Syria: A Doctor’s Testimony

The following article is a Médecins Sans Frontières piece and it sums up in a few paragraphs the reality of war: it always injures and it never heals. (http://www.msf.org/)

Syria: In a besieged hospital, sleeping and resting were an impossible luxury

Dr. S is a young surgeon who graduated shortly after the outbreak of the crisis in Syria. He now works in a makeshift hospital in a semi-rural neighbourhood located to the east of Damascus. This is a facility that received dedicated MSF support and supplies throughout the period of siege, support that continues on a regular monthly basis to this day. He tells the story of his medical journey – an experience that parallels the war in the country.

A patient in a makeshift field hospital in East Damascus.

A temporary truce that death could not penetrate

There was a pregnant woman who was trapped during the time we were under full siege. She was due to deliver soon. All negotiation attempts to get her out failed. She needed a cesarean operation, but there was no maternity hospital we could get her to, and I had never done this operation before.

A few days before the expected delivery date, I was trying to get a working internet connection to read up information on doing a C-section. The clock was ticking and my fear and stress started to peak. I wished I could stop time, but the woman’s labour started. The atmosphere was tense already, with mad shelling hammering the area. The bombardments had reached a deafening level. We brought the woman into the operating theatre and I did the operation. Joy overwhelmed me when we knew the baby girl was healthy, and her mother too.

In this madness, our work as surgeons is to save as many lives as we can. Sometimes we succeed, and sometimes we fail. It is as if we repair the damage that the war left. But this operation was not the usual damage repair; it helped bring new life to this earth. It was a magical moment; a temporary truce that death could not penetrate.

I chose a deserted school as my hospital

I graduated as a surgeon shortly after the crisis started in Syria. In the Summer of 2011, with the acceleration of events and medical needs increasing, I started working in small private hospitals. A few months later, I was arrested, as were many of my colleagues. At the beginning of 2012 I was out, and I returned to treat people and carry on my general surgery specialization. I was working in improvised field hospitals, operating in conditions that were largely unsuitable for medical work. We worked in the east of Damascus and then in the Ghouta area, where the medical need was urgent.

At the end of 2012, a semi-rural neighbourhood located to the east of Damascus witnessed violent clashes. The area was packed with displaced people at the time, without any medical centre to treat wounded people. I went there and decided to set up a field hospital. Following a search, I chose a deserted school that had previously been hit. The upper floors were damaged, but the ground floor, as well as the basement, were in a good shape. Despite the daily, continuous shelling on the area, and the constant fear and stress, the medical team with which I worked managed to provide tremendous medical care to those who needed it the most.

The siege

One day in July 2013, around 10:00 am, the hospital was hit by a rocket. The massive explosion turned the place upside down and its pressure tore out the wooden walls. Medical tools and people were thrown in all directions. Soon a dust cloud settled over the building and made it impossible to see. The explosion was like nothing before. I thought that worse could follow and this explosion might be only the beginning of something very bad. Indeed, shells rained on the area and we could hear the clashes getting worse.

As we were getting over the shock, one of the hospital workers collapsed. She lived near the hospital. Her young boy was at home and the area was coming under heavy shelling. She could not keep it together and she wanted to save her child. A medic offered to go out and look for the child. I did not like the idea because we did not know what was going on outside. As soon as the medic was out of the hospital door, he saw a tank with its gun facing towards him. A healthy man walked out, and few moments later, he came back with shards of metal in his body. It was only then that we realized the severity of the situation outside. We decided to evacuate the hospital – two medics per patient to carry them – and we got out of the back door.

It was apocalyptic! We tried to walk fast towards a small medical centre not far from there. Shelling was hammering the fields around us. I was expecting the worst with every shell we heard. We managed to arrive at our destination unharmed. It was like a miracle. We had left our equipment in the evacuated hospital, but we did not dare to go back there. Over the next days, we heard that the fighting was moving away from the area around the hospital. Under heavy bombardment, we decided to go back and bring our equipment. We had to do that to be able to treat people. Taking turns to do the trip, we managed to retrieve as much as possible after ten days.

From then, we were under siege – impossible to get in and out of there. This was also true for medical supplies. We received a flow of injured people since the first day of the siege. I often operated on two people at once. We worked around the clock. Sleeping and resting were an impossible luxury. We managed to stop for few moments before dawn to eat some food and drink some water, before getting back to work. Most days heavy shelling and raging fighting brought us more injured people, leaving us no chance to rest. The numbers of injured people were way beyond what we could handle, and that forced us to make painful clinical decisions.

Demolished hallway of an abandoned school turned field hospital in east Damascus.

After the siege

We were under siege for eight months, up until February 2014. Eight months of suffering and stress, followed by a ceasefire, during which many people managed to go back to their homes. It became easier to get hold of supplies, and that helped us to continue providing medical care to people in need. Nevertheless, the humanitarian situation remained bad. There were still often clashes at the edges of the this area and the shelling was still frequent. This formal ceasefire did not change the nature of our work, but we finally found enough time to expand the hospital. People returning to the neighbourhood meant an increase in the needs, thus more pressure on us. We setup an obstetrics department and clinics to provide basic medical care and chronic diseases management. We could start doing bone, internal and urinary surgeries; all operations we could not perform before because we had suffered critical shortages of supplies and we had been prioritizing life-saving operations.

MSF continued to provide us with much of what we needed. We even received laboratory kit, which allowed us to carry out diagnostic tests. And we received an incubator for the obstetrics unit. Little by little, we could start to respond to all the basic general medical needs for the people in the area.

It has to stop, one day

Three years of non-stop surgery under tough circumstances – I have maxed out. I’ve had enough of scenes of misery. I was on the phone recently with my surgery professor and he said: “regardless of the operating conditions, your work during these three years matches my whole 30 years’ experience as a doctor. You have reached retirement in just three years.” And indeed, every moment of every day I feel I have had enough, but we have no other choice. People here need us. They are in desperate need of all kinds of medical care, from the most simple to the most complicated. We cannot add another reason for the deterioration of this already disastrous situation.

Today, I am almost certain that, when the war is over, I will quit medicine. Any human being would make that decision after living what I have lived through. I look forward to the end of this war. It has to stop, one day. Then, I can choose what to do. Only then, will we be truly alive again.

The Transfagarasan Highway (with video)

Resembling a restless snake that bends and coils in the cold embrace of the mountain, the Transfagarasan Highway in Romania offers a unique experience in Europe. At 2,034 metres altitude it is the second highest mountain pass in the country after Transalpina, where the elevation is 2,145 metres above sea level.

Built in 1974, the Transfagarasan is a 90 km (60 mi) long route that dissects in half the Southern Carpathians, offering amazing views and access to the nearby Bâlea Lake and Bâlea Waterfall from June/July until October/November, depending on the weather conditions.

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Due to the topography, the average speed is around 40 km/h (24.8 mph)

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Bâlea Lake

View of the Transfagarasan Highway

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The Highway at dusk

In September 2009 the cast and crew of the British television show Top Gear were seen filming along the road. The segment appeared in the first episode of Series 14 which first aired November 15, 2009. They were in the country on a grand tour with an Aston Martin DBS V12 Volante, Ferrari California and a Lamborghini Gallardo LP560-4 Spyder. Host Jeremy Clarkson went on to declare the Transfăgărășan as “the best road in the world” – a title that the presenters previously gave to the Stelvio Pass in Italy.

Reflections

From the moment we are born we start a journey of self-discovery but somehow, somewhere along our way, we forget our initial purpose. We become too busy trying to imitate others or become better than them instead of being ourselves and improving what we already have. It doesn’t really matter what career you have during your lifetime. What’s essential is how it made you feel and what kind of person it made you become because your legacy shouldn’t be measured in silver and gold, but in the unforgettable emotions that you leave behind in the hearts of the people you surrounded yourself with.

Most people try to have the same goals as the others because being different is regarded as a weakness and no one wants to be an outcast, but trust me when I say: the moment you stop fighting who you really are, you are free. When you decide to cease trying to achieve something everyone else wants, there are limitless possibilities and so many roads not taken.

People put on suits and masks trying to impress anyone else but themselves. They seldom reveal their true feelings, they only tell you what they know you want to hear, they lie and cheat, walking over anyone at any cost to be able to simply become someone the society expects them to be. Have you ever considered how superficial our societies have become? Where are the united communities of yesterday and the dreams of togetherness of tomorrow?

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This moment is but a memory of the next and it’s never coming back. It is a frightening thought, but it should be decisive. Why waste another second doing things we hate or be around people who don’t make us feel happy? When we realize how unique each moment is we should reconsider whether we spend it wisely or not. Every second of our life is like a cloud in the sky – none is identical to the one before nor to any future clouds.

I think what stops most people from being themselves is fear: the dread of being rejected, alone and judged, the fear of failing and trying anew or the fear of what people might say. Why do we care so much in a world that only values us based on how we can perform in the hands of our master puppeteers?

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At school they try to shape us all in the same way, they try to suppress creativity and ingenuity. We have been taught from an early age that everyone undertakes education as offered by the state, that we are supposed to get the best job we possibly can, that we have to get married, buy a house, have children and go on holiday once a year, while saving for a retirement that may never come. So many people wait to start living their lives “when they retire” and are totally unaware that the years we waste slaving for others are never coming back. We shouldn’t wait until we are old to live our lives to the fullest! It should be a time when we reflect back on the wonderful lives we had and the beautiful people we have met, making the best of the years that are left to come.

It is so liberating to let go of the prefabricated dream that isn’t our own, but our society’s. Be different, be bold, be passionate and take risks, make mistakes – they’re the best teachers you will ever have. Once you understand that everything you dream of doing lies in your hands things become very clear. All you have to do is take the first step, give the best you got with your every heartbeat and life’s beauty will unfold before your eyes. Doing nothing is sad, but doing what you hate is destructive and heart-breaking. Now imagine what doing what you love can do to your life and start living today because waiting for the tomorrows of your life is nothing but a fool’s gamble.

Pamela Geller: a quote on the media

The media operates under the narcissistic assumption that if they don’t report it, it didn’t happen. The Ground Zero mosque story has shattered this fundamental belief of theirs. The Ground Zero mosque story is the first news story of not only national but international proportions that emerged as the leading news story day after day, week after week, month after month, without the propulsion of the mainstream media. They scrambled to cover it late. They were playing catch-up, and then tried to force it, shape it, and destroy it. The people were having none of it. The people drove that story. And they will continue to drive the story.

More on the Ground Zero mosque: http://nypost.com/2014/04/30/developer-ditches-ground-zero-mosque-to-create-museum-for-islam/

The Dark Side of Romania

While I may love Romania for its beautiful forests and pristine meadows or for its unchanged cultural practices, there are some aspects of living in this country that frustrate me to no end. Some people tell me I only look at the negative side so I often try to see the good around me, but the illusion doesn’t last long because… Romania happens – an extremely intoxicating whiff of car emissions hits me right in my face, or a very rude clerk treats people with an uttermost disrespect.

Here are some of the things that have gotten on my nerves:

  1. An endless superiority complex

There is a big problem with peoples’ mentality in Romania and it doesn’t seem to go away. For as long as I can remember, I have been told both at school and at home that Romanians are the smartest, the friendliest, and the funniest in all of Europe but as I grew up and traveled to other countries, I was proven over and over again that we aren’t any of that and in the process I have learnt not only what Romania truly is, but also what it could be. The overstated belief in a national grandeur, even if non-existent, is one of the legacies of communism and it might take decades until it disappears. Also, a strong superiority complex still damages social cohesion in Romania and will continue to do so for as long as we, as a nation, don’t accept that there are better countries than ours and that we have so much to learn from them.

  1. Kindness? What kindness?

I know many people who feel so sorry for animals or human beings in pain, but the general trend is one of ignorance and some sort of joy for the misery of others. A few years ago, while getting off a train – which in Romania it can be 1.5 meters (4.11 feet) taller than the platform is – I noticed a woman falling with a child in her arms due to the structural impediment. Despite many men observing the event, no one jumped in to help, but I couldn’t walk away without giving a hand. Poverty and the general dissatisfaction with life seem to make people so insensitive to the pain of others.

  1. The lack of green spaces in the cities

While 30% of Stockholm is covered by green spaces (accounting for roughly 1000 parks), most Romanian cities don’t even come close, except maybe Timișoara in western Romania, which is a greener place I had lived in for 3 years before moving to Cluj-Napoca. There are people in this country who consider trees a blessing in summer, but a nuissance in autumn when they have brush off some fallen leaves. Personally, I would feel so much happier to see more trees around me. Moreover, a busy city desperately needs them in order to combat the rush hour pollution, which often hurts my and everyone else’s airways and lungs. While there’s a national debate on the topic of religion being taught in schools, there’s very little concern about our forests being illegaly sold to foreign companies.

  1. The lack of infrastructure

This is one aspect that cannot be controlled by the citizens, yet I believe a part of the blame can be placed on those people who, for 25 years since the Revolution, have stood and watched the politicians strip this country bare. Don’t they see how much recent protests have changed in Romania? We stopped Gabriel Resources Gold Corporation from stealing the gold from the ancient mines in Roșia Montană. We managed to get some officials to resign from their positions. We ultimately inclined the balance in the favor of a more progressive newly elected president. Infrastructure in Romania is simply horrific, except some highways here and there (built with more than ten times the price paid per kilometer anywhere else in the world thanks to Victor Ponta’s useless government). Railways in this country are a national shame, a stigma of corruption and an incompetent government, where trains can go at best at a speed of 50 km/h.

  1. Highly inflated prices for almost naught!

The most famous case in this regard is the Romanian Black Sea shore, where many resort towns struggle to attract tourists who are considering more and more traveling to Bulgaria, Greece or Croatia for better services and smaller prices. Romanian sea resorts not only look unattractive and old-fashioned (except the VIP town of Mamaia), but also the services local businesses offer are dissatisfying when taking into consideration the high amount of money they charge for them. Almost all over Romania there’s a general disease called ‘avarice’. When a tourist is spotted, the very first thought of a business owner isn’t “How can I be of use so that I am worthy of my pay?” but “How can I rip off this tourist right here, right now?”. Isn’t anyone thinking that this isn’t doing any good for long-term business? Of course, not everyone in the country is like this, therefore it’s a matter of luck if you are willing to play Russian roulette… or should I say Romanian roulette?

6. Too many churches

There are over 18,000 churches in Romania, while there are less than 800 hospitals for a population of nearly 21 million. They are everywhere and more are built with each passing day, despite so many schools and kindergartens being in deplorable conditions or primary students not having books to study from. Also, there is a gigantic cathedral being built in Bucharest, across the Parliament, showing that the Romanian church wants itself a maker of decisions in this country. The cathedral cost at least 400 million euros, in the situation when so many Romanians struggle from one day to another. Recently, all 2,5 million underage students had to decide whether they will continue to study religion in school or not, and an astounding 88% said yes. What a shame! (For more about religion in Romania click here: https://theceltiberian.wordpress.com/2014/07/23/on-religious-scientists-and-other-things/)