US physicians teach Syrians battle-field medicine

As Syria’s civil war, now in its third year, grows deadlier by the week, the country’s understaffed and inexperienced doctors are overwhelmed by the cases they see.

July 8, 2013 15:57
3 minute read.
Syrian refugees wait for treatment at the Al Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordan

Syrian refugee baby 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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GAZIANTEP, TURKEY -- Dr. Waja Muharram studied the tibia bone closely.  The Syrian internist’s eyes darted back and forth as an American cardiovascular surgeon inserted and removed needles at a rapid pace, explaining how to provide trauma patients with intravenous fluids by tapping into the bone marrow.  “We see so many victims who suffer from trauma,” noted the 41-year old Dr. Muharram. “This technique will be of great use to us in the field.”

As Syria’s civil war, now in its third year, grows deadlier by the week, the country’s understaffed and inexperienced doctors are overwhelmed by the cases they see.  To alleviate their shortfalls, aid organizations such as the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) have stepped up to provide training and equipment.

At a four day SAMS conference in Gaziantep in eastern Turkey, five American physicians conducted a workshop for forty-two Syrian doctors.  The session combined classroom lectures using computerized medical equipment; and hands-on techniques such as the ones that amazed Dr. Muharram.

“There is a noticeable lack of experience with the Syrian doctors,” Dr. Muhammad al-Azzam, a radiologist from Ann Arbor, Michigan, told The Media Line. “So this is a real professional course for them based on what they need with advanced trauma support.”

SAMS has made use of the latest battlefield techniques learned from the American army in Iraq.  The Tactical Field Care Guidelines gleaned from the US military’s experience there offers new methods to deal with trauma patients and limb loss.  “The army invited us to seminars where we learned valuable lessons we are teaching here,” explained Dr. Ahmad Tarakji, a 39-year old cardiovascular surgeon in Fresno, California.

Other techniques such as the kink cavity focus on new and easier methods to get air into the lungs.  Rather than cutting into the trachea as is traditionally done but requires a high degree of expertise, an incision is made into the esophagus.  The procedure is much less complicated, allowing non-specialists the ability to provide in-field emergency care.

“Kinks cavity is a much easier technique that can easily be learned,” explained Dr. Tamar Mullah Hassan, a 48-year old internist who heads the SAMS office in Gaziantep.  “The trachea procedure is difficult to master.”
 Syrian doctors were impressed with their American counterparts.  “There is so much we don’t know,” confessed Dr. Muhammad Taknari a radiologist from Idlib.  “The conference gave me a chance to learn some of them.”

In a revolution where most of the media emphasis has been on the rebels from the Free Syrian Army, humanitarian organizations such as SAMS have been silently working to provide care for the conflict’s victims.  SAMS pays doctors’ salaries and evaluates their performance monthly.  It has funded mobile clinics that visit approximately twelve villages a day.  The staff, consisting of a physician, a nurse and lab technicians, dispenses medicines and coordinate pre-natal care.

The dangers of working in a war zone such as Syria have not deterred the intrepid doctors from carrying out their Hippocratic Oath.  SAMS has sent a number of American doctors inside Syria to perform surgeries and establish field hospitals.  Nevertheless, the risks are high.  Last month, regime artillery attacked a convoy that included SAMS staff heading to the city of Qusair where Lebanese-based Hezbollah proxy fighters reinforced Syrian army regulars.  Several SAMS member died.

SAMS’ expertise and funding is desperately needed because Syrian hospitals are understaffed.  In the city of Aleppo, which is divided between the regime and rebels, there are only five surgeons.  Internists examine between 100 and 200 patients per day.  “We are facing challenges that overwhelm us,” said Dr. Muharram.

Others complain of shortages in basic supplies and machines.  “We don’t have enough equipment and drugs,” said Dr. Muhammad Jasim a 46-year old cardiologist from Rakka.

But for now, physicians such as Drs. Muharram and Jasim are content to make use of their new expertise in the field.  “We are struggling,” said Dr. Jasim.  “But the struggle became a little easier today.”

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