Meet the doctors helping a medical team in Syria via phone
In America, medical facilities are usually teaming with nurses, surgeons, specialists, anesthesiologists and any manner of doctor we could think of. To other parts of the world, that’s a privilege we take for granted. We count on medical professionals to know what they’re doing and to have adequate training. We wouldn’t go see a veterinarian for an organ transplant no more than we’d be taken to the dentist if we were having a heart attack.
In the besieged town of Madaya in Syria, 28 miles from a hospital in Damascus, citizens there have no choice but to trust a 25-year-old dental student and a 40-something-year-old vet for any and all of their medical needs. This duo medical team is the only hope people in the rebel-held town have. Since last July, Madaya, controlled by the Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham, has been held under siege by Hezbollah, which fights on behalf of the Syrian government.
Last winter, the town’s food stores emptied out and sixteen people starved to death. In February, a Syrian pulmonologist who grew up near Madaya discovered that the cell phone towers operated by Syriatel, the Syrian cellphone giant owned by Rami Makhlouf, President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, was a way for the medical team to communicate with the outside world through wi-fi. The doctor—a board member of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMs), a humanitarian organization staffed by Syrian American doctors—had been working tirelessly to increase the staff of the Madaya medical clinic without being able to send help.
In a desperate attempt to make a difference, he created a chat room on WhatsApp that would later become the “Madaya Medical Consultants” and sent an SOS from his Facebook page. Within a day, more than two dozen doctors joined the group.
The “vet” and the “dental student” whose names are concealed for protection, weren’t always the only doctors in Madaya. The town had a third professional, anesthesiology nurse Khaled Mohammad, until he fled this past spring after receiving death threats. Since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, more than 500,000 have been penned in by pro-government fighters, unable to leave the town. Remote medicine is sometimes the only option for patients to receive care.
In rare cases, Hezbollah will only let the sickest people in dire need leave, resulting in these patients being used as bargaining chips in high-stakes human trade. A year-long blockade enforced by Hezbollah checkpoints, including deadly minefields, has secluded the 40,000 civilians from the rest of Syria, and humanitarian aid convoys haven’t been to Madaya since this May. Besides having to face the threat of starvation, the town had been forced to rely on medical professionals who have never even stepped foot in a medical school, before now.
The Madaya Medical Consultants have made a long-lasting difference in the lives of not only the patients in the war-torn town, but in the lives of the vet and dental student who rely on their advice and expertise to perform surgeries, including amputations and C-sections, and diagnose even the most difficult and rare illnesses. Without them, the death toll in recent months would undoubtedly be much higher.