“I believe in miracles”: Treating casualties from the Syrian civil war
For more than four years, Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have treated severely injured Syrian refugees arriving in Ramtha, Jordan. As our time in the city comes to a close, Renate Sinke, a project coordinator from the Netherlands, remembers saving lives and limbs as part of a remarkable surgical programme.
It was midday on a Monday when my phone beeped urgently:
“One case to the ER. Next 15 minutes. One-month-old baby. Multiple shrapnel.”
“Oh God. More collateral damage from this horrible war,” I said to my colleague, thinking about the indiscriminate bombings and airstrikes as we drove back to our clinic in Ramtha, a town on the Syrian border.
Text messages like this were all too common during the heavy fighting in June 2015.
More than 75% of the injured we received in Ramtha arrived with terrible blast wounds. Head injuries were especially bad because CT scans weren’t available. The other patients we treated in the best way we could.
Their wounds told stories, and I want to tell you one.
Almost five months earlier, an unconscious 18-year-old I’ll call Mohannad* had arrived in our emergency room. He had a severe neurological trauma (an injury to the brain, spine or nerves) and was in urgent need of an amputation to his upper leg.
I had never met someone with more power and determination."
We were not able to provide care for unconscious neurological patients, so our medical team decided we should move Mohannad to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for life support. However, our extraordinary orthopaedic surgeon still thought the amputation should go ahead – to give the young man some dignity when he died.
An MSF surgical team operate on a patient in Ramtha. Photo: Maya Abu Ata/MSF
For six long weeks, Mohannad lay in an unconscious state. Our medical team leader played music in his room and we talked to comfort him on daily visits.
Then something happened that I will never forget... Mohannad opened his eyes, with a blank stare.
It took another week before he spoke. The nurse with us didn’t want to translate what Mohannad was saying as he said it was “bad language”. It didn’t matter, at least he had talked.
Bit by bit, Mohannad recovered.
He returned to surgery to shape his leg for a prosthetic and received psychological support. However, the trauma had left its mark on him and being with Mohannad felt like being with a small child.
All you can do, really, while the world has their eyes and ears closed, is to make the difference."
Nevertheless, I had never met someone with more power and determination.
Every day he exercised, taking steps with a walker. To challenge him, I’d stand in front of him, being careful not to receive a head bump or punch in the stomach. His roommates warned him not to hit the “mudira” (boss) and demanded he apologised.
After that, we all had a good laugh.
Then came the difficult day when Mohannad really wanted to return home to his family in Syria, against the advice of the MSF team.
We put him on medication to help prevent daily seizures, however, medicine in Syria was extremely scarce due to the then four-year-long war.
Three months after he left, we received a call that Mohannad’s medication had ran out and he had started having daily seizures. The conflict had worsened and it wasn’t possible for him to find resupplies.
I won’t tell how we did it, but we did manage to get another 15 months of medication to him. He had proven to us, after our gesture to restore his dignity, that he had the strength and courage to survive against all odds!
An MSF nurse with a young Syrian boy being treated at Ramtha. Photo: Joosarang Lee/MSF
“Make the difference”
This is just one of the hundreds special stories, moments and people I could have shared. But the most important thing is I could not have done it alone. The full MSF team was extraordinary and went above and beyond to make the difference.
It was at my farewell party that I received a video confirming that Mohannad had received the medication he needed. I could not have been given any better goodbye present than that.
All you can do, really, while the world has their eyes and ears closed, is to make the difference. Go above and beyond and make it happen!
*Names changed to protect patient’s privacy