Northwestern Memorial's Dr. Sam Attar offers firsthand account of Syrian civil war

September 6, 2013 (CHICAGO)

As an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Attar knew his skills could help save lives in Syria. So despite the danger he volunteered to help. The Chicago doctor immediately realized how serious the situation is for those living in Aleppo, Syria, where the government and rebels are fighting for control.

"Even people out with their families, kids playing outside, are getting shot by snipers. A lot of the injuries were kids shot in the head, legs," said Dr. Attar.

It was a heartbreaking experience for Dr. Attar. Among his first patients was a 9-year-old boy who had no pulse when he showed up, but with Dr. Attar's help, is now recovering. Dr. Attar left the hospital with body guards only once for a short time to take pictures of the war-torn city he last visited nine years ago.

"The amount of destruction was devastating. There were collapsed buildings. Roofs piled on top of roofs. The hard part was imagining the people that were living in these homes," said Dr. Attar, Northwestern Hospital.

Dr. Attar says he was asked not to disclose the location of the hospital because medical facilities are targets in this civil war. In the two weeks he was there, he left the building only once with a couple of bodyguards who promised to take him to a couple of safe areas where he could take these pictures. Still, he says, no place is entirely safe right now in Syria.

"You could hear gunfire day and night. Bombs going off day and night. There is a risk of being hit randomly my bullets or shrapnel," said Dr. Attar.

The hospital, he says, was a makeshift facility outfitted with a couple operating rooms set up to deal with patients suffering from the terrible injuries of war. He saw no evidence of the chemical weapons used recently there. But he saw plenty of injuries that were the result of traditional weapons used on innocent civilians, including a 9-year-old boy whose life he helped save.

"They're seeing horrific injuries every day. Kids losing legs and arms. Obliterated faces. People showing up holding their intestines in their hands," said Dr. Attar.

Here in Chicago, protestors are rallying in opposition to U.S. involvement in the Syrian conflict. Dr. Attar says he wants to stay out of the politics. But he and other doctors have risked their own lives to try to help the Syrian people. They live with the constant sound of gunfire and bombs blowing up nearby.

Dr. Attar says lots of the doctors he worked with in Syria had large homes there and the means to leave the country if they wanted. But they chose to stay, sleep on the floors of the hospital and save lives.

"For the Doctors and nurses I was working with, there was an overwhelming sense of duty to stay and help," said Dr. Attar.

Earlier this week, an orthopedic surgeon from Doctors without Borders was found murdered in the Aleppo region. Dr. Attar's visit was sponsored by the Syrian American Medical Society, which is attempting to send more medical assistance to Syria despite the danger.

Syrian American Medical Society

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