Chicago Doctors Risk Arrest, Torture to Aid Dire Medical Care Void in Syria

Doctors from Chicago travel to Lebanon to help fill void left by Syrian doctors who've fled to neighboring countries

A humanitarian report to be released Thursday addresses the dire medical situation in Syria and reports how doctors from all over the world -- including here in Chicago -- are being arrested and tortured simply for trying to save lives.

"This is my fifth visit into Aleppo which is considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, especially for healthcare workers," said Chicago-area critical care specialist Dr. Zaher Sahloul.

Sahloul recently made the risky trek from Turkey into Syria by ambulance, traveling on back roads, through various checkpoints, past decimated buildings and dangerously close to Islamic State fighters.

"The Syrian regime they have no respect for ambulances or doctors," said Sahloul, who heads the Syrian American Medical Society, a non-profit humanitarian organization established in 2007. "Imagine that you are treating your patients but you’re caught and that you’re tortured by your government, because you are treating your patients. So this is something that is horrifying."

The Syrian Government or regime does not want doctors to provide medical care to those who oppose the regime. It’s also considered a crime to treat anyone in opposition-controlled areas.

According to the report by the Center for Public Health and Human Rights, Johns Hopkins and the Syrian American Medical Society, there have been 175 attacks on separate medical facilities in Syria and 600 healthcare workers killed.

As a result, a secret healthcare system has emerged. There are field hospitals in undisclosed locations and medical facilities built underground -- protected from daily barrel bombs and heat seeking missiles only by sandbags. There is no running water in many facilities and limited electricity. If a doctor is caught working in one these facilities, the punishment ranges from arrest to torture and even death.

"Anyone in Syria is subjected to arrest and interrogation and torture if they just don’t like you," said Mufaddal Hamadeh, a Chicago oncologist and hematologist.

Hamadeh and a group of Chicago doctors made a recent medical mission to Lebanon, where they worked side-by-side with doctors who have fled Syria.

"Most of them were either arrested by the government or wanted by the government for simply helping people," said Hamadeh. "There were a few instances where doctors were held for a few months, tortured for simply helping patients in the opposition areas."

The team of Chicago doctors helped smuggle in 10 cases of medical equipment and performed 55 surgeries in Lebanon, making them targets for arrest. It's a risk both Hamedeh and Sahloul said they will take again to save a life.

"I saw a patient named Hamza," said Sahloul. "He’s 13 years old. He was the only remaining child from his family. Both of his parents were killed and two sisters three and four years old were brought to the emergency room dead, hugging each other. So it was really hurtful scene to see even for me as a critical care specialist."

Roughly half of the doctors in Syria have fled into Lebanon or Jordan, which is why dozens of doctors in Chicago are making trips to Syria as well as bordering countries -- risking their lives -- to fill the void there in medical care.

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