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Chicago Orthopedic Surgeon Recalls Volunteer Work In War-Torn Syria


More than a quarter million people on the eastern side of the Syrian city of Aleppo effectively have no access to hospital care. That's after a government offensive targeted that part of the city, which is the part that's controlled by rebels.


Over the weekend, at least two hospitals were hit by airstrikes, which means people there are finding it much harder to get surgery or treatment for trauma.

MCEVERS: Dr. Samer Attar is an orthopedic surgeon at Northwesten Medical in Chicago, and he spent months volunteering in Aleppo last summer. He's with us now. Welcome to the show.

SAMER ATTAR: Thank you for having me.

MCEVERS: So you've been in touch with some medical professionals in Aleppo that you worked with while you were there. What are they telling you about the situation now?

ATTAR: I have. They're my friends and colleagues, and they're telling me that it's - the situation's really catastrophic. They're desperate. They're dying. One nurse I worked with had shrapnel penetrate his chest. Another surgeon had his hand so severely burned that he can't operate; he can't help anyone. And another nurse who I worked with - his head was hit by some shrapnel, and last I heard, he wasn't talking. He was just responding to commands, moving his arms and legs. But the situation is dire, and they are threatened at every corner.

MCEVERS: Is it true that there are no longer any operating hospitals left in eastern Aleppo?

ATTAR: I would say that they're not operating at full capacity. And the situation's always very fluid. Hospitals get bombed. They shut down. They reopen. And they're not hospitals that you and I think of. These are really just field hospitals. So they're just basements or walk-up apartment buildings.

MCEVERS: Obviously civilians are also getting injured in these attacks, getting hurt. Where do they go? How do they know where to go? What are they going to do now?

ATTAR: Well, these hospitals are known. The local communities know where they are, but it just means that more people are dying. A lot of patients are afraid to go to the hospitals because they know the hospitals will be targeted.

And when I was in Aleppo this summer, it's - nowhere else in the world could I imagine doing an amputation on somebody and then having them immediately leave the hospital. They wanted to leave as fast as they could.

There's an obstetrician who I know who - she said that a lot of our patients have to have their children delivered at home, and some of them have bled to death at home because either they can't get to the hospital because they're afraid to or because they don't have any fuel or gas for their car to drive them.

MCEVERS: How much longer do you think medical professionals there will be able to build up these makeshift hospitals?

ATTAR: I mean they're very creative, and they're very resilient. But they're - they've been working around the clock under siege, under fire with very limited resources. And they're running out of food and supplies, and it's been this way since July.

I don't know how much longer they can last. When you talk to them, they're worried that there might be nothing left by next year if this sustained bombardment keeps up.

MCEVERS: Have things changed there since you were there?

ATTAR: I mean Syria teaches you that things can always get worse. And it's just - it's more people injured, more people being dismembered, burned, decapitated. One of the medical doctors in Aleppo described it as a horror movie. I mean even the sickest horror movie director couldn't come up with the types of injuries that they're seeing - just more people dying. You just get numb to the thought of 50 people dying in one day from airstrikes.

MCEVERS: Do you think you'll go back?

ATTAR: I'd go back if I could. But the area's cut off. It's sieged, so nobody's - no one's been allowed in or out since July. And I'm not the only one. There are - I know Syrian doctors, nurses, rescue workers who are just - they're waiting on the outskirts to get inside because they know people need help, and they just want to do their jobs.

MCEVERS: Dr. Samer Attar is an orthopedic surgeon in Chicago. Thanks for your time today.

ATTAR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.