Andrew Li, MD (left), sharing tea with an amputee and paraplegic. Photo: Dr. Salma Shabaik
Andrew Li, MD, is a resident in general surgery at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, and his wife, Salma Shabaik, MD, is a family medicine physician and spent part of her training, in spring 2012, at the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine. After hearing about the horrors occurring in Syria, the couple decided to volunteer to help those injured in the conflict. They treated refugees at the Turkey-Syria border in late 2012. That experience inspired them to create Second-Breath, a grassroots initiative that accepts donations of medical supplies to redistribute to community clinics in the United States and for use in international relief efforts.
Our journey began on November 8, 2012, in Antioch, Turkey, with Dr. Ahmed, a 29-year-old Syrian veterinarian. He arranges medical care for those near the border with Syria and coordinates international-physician volunteers. We piled our supplies into Dr. Ahmed’s tiny Saipa sedan and took off. The landscape on the 45-minute drive south toward the border was stark, flat and dusty. “Look there,” Dr. Ahmed shouted, pointing to a small Turkish village tucked at the feet of the austere Nur Mountains. “Five people died there from Syrian shelling.” The rest of the drive was silent.
We arrived at a one-star hotel that had been converted to a post-surgical and urgent-care unit. In order of decreasing frequency, we saw fractures, lower extremity amputations, wounds, spinal-cord injuries, upper-extremity amputations and enucleations caused by bullets, mortars and missiles. There were other healthcare professionals from different parts of the world, and we had to be creative in our communication. Fortunately, between Salma and me, we are fluent in Arabic, Spanish, Mandarin and English. One interesting situation occurred when I conversed in Spanish with a Spanish-trained Syrian orthopaedic surgeon regarding a Turkish patient who only spoke French and Turkish. In the end, we relied on the patient’s friend, who knew both Arabic and Turkish, to let the patient know that his bullet wound was healing just fine.
Andrew Li, MD, examines a 19-year-old spinal-cord-injury patient complaining of nausea and abdominal distention. Photo: Dr. Salma Shabaik
We not only treated these brave men and women, we lived with them, ate with them and shared stories with them over hot tea. They spoke of pain, separation and sadness, but also revealed to us a great resilience and optimism. One of the most unforgettable moments was witnessing a British physical therapist and five Syrian amputees cheer on 7-year-old Malek, with an above-the-knee amputation, as he walked up the stairs with a pair of crutches. Malek was caught in the explosion of a missile launched by a fighter plane. He received the amputation in a Syrian field hospital and from there was transferred to various rehabilitation centers, displacing him from his family. During our visit, his parents and older brother were still in Aleppo, Syria. With the continued conflict and chaos, it is uncertain if Malek will see his family again. Despite the terrible casualty count, the courage and resolution of the Syrian people should give us hope that peace will come, though at what cost in human life, no one knows.
For more information about Second-Breath, go to: second-breath.org