April 25, 2017

Let’s start with a few quick facts about the Syrian American Medical Society. SAMS is a non-profit, non-political and non-religious medical relief organization. They provide financial support to the dwindling doctors and hospitals remaining in Syria, that continue to face attacks. Today,  5 million Syrian refugees are spread across the Middle East and Europe. Over 1 million refugees live in Lebanon, mostly in the Beka’a Valley and Tripoli. Last year SAMS provided 325,354 health services to refugees. 

Today, the team saw a few hundred patients and performed over 40 ENT procedures. It was just before midnight local time that one of our general surgeons, Dr. Mike Martarano, finished operating. I saw another 26 patients, and identified another dozen needing procedures. My son continued his role as a ‘pharmacy tech’, dispensing medications, interacting and playing with kids in the camps. He comfortably joined a team of docs in an area without his dad.

Despite our busy schedules, we found moments of team bonding and humor. Often times, humor is an inevitable outcome of the language barrier. Dr. Nejd Alsikafi asked a nurse for some marcaine, a local anesthetic. The nurse was confused – “what?” Nejd asked again, saying, “You know, marcaine, local anesthetic.” The nurse still looked puzzled and after a moment exclaimed: “Oohhhh, you want Markaayeeeeeeen!”

Another classic moment happened between Dr. Elaine Spirakes and her very eager and chatty interpreter.  At one point the interpreter was talking too much, Elaine said to the interpreter “Shhhhhhhh!!” The interpreter then turned to the patient and said “Shhhhhhhh!!”

It helps to work with such an amazing team; we really lift each other help. It also helps to reflect on difficult situations. Today, marked my most difficult and emotional moment in the trip so far. Just as I was starting my clinic, a couple of people frantically came in my room asking for some cardiac equipment to confirm if a child was alive or not. They wanted my opinion.

Before I could fully process their request, I ran down to the area where the child was. On an exam table was a baby, no more than a year old. Eyes sunken. Dehydrated. Malnourished. No heart sounds. No breath sounds. Lifeless. The other medical staff and the father were standing in a circle. I tried to ask what happened. Nobody could understand because of the language barrier. I motioned to call my translator ASAP as I started doing chest compressions. The translator arrived. She quickly asked questions only to find out the medical team had tried to resuscitate the baby for over a half hour. They just wanted me to confirm the death before giving the news to the father who happened to be standing next to me. I turned to the team, nodded my head, signaling yes, the child has passed. I choked up, slowly walked away and began seeing my waiting room full of patients. The parents began sobbing as the team broke the news to them. This was the second child they had lost since the war started. The death wasn’t from a weapon; perhaps severe malnutrition and failure to thrive. I see it as a failure of our world. We’ve seen the images on television, but today, I held it in my hands.

Tomorrow’s another full schedule where the SAMS team will continue to help others and try and prevent events like the unfortunate loss that we experienced today.

Dr. Moeen Saleem is a cardiologist at Advocate Health Care based in Illinois. He is one of 38 volunteers currently on a SAMS medical mission to provide care to refugees in Lebanon. To find out more about our work in Lebanon, please read our annual report. Your support allows us to continue providing dignified care to refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Greece.