BAM, Iran — More than 80 U.S. doctors and disaster assistance experts arrived here Tuesday, bringing needed medical expertise and equipment to the more than 12,000 people injured in last week’s devastating earthquake. The female doctors and nurses from the United States wore head scarves fashioned out of arm slings — a last-minute solution to the team’s lack of covering traditionally worn by women in Muslim Iran.
The mission is expected to last eight to 21 days, depending on what is needed, the doctors said.
Over the last several days, Washington has answered Iran’s call for international assistance by sending 11 U.S. military cargo planes to the quake zone with 75 tons of humanitarian aid.
The rare visit by a large group of Americans to a country the Bush administration has called a member of the “axis of evil” appeared to provide a respite from normally tense Iran-U.S. relations.
Visiting children orphaned by the quake Tuesday, Iranian President Mohammed Khatami thanked “anybody who has offered assistance, including the Americans.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Washington should “keep open the possibility of dialogue at an appropriate point in the future.”
But neither leader suggested an immediate thaw in relations.
Doctors bring ‘stability’
The U.S. doctors, working under the auspices of the State Department, will set up a mobile medical clinic to provide emergency care. Sixty doctors — ranging from trauma surgeons to respiratory therapists — are supported by more than a dozen nurses.
“The biggest thing we bring is stability ... a place to go to get your medical needs met, whatever they are, right now, when you're trying to recover,” Dr. Susan Briggs, a surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said in an interview here.
U.S. military planes carrying humanitarian assistance landed Monday in Iran for the first time since 1980, when a U.S. covert mission failed to rescue Americans taken hostage by the country’s nascent Islamic regime.
The U.S. doctors represent the first direct U.S. assistance to Iran since the fall of the country’s U.S.-backed monarch in 1979, when diplomatic ties were cut with Tehran. Washington sent more than $300,000 worth of aid to Iran after an earthquake in July, but it was provided indirectly, through the United Nations.
Briggs said the visit by U.S. medical specialists was apolitical.
“I've never been anywhere where people didn’t want their family or children to have good care, regardless of who was giving it to them, and I think this is no different from what I've seen,” she said.
‘Core care’ and culture
Briggs, a pioneering disaster relief expert whose teams were called to perform in New York after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, said the U.S. doctors would help give medical facilities destroyed in the quake time to re-establish their “core care” facilities. Part of the team’s brief orientation included lessons on local culture. Given only four hours’ notice before leaving, the members had no time to pack the head scarves that are worn by Iranian women and are required by the Islamic government.
So on the sleepless three-day journey here, the female medical workers fashioned head scarves out of arm slings.
“A number of the Iranian men and women have come up to me and thanked me for respecting them,” Briggs said.
NBC’s Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in Iran.