Middle East
12:01 am
Tue March 6, 2012

From The Outside, Doctor Mobilizes Aid For Syrians

Originally published on Tue March 6, 2012 12:13 pm

At a cafe in Turkey, near the border with Syria, Dr. Monzer Yazji steps out of his car in the parking lot and encounters a man with a bandaged left hand.

Yazji, a Syrian who now works in the U.S., examines Abu Hamad, a fellow Syrian who has fled the fighting in his homeland.

The doctor, a tall man with glasses and a trim graying beard, is becoming well-known among Syrian activists. Yazji has been periodically leaving his thriving practice in the Rio Grande Valley in southern Texas to coordinate emergency medical aid for Syria.

Yazji is a big part of the U.S. branch of the newly formed Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations, which includes doctors from France, Britain, Switzerland, Germany and Italy.

In this case, his encounter with a patient was accidental. Abu Hamad, who is from a restive suburb of Damascus, describes how his 18-year-old son was killed during a protest. Two days after his name was published in the state media, men came to Abu Hamad's door and demanded his ID card.

A worried Abu Hamad moved his wife and younger son to a neighbor's house and watched as men with rocket-propelled grenades destroyed his home.

Now, Abu Hamad says, he has constant pain in his left shoulder and down his side, and he thinks something went wrong with his heart after his son was killed. As medical explanations go, this one sounds a bit odd.

Yazji assures the patient that the pain is more likely a herniated disc.

"He has most likely a cervical ... herniated disc impinging on his left side of his spine," Yazji says. "Now, he feels better that at least he knows it's not his heart."

Helping Syrians From The Outside

Inside Syria, doctors, nurses and other medical workers have been trying to keep people alive in desperate conditions. Yazji says sometimes they succeed because a doctor from the union is on the other end of a phone or Internet connection talking them through a procedure.

In hard-hit districts of Homs and other cities, field hospitals have been either targeted or hit by random shelling, activists say. Yazji says his group is working to address that problem, too, with an innovation used in other remote locations.

"We started building mobile hospitals, and now we are spread all over Syria," he says. Yazji says they have 30 to 36 of the mobile hospitals, which are equipped to do surgical procedures.

"They do the surgery while we are watching, and we give them directions," says the doctor. He notes that in Baba Amr, a neighborhood in the hard-hit city of Homs, dentists have been doing surgery on the wounded with the help of Yazji's organization. "They are doing a great job; they're doing [an] unbelievable job."

Even now, some doctors do manage to get out of Syria and receive training and supplies, which they take back into Syria.

A doctor named Nour, from the central city of Hama, says her career suffered after she began to treat patients from the opposition. She doesn't want her last name used because she fears her family would be punished.

She is comparatively lucky, however. She remembers a colleague, Dr. Ibrahim Othman, who was forced to flee from a Hama hospital by the security forces. They followed Othman while he tried to get out of Syria, but he was killed by a sniper as he approached the Turkish border.

Yazji says the medical professionals working today in Syria are his heroes, as are the volunteers who carry supplies in, some of whom have paid the ultimate price. He says the medical union is expanding so that a doctor can be on call 24 hours a day to support Syrian medics as they undergo a crash course in combat medicine.

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

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. In the days since Syria's military crushed rebellious neighborhoods in the city of Homs, thousands of Syrian refugees have headed into neighboring Lebanon. Many say they fled for fear of being slaughtered by government forces. International pressure is building on the regime of Bashar al Assad, over alleged human rights abuses. And yesterday in Washington, D.C., Senator John McCain called for direct military intervention.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: The United States should lead an international effort to protect key population centers in Syria, especially in the north, through air strikes on Assad's forces.

MONTAGNE: Within Syria some of the most dramatic scenes from rebel held neighborhoods have been from makeshift field hospitals where doctors struggle in grim conditions to provide emergency care. Such scenes have prompted a U.S.-based Syrian doctor to help. NPR's Peter Kenyon met with a doctor near Turkey's border with Syria and has this report.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: In a café a short drive from the border, a Syrian using the name Abu Hamad is telling his story. He's from Douma, a restive suburb of Damascus.

ABU HAMAD: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: He gestures with his right hand as he describes how his 18-year-old son was killed during a protest; and two days after, his name was published in the state media, men came to his door and demanded his ID card. Worried, he moved his wife and younger son to a neighbor's and watched as men with rocket-propelled grenades destroyed his house.

Abu Hamad appears to be injured, his left hand bandaged. He says he has constant pain in his left shoulder and down his side. He thinks something went wrong with his heart after his son was killed. As medical explanations go, this one sounds a bit odd. But purely by chance, Abu Hamad is about to get some sound medical advice.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: Out in the parking lot, another car arrives as Abu Hamad is leaving. A tall man with glasses and a trim graying beard steps out, quickly examines Abu Hamad and assures him that the pain in his heart over the loss of his son is probably not what's causing the pain in his side. More likely it's a herniated disc.

DR. MONZER YAZJI: Really he has a cervical – most likely cervical – herniated disc impinging on his left side of his spine. And now he feels better that at least he knows it's not his heart, you know?

KENYON: Dr. Monzer Yazji is becoming known among Syrian activists who have been bewildered by the lack of international response to their plight. From time to time, he leaves his thriving practice in the Rio Grande valley in southern Texas to coordinate emergency medical aid for Syria.

He's a big part of the U.S. branch of the newly-formed union of Syrian medical relief organizations, which includes doctors from France, Britain, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. As doctors, nurses and aides inside Syria try to keep people alive in desperate conditions, Yazji says sometimes they succeed because a doctor from the union is on the other end of a phone or Internet connection talking them through a procedure.

In hard-hit districts of Homs and other cities, field hospitals have been either targeted or hit by random shelling, activists say. Dr. Yazji says his group is working to address that problem too with an innovation used in other remote locations.

YAZJI: And we start building mobile hospitals. And now we spread all over Syria. We have probably between 30-36, you know, of them. And we are equipped, really, to do surgery. They do the surgery while we are watching and we give them directions how to do surgery. Because some of them in Baba Amr, you know, they are dentists. But they're doing a great job. They're doing unbelievable job.

KENYON: Even now, some doctors do manage to get out of Syria and receive training and supplies to bring back in. Dr. Nour, from Hama, can't use her last name out of fears that her family would be punished. She says her career suffered after she began to treat opposition patients and she's comparatively lucky. She remembers a colleague, Dr. Ibrahim Othman, who was forced to flee from a Hama hospital by the security forces.

DR. NOUR: (Through translator) The security followed Dr. Othman. He tried to get out of Syria, but he was killed by a sniper as he approached the Turkish border.

KENYON: Dr. Yazji says the medical professionals working today in Syria are his heroes, as are the volunteers who carry supplies in, some of whom have paid the ultimate price. Yazji says the medical union is expanding so that a doctor can be on call 24 hours a day to support Syrian medics as they undergo a crash course in combat medicine.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, near the Turkey-Syria border. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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