Failure Report: Year 2011 (Part 3 of 3)

An image of the PLC

The only bad failure is the one from which we fail to learn.

Most organizations put a premium on celebrating successes at the end of every year—we certainly do!

But we also believe that we have a great deal to learn from our failures, so we endeavor to share them and the lessons we’ve learned in hopes of avoiding those same mistakes in the future.


When seeking to tackle intractable problems in an environment like Iraq, missed opportunities, missteps, false starts, and failures are par-for-the-course. There will be no improvement in the political situation in Iraq, in the economy, in healthcare, or in the pursuit of peace without a number of flops and failures along the journey. If we already knew what worked, we all would’ve implemented it by now and moved on.

The truth is, neither the American government nor the Iraqi—neither international nor local NGOs—truly know what works in Iraq. Most of us are making educated guesses and seeking to rightly adapt programs and principles that have proven successful at other times in Iraq or in other parts of the world.

From this point forward, I want to provide you with an annual (and sometimes real-time) assessment of our failures. In absence of such previous reports, I will use a few minutes to highlight our most meaningful setbacks, failures and lessons learned to date.

The three major failures of 2011, to be covered in this report are:

Failure #1: Leadership Indecisiveness on the Case of Six-Year-Old Yahya (Read about Failure #1 here)
Failure #2: High-mortality Remedy Missions in February/March 2011 (Read about Failure #2 here)
Failure #3: The Loss of Our Sulaymaniyah, Iraq Surgery Site as a Major Developmental Partner; Lack of Surgical Capacity Increase As a Result of Remedy Missions Conducted

Let’s get started… 

Failure #3: The Loss of Our Sulaymaniyah, Iraq Surgery Site as a Major Developmental Partner

Unfortunately, it became obvious in May 2011, after completing two Remedy Missions to the Sulaymaniyah Center for Heart Disease, that local organizations and hospital leadership were not committed to the partnership. In-fighting over child selection, credit sharing and cost sharing dogged the nascent partnership from day one.

We struggled for one year to make the partnership work. But ultimately, we failed to keep it all together. What we deemed to be petty lines in the sand gave us deep concerns over the ability of local players to see our program through to the 5-year completion that we had all discussed and envisioned.

Our March 2011 Remedy Mission IV was a huge disappointment in many ways. We went back to the drawing board and made a few required upgrades before our international team would agree to work again in the hospital.

By May 2011, as we tried to put the final touches on our next mission to the center, the local hospital had failed to made requisite upgrades in hardware, medications and supplies.

In consultation with our international partners, we ultimately issued a vote of “no confidence” and cancelled the pending mission.

In many ways this felt like a waste—a waste of nearly 8,000 cumulative training hours; a waste of financial resources on a program that apparently lacked the willpower to see commitments through to the end, etc. All we had to show for our two missions in the city were 42 operations—including a few ground-breaking, inspirational cases; some amazing stories of peace and reconciliation; and eight deaths.

Within six months, we heard that the heart center was moving forward with an Italian team along a contract similar to the one we had originally proposed. The Italian mission in the Fall 2011 was deemed a success, and many surgeries were performed, but after the mission was completed rumors again circulated about local politics and an apparent inability to mobilize the center toward a long-term contract with the Italian team.

In a January 2012 meeting with the Director of Health for the province, we inquired about the number of surgeries that had been performed since our team and the Italian team had conducted three surgical missions to the city. To our great disappointment, the health director laughed and asked if we were joking, saying that the hospital’s surgical capacity had not improved in the previous year, in spite of the three missions. He laid the blame at the feet of local staff and the politics and health and not at the feet of the international teams that had attempted to help.

Lessons Learned: 

I’m not entirely sure we’ve learned all there is to learn from this yet. Our inability to woo or influence the hospital leadership into making the necessary upgrades was frustrating, but it is still unclear how we could have sweetened the deal or foreseen it coming prior to the May 2011 deadline that we set.

I am grateful that we made the decision to pull the plug on the program rather than continue to invest valuable resources (from all parties) into a stagnate program. The cumulative work done by international teams in the Center over the course of one year should have led to a measurable increase in surgical capacity. That is how our programs are designed and we are seeing an increase in capacity in other cities.

One question that we have contemplated is the idea of exclusivity in our contracts with a hospital. Should we insist on exclusive rights to train in a hospital, in an effort to increase commitment, decrease the opportunity for communication breakdowns and competing interests, etc? In the southern cities of Iraq where we work (where security risks are a much greater concern and where development is further behind the northern cities), we do not have competing interests. This appears to have created a greater loyalty and a healthier trust between our international and local teams than anything we were able to achieve in Sulaymaniyah. Our inclination continues to be against such exclusivity demands, but the question has come up as we seek to understand what went wrong and how we can avoid it in the future.

We cut our losses before running a mission in a dangerous environment. Perhaps most importantly, we cut our losses on a program that showed little organizational leadership and, in the words of the health director himself, zero increase in surgical output resulting from our educational, material, and infrastructural inputs. While the loss itself is a huge disappointment and I feel a personal sense of failure for my inability to cobble together a solution, it could have been so much worse.


It has been an exhilarating year in so many ways. But the above failures have been sobering. Yes, children are alive that may not be if we had not intervened. But it is undoubtedly true that children have died because we intervened. If our mandate is primum non nocere—first, do no harm—then it is cleared that we have failed on that front at least a few times this year. At least one was related to indecisiveness—a leadership failure on my part.

Some of the other deaths were to be expected given the risks that were clearly communicated to the family.

 But we do not only seek to “do no harm.” We have another object in view: we seek to do good. And we did not attain the good that we desired in our now defunct partnership. For reasons to which we are not privy, they have failed to increase their surgical output as a result of our efforts. We made the right decision walking away from the partnership for the time being. We will remain open to reengaging in the future if local conditions change.

I am most impressed and proud of our team’s willingness to confront and respond to failure on a trip-by-trip basis. When it became obvious that a mission could not run without an international cardiologist, we responded. When the local conditions required staggering the deployment of extra nursing staff so that ICU care could extend in a professional manner beyond the duration of the official trip itself, we responded. And when we were urged to move ahead with a mission in spite of conditions that we believed to be unsafe, we responded by canceling the trip.

There are at least a few viable philosophies as to how one should develop a pediatric cardiac care program. Some progressive; some conservative. Some are boring and more predictable; others are inspiring and innovative. We are proud to work with professionals who employ different methodologies and adhere to different philosophies of development. We will no doubt continue to face difficult days as we face down death and attempt to eradicate the backlog of Iraqi children waiting in line for lifesaving heart surgery. But we envision a day in the future when every child across the country has access to the care they need within a 3 hour car ride. And we will continue to labor toward that end.

If you have any questions or concerns about this report, the decisions we’ve made, or the direction we are going, please email me at your convenience. I would love to hear from you.