Turkey-Syria earthquake: Medical teams work flat out to 'save who can be saved' in northwest Syria

Syria victims earthquake
7 min read
23 February, 2023

Medical teams across northwest Syria have been working flat out since the deadly earthquake that hit on Monday 6 February, getting little sleep for days on end and leaving their families at home or with relatives, to tend to the huge number of casualties.

Driven by their humanity and sense of professional duty, they are compelled to do what they can for the injured in light of the catastrophe which has hit the region.

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Nearly two weeks since the earthquake, and days after the search for survivors under the rubble ceased, doctors, nurses, technicians and administrative staff in hospitals across Idlib, Aleppo and the surrounding countryside have continued receiving thousands of injured. They dress wounds, administer first-aid and carry out surgical operations, without any expectation of receiving payment for their work.

Focusing on those 'destined to live'

Abdul Rahman Shehab is a nurse at Atmah Hospital in northern Idlib. He is one of many who headed to the hospital as soon as he could after the earthquake hit, leaving his family at home, feeling it was his duty, as a nurse, to save who could be saved.

"Saving lives comes before everything else, we are doing our best to save all those injured, and lessen the agony of those in pain"

He says to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister edition: "Saving lives comes before everything else, we are doing our best to save all those injured, and lessen the agony of those in pain, but what throws us into disarray is our lack of resources – we have run out of first-aid supplies. Everyone knows the capacity of the hospitals in northern Syria is limited and in spite of that we have done everything we could for the injured."

Abdul Rahman learned that three of his cousins and their families had lost their lives in the earthquake, but he was determined not to surrender to his grief, but to focus on those "destined to live", but who need emergency treatment and healthcare to survive.

Using cardboard to set broken bones

Somaya Abdul Ghani, a paramedic, had just fallen asleep when she was violently woken by the house shaking as the earthquake struck.

Her first instinct was to get her family out of the house, they were initially prevented because the buckling walls had blocked their iron front door. However, the family managed to get out eventually, and within a few hours, Somaya was at the hospital, helping her colleagues ease the ordeal for survivors.

She says: "The first moments of the earthquake were hard. My children tried to stop me from going, but […] I knew there would be many injured. I chose to do my duty and walked to the hospital with my son. Another tremor shook the ground as we walked, which made us stumble. But then we got to the hospital, and my son stayed with me because he was afraid for my safety – he refused to go home to his sister, so he began helping give first-aid to the wounded in the hospital."

She describes the scenes as she arrived at the hospital as "heartrending"; "there were hundreds of casualties, we don't have enough first-aid supplies, some have run out, and we were resorting to using cardboard to set broken bones for some people because we didn’t have the materials we needed."

Somaya gave her woollen scarf to one woman who came in without a hijab and asked her for it, and retells the piteous case of a father asking her to take his dead daughter's wedding ring from her hand, "as he would need it to help cope with the crisis." She adds; "We cried a lot – there are no words to describe what we saw, it is a complete catastrophe."

Somaya lost 17 members of her extended family, but says she feels grief for all those who died in front of her: "Our tragedy is one."


A desperate situation made worse

Anaesthetist Mahmoud Alkassem says that terror seized his family in the first moments of the earthquake, but as soon as he knew they were all OK, he left them with his neighbours in Harem and went into the neighbourhood to see the scale of the damage.

"I went to my friend's house, it had collapsed on top of him, and I helped pull him out. I rushed him to the nearest medical point, and me and the medic there did what we could for him, but we couldn’t save him. After this, I went to the hospital where I work."

Mahmoud didn’t sleep for nearly 24 hours following the earthquake: "When a father asked me to give first-aid to his son, who was on the brink of death, all my fatigue vanished. You have to forget yourself – you need a break, for sleep – as you might be able to help keep someone alive."

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Hala Abdulsalam, a nurse, rushed panicking into the street with her family the moment the earthquake struck, alongside many others.

However, only 40 minutes had passed before she left her daughter in the care of relatives and headed for the hospital emergency department, where she found dozens of injured.

"When a father asked me to give first-aid to his son, who was on the brink of death, all my fatigue vanished. You have to forget yourself – you need for a break, for sleep – as you might be able to help keep someone alive"

Hala focussed on the pregnant women who had come in and said she and her colleagues tried to soothe the injured and ease the psychological trauma that they were clearly suffering, as well as administering urgent first-aid.

She mentioned a woman "who came in with a serious wound in her thigh, but she became completely oblivious to it and started asking about her children – I told her they were fine, to try and console her. But so many saw their children, or relatives, either dead or critically injured, which compounds their psychological shock and trauma."

'Not the right time to cry'

One of Hala's colleagues broke down in tears after seeing the heart-breaking scenes unfolding at the hospital, overwhelmed by the sheer number of victims and casualties. Hala told her colleague it was not "the time to cry", as first, they needed to work to lessen the scope of the catastrophe as much as they could.

The Director of Atmah Hospital, Dr Mouheb Kaddour, anticipated the scale of the disaster as soon as the quake hit. His long experience handling the casualties of war over the last decade, during which many sites across the region have been targeted and bombed by the regime and Russia, led him to prepare his medical staff for readiness in any emergency situation.

"Ten minutes after the earthquake, I checked on my family, then rushed to the hospital. When I arrived the casualties were streaming in. It looked like doomsday, a smaller doomsday, and we lost sense of time as we were just working round the clock to save who could be saved.

"As the hospital director, I'm responsible for the doctors, nurses, technicians and other staff. So I was asking how they were and was told that the sister of one nurse was under the rubble, and another nurse wasn’t there because he had been killed. I was searching the faces of my staff to try to figure out what state they were in."

Kaddour adds: "In a place as deprived as northwest Syria, we are forced to endure, and take on responsibility because many are depending on us. I myself am responsible for the staff – it’s up to me to make sure they’re OK so that they can respond to the situation.

"In a place as deprived as northwest Syria, we are forced to endure, and take on responsibility, because many are depending on us"

"The heroic efforts of the medical staff in the region can't be overstated, there are around 500 specialist doctors, and alongside them are many new graduates, in addition to the nurses, technicians and the other staff – all of them were performing their role, putting aside their own needs," he says.

Kaddour said he asked his family to forgive him for leaving them after the earthquake, but he confirmed that his first task is managing his team and saving lives. He added that there was no comparison between his experience and what many medical personnel had gone through, some of whom had lost their lives or their entire families.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here.

Translated by Rose Chacko   

This article is taken from our Arabic sister publication, Al-Araby Al Jadeed and mirrors the source's original editorial guidelines and reporting policies. Any requests for correction or comment will be forwarded to the original authors and editors.

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