Middle East
2:27 am
Mon October 1, 2012

Syrian-American Doctors Head To The Battle Zone

Originally published on Mon October 1, 2012 7:21 pm

As Syrian war planes bomb towns and villages held by anti-government rebels, a group of Syrian-American doctors is quietly providing medical aid inside Syria.

The Syrian American Medical Society, or SAMS, has a long track record of supporting health care in Syria.

But as Syria's 18-month revolt has grown more lethal, these Syrian-American doctors have sided with the revolution and undertaken risky work delivering medicines and volunteering in field hospitals.

Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a pulmonary specialist from Chicago, is on his fifth medical mission to Syria — a mission that requires skills he didn't learn in medical school, like the heart-pounding dash across the Turkish border into Syria and back.

"Never in my dreams I expected to sneak to the border three times and have the border guards shouting at me," he says.

Medical school didn't prepare him for creeping through holes in barbed-wire fence, smugglers urging him on, or for sneaking into the mountains at night and walking for three hours.

He's done all of these things to get to Syrian field hospitals and clinics.

"I think this is part of the reality now in Syria for physicians trying to help, especially if they are from the outside," he says.

But Sahloul is hardly an outsider: He graduated first in his class from medical school in Damascus. He was also a classmate of Syria's president, Bashar Assad, who worked as an army doctor and studied ophthalmology in London before he became Syria's leader.

Does Sahloul think his famous classmate knows what the doctors are doing?

"Probably he knows that the Syrian American Medical Society is doing a lot of medical relief work among the people he is trying to hurt," Sahloul says.

A Field Hospital Under Stress

When he arrives in the northern Syrian town of Aldana, close to the Turkish border, and pulls up to the hospital, the staff is lined up to welcome Sahloul.

Everyone looks tired. Medical supplies are scarce, and the casualties are rising. The wounded come by taxi, in cars and on foot.

Surrounding towns and villages are within range of the Syrian military's long-distance artillery and airstrikes, the head surgeon tells Sahloul.

During the last battle, Sahloul says, 110 wounded came to the hospital — which has only 10 beds. The rest went to Turkey.

Patients are dying as a result, because Turkish hospitals are too far away. The doctors urge Sahloul to help expand this hospital to save more lives.

Dr. Iyad — he gives his first name only — another Syrian-American working at the Aldana field hospital, is on break from his work at a hospital in Tennessee.

"We see a lot of shrapnel, really bad shrapnel injuries," he says. "You see these small metallic shrapnel, like little flying knives, literally. We've certainly seen a few deaths out of these."

He volunteered to work in Aldana after rebels took control of the town. Iyad thinks the town, for the moment at least, is relatively safe.

"I mean if you spend the night here, you can hear the bombing all the time, some of them are near, some a bit further, but relatively safe," he says.

Dr. Sahloul agrees.

"This is the safest area I've seen south of the Turkish border," he says.

A Place To Rebuild?

The Syrian army is too stretched fighting rebels elsewhere to try to retake Aldana. On the drive out of town, the doctor's car passes open barbershops and restaurants, children playing in the streets.

Sahloul sees a place to rebuild, here in these "relatively safe" Syrian towns that hug the frontier where the Turkish military provides unofficial cover. Syrian doctors who fled the country could come back to work here.

"Many of them already want to come back to Syria and want to volunteer ... in Syria. Some of them may serve in the emergency room, especially if it is relatively safe," he says.

Doctors have a special place in Syrian society — they're the top graduates, the cream of the crop, natural leaders — so it's natural they were an early target of the regime when the revolution began, Sahloul says. At least 60 physicians have been killed, and more than 200 arrested, he says. And Syrian's health care system, one of the best in the Middle East, is near collapse.

"Hospitals are being targeted, patients are pulled from the operating room, patients are being tortured inside the hospitals," Sahloul says.

Many doctors fled to Turkey and are caring for a refugee population that has overwhelmed the Turkish health care system.

A Country In Critical Condition

At a rehabilitation center in southern Turkey, a patient bears his pain in silence as a doctor bandages the stump of his leg, recently amputated below the knee. Syrian doctors run the facility, which is funded by a Syrian businessman in the Gulf.

The medical staff all fled Syria under threat, says Dr. Ammar Martini, who heads the center. When protests broke out in his hometown, Idlib, security police ordered doctors to withhold treatment from anyone shot on the streets.

"Three or four times, they told me, it is not allowed for you to treat any wounded person," Martini recalls. He says he left when he began to feel he would be killed for doing his work.

Now, he can offer long-term care for patients from protest towns under fierce army shelling across Syria: Idlib, Hama, Homs.

Dr. Sahloul is visiting the new center. He stops by the bed of a young woman from Homs. She tells him she waited days for treatment, smuggled out of the besieged city through a sewage pipe, her wounds badly infected during the long ordeal. His physician's composure slips for a moment as he surveys her damaged body.

"She was shelled by a missile, to her left arm and her left side, as you see, she has several surgeries on her belly and her left leg, and her left arm was amputated," Sahloul says of the 24-year-old woman.

Rebuilding Syria's shattered health care system is one of the biggest challenges ahead. Treating the wounded inside Syria is his immediate concern.

"We learn in medical school and training how to deal with crisis, how to deal with patients who are in the intensive care unit," he says. "Right now, Syria is in crisis, is in critical condition."

It's a critical condition caused by his old medical school classmate, Assad, he says. But Sahloul is convinced this is a turning point in the revolution, as rebels take more territory across the country. It is time now for the doctors to go back.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Syrian-American doctors are quietly providing medical aid inside Syria. The Syrian-American Medical Society - or SAMS, as it's known - has a long record of supporting health care inside the country. And as the revolt has grown more lethal, these Syrian-American doctors have sided with the rebels. It's risky work, as NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a pulmonary specialist from Chicago, is on his fifth medical mission to Syria - a mission that takes skills he didn't learn in medical school, like the heart-pounding dash across the Turkish border into Syria and back.

DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL: Never in my dreams, I expected to sneak to the border three times and have the border guards shouting at me.

AMOS: With smugglers urging him through a hole in a barbed-wire border fence.

SAHLOUL: Going in the mountain at night, walking for three hours.

AMOS: All this to get to Syrian field hospitals and clinics in urgent need.

SAHLOUL: I think this is part of the reality now, in Syria for physicians trying to help, especially if they're from the outside.

AMOS: He's hardly an outsider. Dr. Sahloul graduated first in his class from medical school in Damascus. He was a classmate of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad.

Do you think he knows what you're doing now?

SAHLOUL: Probably, he knows that the Syrian-American Medical Society is doing a lot of medical relief work among the people that he is trying to hurt.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORS SHUTTING)

AMOS: When we get to the Syrian town of Aldana - close to the Turkish border - and pull up to the hospital, the staff is lined up to welcome him. Everyone looks tired. Medical supplies are scarce, and the casualties are rising. The wounded come by taxi, in cars and on foot. Surrounding towns and villages are within range of the Syrian military's long-distance artillery and air strikes, the head surgeon tells him.

SAHLOUL: The last battle, they received 110 wounded person, and they have only 10 beds.

AMOS: And so the rest went to Turkey?

SAHLOUL: Yes, rest went to Turkey.

AMOS: Patients are dying because Turkish hospitals are too far away. The doctors urge him to help expand this hospital, to save more lives.

DR. IYAD: We see a lot of shrapnel, really bad shrapnel injuries. I mean, you see these small metallic shrapnel, like little flying knives, literally. We've certainly seen a few deaths out of these.

AMOS: That's Dr. Iyad. He gives his first name only, a Syrian-American on break from a hospital in Tennessee. He volunteered to work in Aldana after rebels took control here.

How safe is this town?

IYAD: I think, for the moment, this town is relatively safe. I mean, if you spend the night here, you can here the bombing all the time. Some of them - is near, some of them is a bit further; but relatively safe.

AMOS: Relatively safe - it's what Dr. Sahloul sees, too, as he walks out on to the streets of Aldana at sunset.

SAHLOUL: This area is definitely the safest area I've seen south of the Turkish border.

AMOS: On the drive out of town, we see open barbershops and restaurants; children playing in the streets. Some residents are even repairing damaged homes. The Syrian army is too stretched fighting rebels elsewhere, to retake Aldana. Dr. Sahloul sees a place to rebuild in these relatively safe Syrian towns that hug the frontier where the Turkish military provides unofficial cover. Syrian doctors who fled the country could come back here to work.

SAHLOUL: Many of them already want to come back to Syria and want to volunteer, actually, in Syria. Some of them may serve in the emergency room, especially if it is relatively safe.

AMOS: Doctors have a special place in Syrian society: the top graduates, the cream of the crop, natural leaders. So doctors were an early target of the regime when the revolution began, says Dr. Sahloul. At least 60 physicians have been killed, more than 200 arrested, he says. Syria's health care system, one of the best in the Middle East, is near collapse.

SAHLOUL: Hospitals are being targeted. Patients are pulled from the operating room. Patients are being tortured inside the hospitals. You have reports of doctors on the other side who are killing patients. This is unheard of. I've never seen something like this.

AMOS: Many doctors fled to Turkey, and they're caring for a refugee population that has overwhelmed the Turkish health care system.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNAPPING NOISE)

AMOS: This patient bears his pain in silence as a doctor bandages the stump of his leg, recently amputated below the knee. This rehabilitation center in southern Turkey is run by Syrian doctors, funded by a Syrian businessman in the Gulf. The medical staff all fled Syria under threat, says Dr. Ammar Martini, who heads the center. When protests broke out in his hometown of Idlib, security police ordered doctors to withhold treatment from anyone shot on the streets.

DR. AMMAR MARTINI: Of course, three or four times they told me, it is not allowed for you to treat any wounded person.

AMOS: Is that why you left and came here?

MARTINI: Yeah. When I thought I will be killed, I leave.

AMOS: Now, he can offer long-term care for patients from across Syria - Idlib, Hama, Homs; protest towns under fierce army shelling.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRAWER OPENING)

SAHLOUL: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Dr. Sahloul is here to see the new center. He stops by the bed of a young woman from Homs. She tells him she waited days for treatment; was smuggled out of the besieged city through a sewerage pipe, her wounds badly infected during the long ordeal. His physician's composure slips for a moment, as he surveys her damaged body.

SAHLOUL: She was shelled by a missile to her left arm and to her left side. As you see, she has several surgeries on her belly and her left leg, and her left arm was amputated. She's 24 years old.

AMOS: Rebuilding Syria's shattered health care system is one of the biggest challenges ahead. Treating the wounded inside Syria is his immediate concern.

SAHLOUL: We learn in medical school and training how to deal with crisis, how to deal with patients who are in the intensive care unit. And right now, Syria is in crisis, is in critical condition.

AMOS: A critical condition caused by his old med school classmate, President Bashar al-Assad, he says. But Dr. Sahloul is convinced this is a turning point in the revolution. As rebels take more territory across the country, it is now time for the doctors to go back.

Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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