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Operating on the world’s most dangerous medical frontline

Saturday, November 30, 2013
Hand in Hand for Syria is one of the few charities operating inside of Syria. The violent conflict has made normal life impossible for people still trapped inside the country. Our extensive network of aid workers provides professional medical assistance where needed, as well as the delivery of humanitarian supplies. Luke McManus talks to our charity’s director of medical projects (DMP) to understand the vital role we play on the ground, what donors can do to help, and what the coming winter means for the Syrian people.

What is your role in Hand in Hand for Syria?
“As a member of Hand in Hand for Syria’s executive team and DMP, I oversee and work to ensure the charity’s effectiveness with regards to the medical relief effort. The only way to do this is by taking a hands-on approach; I currently spend 95% of my time either in Turkey or in Syria as the challenges are constant, the area we cover is vast, and the people are in great need of medical aid. Syria’s healthcare system has collapsed entirely, so I play a key role in creating that basic infrastructure for those civilians still in the country.”

So what is a typical working day like for you?
“Due to the nature of the conflict, no two days are the same. As DMP, I’m required to oversee all aspects of the medical relief on the ground, and thus decide on the best ways to use donations. My team and I spend time travelling to the 74 hospitals, clinics, and physical rehabilitation centres that we work with in Syria, and assess how our teams are coping in the field. Collection of patient data is paramount, as we must monitor the number of patients, their injuries, and the various infections and their rates. This information then shapes the way we use donations; we spend effectively and intelligently, securing professional standards of treatment for Syrians.”

How do you work with the doctors and medical staff on the ground?
“We look at how doctors and staff in each area are coping with the volume of patients and make sure their skills meet the needs of the Syrian people. One of our projects revolves around training doctors and staff; increasing their ability to administer all sorts of medical treatment is our focus here. We find it is safer and more cost-effective for the charity to train local doctors, so we use a small team of international doctors to do this.”

Being a medical professional yourself, do you ever personally administer treatment?
“Of course. I am a surgeon, so my skills are often required during emergencies. When a hospital becomes suddenly overwhelmed, due to the unpredictable nature of the civil war, we must quickly get to the area and lend a hand. We frequently have to deal with mass casualty situations, so my team and I also direct the local medical staff. The efficiency this provides is vital in order to save as many lives possible.”

You talk about the unpredictability of the conflict – does this make it difficult to operate in some areas?
“Yes, without a doubt. Syria is currently the most dangerous country in the world. We are one of the few charities left on the ground, yet our medical teams cover 90% of the country. Consequently the logistics of transporting humanitarian supplies are tough, but are made easier through the donations we receive. We are able to ship medical equipment and medicines with greater care when we have access to our preferred transport methods. Some areas are completely cut off and people lack the resources to meet their needs. It is my job, then, to get out to these parts of the country and see how we can put donations to good use in establishing new medical centres.”

The list of medical supplies must be long – what can various donations buy?
“Every donation makes a difference, regardless of the amount. But to put it into perspective, a £10 donation will buy three boxes of antibiotics or two boxes of painkillers. These are standard prescriptions that are used daily in every area of our medical operation. A £100 donation can buy frames for x-ray machines, external fixators for serious bone injuries, or similar medical hardware. This equipment makes a real difference to our capacity to treat the injured; Syrians with broken bones and serious internal injuries are a common sight. At the other end of the scale, a £1000 donation will allow us to bulk-purchase all types of anesthesia drugs. The supply of these is crucial in enabling us to operate on patients, which we do every day.”

If local infrastructure has collapsed, how do your hospitals receive electricity?
“This is a real problem at the moment in Syria and it has the potential to get much worse. We use diesel generators to power each hospital, but these are expensive to run and can be accidentally overloaded. Diesel currently costs us £1 per litre. This may not sound like much, but think of it this way: each generator uses 20 litres per hour and we need at least one generator in each of the 74 medical centres we work with. All year round, these generators need to be running 24 hours a day. And in the coming winter months, the outside temperature plummets; providing patients with a heated environment is critical. Therefore any donations will go a long way towards helping Syrians at this time when they need it the most.”

The collection for Syria’s coming winter, which is predicted to be the worst the country has seen in 100 years, is now in full swing. While “The Big Winter Aid Drop” has finished, Hand in Hand for Syria is continuing its fundraising, which will provide crucial medical equipment and supplies for families still within the country. If you would like to help the Syrian people and fund our work, please make a donation here: http://www.handinhandforsyria.org.uk/donate/