Surgeon Shares Personal Experience to Shed Light on Medical Crisis in Syria

Northwestern Medicine
News June 06, 2014
Northwestern Medicine® orthopaedic surgeon Samer Attar, MD, recently returned from two weeks volunteering at an underground hospital in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. While there, he performed surgeries and cared for patients injured in the country’s ongoing civil war, which is in its fourth year. Attar, who went on his first volunteer trip to Syria in August 2013*, has used his personal experiences to draw international attention to the worsening humanitarian crisis in the war-torn country. In May, he addressed members of the United Nations and also spoke alongside Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) during a special exhibition at the U.S. Senate.

At the United Nations*, Attar spoke as part of a panel addressing barrel bombs—barrels and drums packed with shrapnel and explosives that are then dropped from helicopters, indiscriminately hitting civilian areas with devastating results. The event, held on May 14, was organized by the Permanent Mission of the Netherlands and co-sponsored by the Permanent Missions of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, Portugal, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Spain, Turkey and the United States.

“Civilians, homes, hospitals, schools, bakeries, and breadlines have not been spared,” said Attar.  “Last month, bombs were dropped daily. Helicopters and jets spotted in the sky would lead to small crowds collectively pointing in the air followed by frantic dispersion once a bomb became visible.”

In Aleppo, empty streets are lined with buildings gutted from the constant airstrikes. Thousands of civilians have fled the city since the start of the conflict.

“Those remaining citizens have resigned themselves to living in a city where terror and desolation are accepted as part of a normal, daily routine,” Attar said. “The Syrian physicians and nurses who have stayed are working under extremely challenging conditions and saving lives using very limited resources.”

Most patients Attar treated were civilians, including children, injured by shrapnel or shot by snipers while going about their daily lives. At times, the hospital would become so crowded surgeries had to be performed outside operating rooms or in the emergency room, and patients would have to share beds. Many hospitals in Aleppo have been targeted and destroyed by airstrikes including the hospital where Attar first volunteered in August.

“The hospital I worked at in April didn’t even look like a hospital – it was more like a walk-up apartment building,” said Attar. “We slept on the floor and rarely ventured outside. Sandbags have replaced windows because bomb blasts have shattered most of the glass.”

In his address at the United Nations, Attar emphasized the need to support the caregivers and hospitals in Syria that continue to function despite limited resources and dangerous conditions.

“More than 50 percent of the people in these hospitals have no prior medical training or experience, they are just helping out because most of the doctors and nurses have left,” said Attar. “There are good people who are still inside Syria on the ground who don’t plan on leaving. They are still there saving lives amidst bombs and bullets. They need all the help that they can get.”

Following the event at the United Nations, Attar was part of the opening reception for The Children of Syria, a special photography exhibition organized by Leslie Thomas at the U.S. Senate that documents the impact of the conflict on Syrian children. Attar spoke at the May 22 event, which also featured remarks from Senator John McCain, Senator Robert Casey, and Senator Tim Kaine.

For both trips into Syria, Attar traveled over the border with the assistance of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS)*, and worked alongside physicians and caregivers from the Aleppo City Medical Council.

View Attar’s address* at the United Nations or read more about his experience in Syria in the Wall Street Journal*. 

Attar recommends the following organizations for anyone looking to learn more, get involved or donate money: Syrian American Medical Society*; Doctors Without Borders*; UNICEF*; International Committee of the Red Cross*; and Karam Foundation*. 

Samer Attar, MD, is an orthopaedic surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and an assistant professor of orthopaedic surgery at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. 
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