American Doctors Reach Out To Syria

By NPR's Tell Me More Staff

May 14, 2013

The civil war in Syria feels far away for many Americans. But it hits close to home for one Chicago doctor and has pulled him, and many of his colleagues, to the front lines. 

Tell Me More host Michel Martin spoke with Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a practicing critical care specialist in Chicago and president of the Syrian American Medical Society.

Sahloul says that for safety reasons, local physicians in Syria have established an underground health care system.

"In every area in Syria," Sahloul notes, "there is what's called field hospitals or medical points. These field hospitals and medical points are usually hidden in the basement of buildings or sometimes in natural caves. I've seen a field hospital in the mountains of Latakia that is made in a cave — natural cave — because it's hidden from the authorities. It cannot be bombed and shelled."

On the type of injuries he sees

"Many of the conditions are related to shrapnel. ... There is a phenomenon in Syria called barrel bombs. These are barrels that are stuffed with bomb powder and dropped on populations.

"We are also treating more and more patients who have infectious diseases related to the disintegration of the health care system. We are seeing more resurgence of measles, for example, because of lack of vaccination in Syria."

On the possible use of chemical weapons

"One of the things that we have been doing is trying to track these incidents of chemical weapons exposure, and so far we have documented seven attacks of what looks like chemical weapons.

"We collected samples from the patients who died due to the exposure and handed them over to the authorities in the American Embassy in Turkey. We also provided antidotes ... to the physicians in Aleppo and Damascus to help them.

"When I went to the city of Aleppo a couple of weeks ago it looks like the medical community over there have a plan to deal with future attacks. ... In front of every hospital you have decontamination tents for the patients to come through before they enter ... the hospital."

On the tough cases he's dealt with

"I remember one of the younger patients I've seen. And she's 4 years old. Her name is Maram. Her house was shelled in the city of Idlib, and she sustained a spinal cord injury. So when I saw her, she was laying in the bed of the hospital. And she was very depressed. You know usually children smile when you try to have a joke with them, and she was not smiling. So I brought her some toys and tried to have a smile on her face, but she could not. This is one of the patients that is imprinted in my mind. And every time I think about Syria and what's happening in their life, I think about her.

"We were supporting one rehabilitation unit that she was taken to, and this rehabilitation unit is in Turkey right now. So [she and her family] moved to Turkey. And we are supporting that rehab by financial resources."

On Syria's future

"Syria is very unique country. It can be a model in the Middle East. We have a very diverse population; we have an educated middle class; we have a diversified economy in Syria. And I believe that at the end of the crisis, we will have a model in the Middle East that others can follow."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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