International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Syrian doctors saving lives on the frontline with IRC training

By Kete Shabani, communication and information manager with the International Rescue Committee in Jordan
AMMAN, Jordan - At 23, Hamid* was in the midst of medical school in Canada when war broke out in Syria. Today, he’s a veteran of frontline medicine. He returned to Syria when the war begin and now works at a field hospital in his hometown of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. Most of the original staff have fled, and the caseload is immense. “We receive around 200 cases in 24 hours, 60 of them are emergency cases,” Hamid estimates. 
Hamid and his colleagues perform abdominal operations; remove bullets and shrapnel from torsos, arms and legs. But most of the caseload is comprised of those suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal illness and other ailments. With medical care a commodity in war torn Syria, ad hoc clinics like the one Hamid works in are all that is available in contested or rebel-held areas of the country. 
Working conditions are wretched, says Hamid. With constant electricity cuts it is difficult to keep the life saving machines that still work operating. "We have to keep our generators running 10 hours a day, but fuel for it is hard to find and very expensive." He also charges that the Assad regime deliberately targets medical personnel and hospitals in rebel-held areas. "75% of our patients are civilians," he says, adding that the majority are women and children. In a war where there are obvious pressures to take sides, Hamid responds: "I am a doctor first, and I swore an oath. For me every human life is worth the same. I will treat whoever needs treatment."


Many of the ad hoc medical centers across front-line Syria are supported by aid agencies who require a similar adherence to impartiality in the operating room. With IRC support, a Syrian partner directly funds Hamid’s clinic, as well as dozens of others. As part of that partnership, Hamid and close to 100 other doctors, nurses and paramedics have received training in trauma care. Most have limited medical experience; many have none. Engineers, bakers and hairdressers are among those who’ve taken the training sessions. Using state of the art, highly portable medical equipment (which they carry back to Syria with them), they learn how to keep wounded patients breathing, how to treat chest and abdominal wounds, and how to manage shock and acute bleeding. Given recent reports on chemical weapons use in Syria, they also receive training in chemical injury treatment.

With the toll of dead and wounded rising daily, there are fewer doctors, nurses and paramedics to treat them. Many have fled the country with their families. Some say they’ve been tortured and intimidated, others claim medical personnel have been targeted and killed. "Only 5% of our staff are left," says Amir*, a 33-year-old surgeon who took part in the IRC medical training. "People are dying because they cannot get the most simple medical care they need. We are facing a huge shortage of essentials such as serums, vaccines, I-V fluids and filters for the dialysis machine. It’s not only bombs that are killing Syrians, it’s the lack of access to pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, hospital equipment and electricity."

For Amir, Hamid and others, their career is a calling. But to remain inside a Syria at war, saving lives while their own are threatened, requires a particular sense of mission. “When we hear a bomb fall, we run,” says Hamid. “Not away from it, we run towards it. It is important to be there as fast as you can, to save as many as you can.”

*All names have been changed due to security risks

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