The world is rightly pulling together to face this pandemic. But here in Idlib, Syria, our patients and healthcare workers face urgent threats every dayby Dr Ihsan / March 15, 2020 / Leave a comment
As coronavirus has dominated headlines over the past few months, most of the world is more aware than ever of the importance of decent healthcare. But in the isolated pocket of Idlib, Syria, where hospitals are regularly bombed and targeted, the latest escalation in violence means people are dying rather than seek treatment.
It may sound insane to risk your life for fear of going to hospital. Hospitals should inject life back into people—not suck it away.
But since the beginning of December, more than 84 hospitals and medical facilities in northwest Syria have been damaged, destroyed or forced to close their doors due to violence or mass shortages of staff or supplies, including 18 hospitals which are, like mine, supported by the aid charity Islamic Relief.
As a cardiologist, I’ve noticed an increase in the number of heart attacks as some patients with acute coronary syndrome (ACS) are too scared to come to hospitals. Many have then died. My colleagues tell me they, too, are seeing the same trend.
Since 2013, I can remember at least four bombings of the hospital where I work. The worst was an aerial bombing six years ago in which two of my colleagues—a nurse and one of the guards—were killed.
Just two weeks ago, several bombs exploded about 30 metres from the hospital in quick succession, shattering the windows and doors. Luckily no-one inside was injured, but a man was killed by a head injury nearby.
That health workers are not all completely traumatised is a miracle—though perhaps, in fact, we are. Perhaps we are masking our trauma by keeping on going.
For those who do come to us, it’s not like we are able to guarantee impeccable treatment. We operate in “crisis mode”: only performing emergency surgery as we have fewer surgeons, doctors, nurses and technicians.
We have several people come in with head injuries—but we don’t have a CT scan nor a neurosurgeon. We cannot perform angiograms (radiological scans of blood vessels), fit pacemakers or stents. A lot of the cardiovascular equipment I need is not available.
In the meantime, people are getting really sick. Often, when people are displaced they have to leave their medication behind or they lose it. Many diabetic patients stop taking their medication and just when they think they’re OK, complications start.
We’re not just treating injuries. The conditions in which people are living are a breeding ground for disease. Mothers are unable to breastfeed because they are malnourished or crippled with anxiety. This leads to malnourishment in babies too.
Recently a man came in with his young daughter who was suffering from hypothermia, but it was too late to save her, and she died. Living out in cold in crowded camps is killing people.
I can’t even begin to describe how I felt when this girl died—I am a father of three myself and I couldn’t help but think of my own daughter. She is four, and gets so scared that she can’t speak when she hears aeroplanes.
Of course, I have thought about leaving Syria, which has been steeped in humanitarian crisis for nine years now. But I would feel too guilty: I was born here, and I can help. I dreamed of studying in Europe or the US but I have other priorities now.
Earlier this month there was a ceasefire in Idlib, but that only gives us a fraction of breathing space before the next onslaught. Last week, hearing about the ceasefire and excited at the opportunity to return to his hometown, a 22-year-old man was injured so badly by a landmine that we had to amputate his lower leg. In the past month, there have been 15 patients who have had a lower leg or whole leg amputated as a result of shelling or landmines. Three of these patients have had both legs amputated.
Where are the world leaders who are dropping everything for coronavirus, when it comes to Syria? It feels like they are taking special measures to protect civilians, but where have they been for the civilians of my country, whose healthcare system has been on its knees for nine years as a result of this crisis? It feels like there’s one rule for us Syrians and another for the rest of the world.
It feels like after nine years, there is just no space left in people’s minds for Syria. But please don’t let this be the case—please don’t forget about us.