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The other day, a friend of mine wound up having to take a ride in an ambulance to a hospital, where he stayed for a couple of days. Happily, he’s alright now, just on strict doctor’s orders not to exercise for a few months (how often does a doctor get to say that?).

Admittedly it can be expensive, but being able to dial 911 and get an ambulance to take you to a hospital and care for you on the way is pretty fantastic. (I should probably admit here that I speak as a former EMT.) And they’re another one of those luxuries we take for granted.

Am American Platoon, some Afghan police, and I were on a visit to an out-of-the-way district in Afghanistan. The local government offices stood empty as it had proved too dangerous for officials to work there, but the insurgents tolerated government-run schools and clinics to stay open (or perhaps the people were okay having no officials but refused to allow the insurgents to bully them into closing health and education centers).

While we were in the area, we decided to walk by the clinic and see how they were doing. An administrator took us on a tour, and it was impressive, especially for how remote the area was. They had a small but competent staff and fairly new buildings and lab equipment. One of their techs was actually doing some bloodwork when we arrived. Unfortunately, their female doctor had been reassigned some time ago. They also had a chronic shortage of medicine, so could issue prescriptions without getting them filled. As much as bureaucracy could be a nightmare, with no local officials, they had no one to turn to help to fill these gaps.

All in all, though, they were doing pretty well for themselves and it was one of the nicest and most self-sufficient clinics I had seen. They didn’t ask us for help, aside from relaying their concerns to the right authorities (impressive in its own right), but did admit that one of their biggest worries was their lack of resources to deal with pregnancies or serious injuries or illnesses.

“We’re just a small community health center, not a hospital,” the administrator told me.

“What happens when people need urgent or intensive care?” I asked.

“They have to go to the city hospital. It takes hours to get there even with a car–there are no roads, just the wadi. And that’s assuming there are no bombs in it. People with serious problems sometimes die on the way.”

“Wow, that’s rough. And there’s nothing you can do?”

He shrugged, then chuckled. “We used to have an ambulance that we decided to organize and that helped, especially for people with no car. But it got stolen about a year and a half ago and we never found it.”

He smiled to show me it was no big deal, then waved us into the next room. No big deal? I’d never even heard the word ambulance in Afghanistan before. And then to have it stolen? Just when you think you’re getting to know a place…