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Saleyha Ahsan (pictured) travelled to Syria with the charity Hand in Hand for Syria. She talks about her experience based in a hospital in the north of the country, working alongside doctors being filmed for the BBC Panorama documentary, Saving Syria’s Children.
As I spoke to doctors and mothers of sick children at a children’s hospital in northern Syria an almighty bang shook the building.
A high-explosive bomb had been dropped nearby. Mothers evacuated to the first floor away from windows, carrying their babies with fluids still running through the drips in their arms.
The relentless shelling of neighbouring villages continued throughout the night with the terrifying impact evident on the faces of children I met the next morning at the water well.
This source of water serves a large majority of the villagers and runs precariously close to sewage pipes. Ironically children with waterborne diseases, picked up from the well end up at the children’s hospital next door.
One girl stood out as she deftly hauled buckets from the 11ft well into which children sometimes fall.
Warda, meaning flower in Arabic, was tall and slim. The 11-year-old had deep dark circles around her eyes. She described how her family had fled their home in Damascus because it was too dangerous to stay.
She told us she collects water every day for her family, now living in the village, as she balanced filled buckets onto a wheelbarrow.
We asked her what she missed the most. ‘Electricity from a switch and water coming from a tap like home,’ she said.
The children’s hospital, one of two run by HIHS (Hand in Hand for Syria), was having serious problems with its electrical generators.
It has a special baby care unit with twelve incubators and a light box for jaundiced and premature babies.
In September every single incubator was occupied by a tiny early baby. Sometimes there are two in each, such is the demand, explained the neonatal nurse.
I asked HIHS director Faddy Sahloul, how they manage with the incubators when the generators break down. ‘Don’t,’ he shuddered. ‘It would kill me if we couldn’t get those incubators working.’
The thought was obviously too terrible for him to even contemplate. ‘We have a very small secret back-up generator that we run to get when the electricity goes off to keep the incubators working.’ It was hardly a safe, reliable substitute.
In the hospital I was based in, we had a mass casualty situation when a nearby school, the Iqraa Institute, was hit by a thermal bomb. Three pupils were killed instantly and of the 30 who arrived severely burned eight have since died from their injuries.
We treated them with tragically limited supplies, not even adequate analgesia or enough doctors. Siham Kanbari, 18, was so badly burned her screams seared into my memory.
She was taken to a specialised burns unit in Turkey, with second and third degree burns covering 70 per cent of her body. The headmaster, Mohammed Abu Omar, described her as the brightest student at Iqraa, consistently scoring the highest grades as she studied for the baccalaureate. On Oct 20, nearly two months after she was injured, Siham died.
Divisions amongst the world’s powers has meant the UN has moved relatively slowly on Syria. After months of talks the 15-member Security Council finally approved a presidential statement issued on October 2, falling short of the anticipated binding resolution to counter the deteriorating humanitarian crisis.
It is now six weeks after the statement and I was keen for an update from the ground. Mr Sahloul said he had not seen any positive changes and that the work already existing was threatened.
The rest of the world has a duty to do more to try to resolve the situation so that chidren like Warda can get back to having water and electricity as standard, and grow up in peace and security.
Saleyha Ahsan is a locum registrar in emergency medicine in Essex
Information about Hand in Hand for Syria
Please keep up the good work and your efforts do not go unnoticed.
Thanks Abdul for those words and for reading.
Your work is inspiring! Please keep it up
You ought to win a prize for outstanding excellence towards the medical profession representation and bravery.
David Cameron should be calling on Obama to talk to Putin. Between them they can cut off flow of arms to Syria, and get serious talks underway. The US/UK should not be obstructing Iran's involvement, a country which is ready to help, helped US in Afghanistan and whose help was wanted by UN. They should not be setting unnecessary preconditions which complicate negotiations.
Saleyha, you remind us all of the reasons we went into medicine in the first place - before our clarity was clouded with audits, papers, portfolios and all the other hoops we have to jump through to 'succeed'.
It is crucial that these devastating world health issues are kept on the conscience of the public in general and the UK medical community in particular as awareness will breed support; and we as doctors we will always strive to remain true to our most fundamental ideals.
Thank you for your moving article.
As an organised charity across we are currently seeking thoughts on what medicines you would feel are crucial at this stage which we could seek and send across