On June 13, 2014, my medical team with Flying Doctors of America flew from the comforts of our homes to meet in Amman, Jordan. There we began our medical mission to help Syrian refugees. The team included doctors, nurses, dentists, engineers, physical therapists, and other volunteers from all over the United States. We also had a social worker who specializes in post-traumatic stress, since the children had left a war zone. My son, who is an engineer, joined me again on this trip as he has in the past, volunteering his vacation time to this mission.
This mission was different than previous trips because we worked with the Jordanian medical school. Each day, twenty Jordanian medical students worked with us as translators, pharmacists, and medical assistants. Many of the students were refugees themselves in the past. They met us each morning, and after we packed our suitcases with the supplies we would need, we drove for 90 minutes to make-shift medical centers close to the refugee camps. The number of patients that needed medical attention was overwhelming – we saw over 200 people every day – especially the number of children. Being a pediatrician, I knew this would be challenging.
Many of the Syrian refugees were business and property owners, but now live in poverty in tents in the dry desert with limited food and water. Most of their homes and towns have been destroyed. Some mothers said they left their husbands and older sons behind in Syria and cried since they did not know their fate. All the refugees had a tale to tell about their loss, pain, stress, fatigue, and physical injuries.
The refugees seemed grateful to be in Jordan and that “America cared.” Many said they had heard stories of Americans but had never met one. I had my preconceptions as well, but our commonality as humans was a strong bond. One dark-eyed child just stared and stared at me and then said, “Blue eyes.“ After that, her mother started calling me “Dr. Blue Eyes.“
As they were curious about me, I was also curious about them. I had never been to the Middle East before. I wasn’t sure how to remove a hijab to look in a girl’s ears or to examine a mother’s face beneath her hijab or burka. Soon the mystery was over, as she or her mom would gently guide me. They were all beautiful girls and mothers underneath their hijabs. Since we were in an open space without much privacy, I quickly learned that all men must leave the space for me to examine a girl’s belly or lower body. I also wasn’t sure how the dads would react to a woman physician, but the female Jordanian medical students reassured me there were many women doctors in the Middle East.
Both the climate and the conditions make life in the camp challenging at best. The desert is as hot and dusty as you would expect. Under the beating hot sun, it went to 111 degrees one day. Most families are large, often with six to eight children. (One day the nurses asked if I could just see one more family; I was surprised when nine people walked in!) The refugees slept as families on rugs on the floor of their tents. One mom had six children and no diapers so she had to use plastic bags.
Due to these conditions, we saw children with diarrhea, dehydration, skin infection, intestinal worms, scabies, chicken pox, and breathing problems. The asthma rates were very high due to the dusty, dry climate and from many adults smoking cigarettes and having to cook on open fires. We saw many congenital anomalies (children with cleft lip and palates, missing limbs, no ear canals), hernias, mental retardation, hip dysplasia, and other diseases. Strangely enough, we also saw more than one teenage boy who was concerned about acne. They reminded us that in spite of everything, children still have very human concerns.
And, of course, we saw war injuries like shrapnel wounds, explosive injuries, and chemical burns. One of the most significantly injured was a girl who was in a car with her parents when they were shot at (her parents were killed). She got shrapnel in her eye. A friend found her and took her over the border for help. She lost her left eye and had a serious infection and fever. With the help of the Jordanian medical school and other local non-governmental organizations (NGOs), we got her to a hospital for treatment – she would not have otherwise survived. She may get a glass eye in her future. She has met with a social worker to help her with her post-traumatic stress. This was a true medical success story, but considering she lost her family, her home and her vision, I hope that she will have a better future. We all wish her the best healing, and I am grateful that she has her family’s friend to care for her.
I left the mission grateful for my son, who wants to travel to foreign countries to help people. I am very grateful to the team of medical personnel who spent their vacation and money volunteering with me. And I am very grateful to the Jordanian medical students who were a fantastic resource to help us with language and cultural barriers. They will follow up on the sickest children and, with the help of local NGOs, get them to hospitals.
Since I have been back, when I think of complaining, I remind myself of those people trapped in those war zones. I think of the mothers without husbands and those who lost their children. I am grateful I am home safe, grateful for my experience, but heavy-hearted about the realities of war, especially for the children who are still at risk of dying – I wonder and worry about their futures. Although I am just one person, visiting for a short time, I hope that my colleagues and I gave hope, comfort, and inspiration to those who need it so, so desperately.