Adam Sharp worked in Syria with Médecins Sans Frontières during the conflict that began as protests in 2011. Here, he describes his experience of the impact of Médecins Sans Frontières’ work on the people that he met during his time there.
The first ambulance arrives before we are ready. It is a pick-up truck carrying two wounded men from the frontlines, pallid and semi-conscious lying on mattresses in the back. A wave of young men – volunteers from the surrounding villages – surge towards the truck and 20 hands float each patient onto a stretcher and inside to the emergency room. A doctor quickly sees that one of the wounded men needs immediate abdominal surgery. It is a massive injury and the surgery will be complicated. The man’s chances of survival are fair at best.
William arrives at 6.30am, only minutes after the first wounded men. He is a surgeon with 20 years’ experience with Médecins Sans Frontières, he is six foot four and has a naturally calm disposition – a gangly rock in the middle of the hectic buzz. Within five minutes he is operating on the injured man.
An hour later, everyone has arrived: 90 local staff – doctors, nurses, midwives, drivers, guards, clerks and 12 international staff – mostly medical professionals, all working flat out.
I do not know the outcome for that first patient that morning. I lost track of him, and countless others, as injured men and women continued to arrive. The surgical team worked until 3am the next day – they worked straight through – and this continued for the best part of two weeks. William conducted over 40 more surgeries in the following days and, as he told me, the hardest day he ever had as a surgeon was that first one.
But here’s the catch. This isn’t the most important work that Médecins Sans Frontières is doing in Syria. This is not where the most lives are being saved, or where the most suffering is being alleviated, or where the most human dignity is being defended and upheld.
I wish I could write properly about the people I have met, depicting their stories with the interest, fidelity and sensitivity that they deserve. But instead I will say that underneath all of this drama – the bombs and the bloodshed and the headlines – that there are people, just people, all trying to live their lives and continue from day to day.
These people want to tend their land, attend school, look after aged parents, or grow up to become dentists, electricians or writers. They want to give birth, find love, find happiness, seek security for their family, or find a new place to live now that a baby is on the way. They want to do all the things that people do all over the world every day. But this is a country at war.
And this is where Médecins Sans Frontières is making a difference by providing healthcare to people where the health system has evaporated, maternity care for pregnant women, mental health services for the bereaved, medication for chronic illnesses, and antibiotics for simple infections.
The provision of healthcare genuinely helps people maintain some control and dignity in their lives. The hospitals are staffed by dedicated Syrians, enabled by the presence of Médecins Sans Frontières – the equipment, medications and additional medical expertise they bring. So while many lives have been saved on a surgical table, Médecins Sans Frontières is also covering perhaps 90 per cent of all health needs for a catchment population of approximately 100,000 people.
This is an extract from Médecins Sans Frontières Australia’s e-book ‘Nine Million Lives’ .