additional burdens for a young girl living in a war zone.

“They had very limited medical resources. A lot of Iraqi physicians left the country during the war, so this area was totally underserved or partially treated,” Dr. Collins explains. “I started treating the girl, who had had this condition for several years, and she improved so well that after we started treatment, her family started traveling to see me in Baghdad.”

The girl and her family then traveled twice to see him at the military base, braving an eight-hour trek across dangerous terrain with multiple military checkpoints.

“The extreme heat was in the 120s. There were roadside bombs everywhere during wartime, what they call improvised explosive devices buried alongside the roads,” Dr. Collins says. “Just traveling on the Iraqi highway system was extremely dangerous. A lot of the main highway infrastructure was totally destroyed. The military checkpoints and bases have massive concrete barriers that are about 15 to 20 feet tall surrounding these zones.”

But the family made the trek in order for the girl to continue her skincare treatment. “It just shows how much her parents wanted her to get better skincare,” Dr. Collins recalls.

Chris Collins in Iraq

The condition was so severe on the girl’s hands and feet that she would keep her hands totally covered. “On my medical base, when she was able to visit, I would get her stocked up on topical medicines. Iraqi doctors and pharmacies were very limited in everything they had,” Dr. Collins says. “It made me realize how big an impact it made, being able to go out there and provide medicine to patients that would not otherwise have any help or hope at all. They were willing to risk their lives to come into an area to get treatment.”

Witnessing the girl transform from shy and reclusive to confident and social was priceless not just for her parents but for Dr. Collins as well. Her father, says Dr. Collins, told him that it changed her life so that she began making friends. The psoriasis had bothered her “for years, but they never had any treatment for it,” Dr. Collins says.

The medical missions were dangerous for doctors as well. “About every two or three weeks, when I was in Iraq, we would do medical missions. We would travel by Blackhawk helicopter and heavily armored vehicles [marked with a Red Cross],” Dr. Collins explains. “In Iraq, the enemy did not follow the Geneva Convention, and terrorists and the enemy would specifically target those vehicles.”

Med Vehicle in Iraq

“Our risk was higher than during regular travel because terrorists knew that if they could hurt the physicians or medics who treat soldiers, that affects how our military would be run,” he adds. “Every mission was dangerous. On each visit, we would go for two to three days at a time and see anywhere from 60 to 80 patients a day.”

The family of the young girl, and other patients in the village, knew that Dr. Collins risked his life to treat them. One way they knew how to express their gratitude was through homemade food. The young girl’s family brought traditional Iraqi dinners with them to give to their beloved doctor.

“Just seeing the happiness on those people’s faces, and then for them to prepare those dinners—it was their way of showing appreciation with meals, hugs, handcrafted items. They would also knit and sew items for me,” Dr. Collins shares. “Those were some of the most rewarding experiences in my medical career. Going on those medical humanitarian missions was at one point the scariest, most dangerous time of my life, but the missions were also the most medically rewarding.”

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