AUGUSTA, Ga. – The last six months Dr. James E. Carroll spent in Kuwait were in 1990 and as a hostage in the U.S. Embassy. Starting this January, he’s going back for six months as a Fulbright Scholar.
“I really want to go back to Kuwait and finish it up right,” said Carroll, Chief of the Section of Pediatric Neurology at the Medical College of Georgia at Georgia Health Sciences University. He will come full circle, returning to Kuwait University Faculty of Medicine to teach, treat patients and study cerebral palsy in the small Arab state on the Persian Gulf.
Last time, he’d decided to leave his job at MCG and move wife Shirley and their then-seven children to Kuwait potentially for good. This time, Carroll is definitely going and coming back.
Carroll moved his family to Kuwait in 1988 to take a job as Director of the Pediatric Training Program for the university. He taught medical students – in Kuwait medical school is six years and includes essentially two years of undergraduate education – as well as registrars, which are similar to residents in the United States. Life was generally good in Kuwait, one of the smallest and richest countries in the world. There were ocean breezes and Kuwaitis got free health care. But there were problems as well learning a difficult language, living with an often subservient view of women as well as summer temperatures averaging about 100 degrees.
It was the oppressive summers that sent his wife and children back to the states in 1990. Carroll, who typically did the same, had drawn the short straw that year and remained behind to help take care of patients and oversee the registrars.
His wife of more than 40 years called him that Aug. 2, sharing news reports that Kuwait’s northern neighbor, Iraq, was poised to invade and urging him to come home. “I said, ‘Everything is fine here. Nothing is happening.’” The next day Iraqi jets were strafing the city, tanks and troops were on the streets and people were shooting at each other.
“In our family lore, whenever I tell Shirley everything is going to be alright, needless to say, it isn’t,” Carroll chuckles. Within no time the Iraqis had taken over the hospital and the new hospital commander was asking to see Carroll. “I knew it was bad because they were taking Americans prisoner.” He ended up at the Embassy with about 26 other assorted individuals and a handful of remaining diplomats. Water and electricity were cut off, so the significant food stores were mostly ruined. “We had like 6,000 cans of tuna,” Carroll said. The hostages could see and hear the ocean and sometimes slept atop a three-story Marine barrack to catch a nighttime breeze and relief from the staggering summer heat. Carroll spent his time reading, swimming and running laps on the embassy’s five acres which were now encircled by tanks. He sent encrypted emails to his wife. The hostages took guard duty and if the Iraqi’s invaded the embassy, that encryption device was one of things that needed to be destroyed. Carroll also assumed a natural role as the embassy’s staff physician.
“It was pretty scary because we thought we were going to die,” said the characteristically calm Carroll. He remembers one night, a diplomat coming in, rubbing his hair and declaring them “toast.”
That December, Sadam Hussein announced that he would let Westerners go. Glad but hardly confident, they turned themselves into the Iraqi Secret Service. They were taken to an airport hangar where they figured again they were about to die. When Carroll finally arrived in Frankfurt, he decided he just might live.
He has returned to the country intermittently in the years since, the first time was less than six months later to try to reclaim any possessions he could find. His wedding pictures were among the items lost forever.
Still, he looks forward to his return. “I am excited about it,” Carroll said. Nervous? “Why would I be? I like the people. I like the culture. It’s like getting back on a horse.”
It also may be an opportunity to write a final chapter or two. During captivity, Carroll kept a diary, which was widely publicized by media outlets in the immediate aftermath of his release, and he started but never finished a book about the experience.
Carroll is among about 1,100 Fulbright scholars for 2012-13. The program, sponsored by the U.S. government, is designed to enhance understanding between citizens of the United States and other countries. Since its establishment in 1946, 300,000 students, scholars, teachers, artists and scientists have taught, studied, conducted research and exchanged ideas around the world.
His epidemiological studies in Kuwait will seek the causes of cerebral palsy, a wide range of disabilities resulting from genetic defects or birth injuries affecting the brain. At GHS Children’s Medical Center, Carroll treats children and young adults with conditions that are barely detectable to those that are physically and mentally incapacitating. He also does stem cell research to aid patient recovery.