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updated: 5/17/2017 9:17 AM

Suburban doctors travel to Lebanon to treat Syrian refugees

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  • Dr. Samer Najjar, a vascular surgeon at Elmhurst Hospital and DuPage Medical Group, meets with kids in a Lebanon refugee camp.

    Dr. Samer Najjar, a vascular surgeon at Elmhurst Hospital and DuPage Medical Group, meets with kids in a Lebanon refugee camp.
    Courtesy of Madhavi Ryali

  • Dr. Madhavi Ryali, a kidney specialist at Elmhurst Hospital, coordinated the weeklong trip to treat Syrian refugees in Lebanon. She saw as many as 44 patients in a day.

    Dr. Madhavi Ryali, a kidney specialist at Elmhurst Hospital, coordinated the weeklong trip to treat Syrian refugees in Lebanon. She saw as many as 44 patients in a day.
    Courtesy of Madhavi Ryali

  • Dr. Naveed Iqbal, a physician from Manchester, England, cradles a baby at a refugee camp in eastern Lebanon.

    Dr. Naveed Iqbal, a physician from Manchester, England, cradles a baby at a refugee camp in eastern Lebanon.
    Courtesy of Madhavi Ryali

  • Upon her return from the humanitarian mission, Dr. Madhavi Ryali meets with patient Leo Wright of Elmhurst.

      Upon her return from the humanitarian mission, Dr. Madhavi Ryali meets with patient Leo Wright of Elmhurst.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Dr. Madhavi Ryali, a kidney specialist at Elmhurst Hospital, plans to return to Lebanon in October.

      Dr. Madhavi Ryali, a kidney specialist at Elmhurst Hospital, plans to return to Lebanon in October.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

 
 

At the start of a busy shift at a clinic in northern Lebanon, Dr. Moeen Saleem already faced a grim task.

Clinic workers wanted Saleem to examine the child of two Syrian refugees. The baby was still lifeless after 30 minutes of resuscitation efforts.

"They wanted me to confirm that there was nothing more that could be done and that the baby had indeed passed away," he said.

The baby had died after a series of respiratory infections -- the likely byproduct of malnutrition. The mother and father were told by the staff and broke into sobs.

Saleem, who treats heart arrhythmia patients at Edward Hospital in Naperville, had little time to process the tragic case during a humanitarian trip last month to Lebanon. On that day, he wiped away his tears before attending to a full waiting room at the clinic.

Saleem was part of a team of about 40 physicians who provided care for refugees who have fled civil war and atrocities in Syria. The group included a dozen specialists and nurses affiliated with Edward-Elmhurst Health.

As part of its growing mission, the nonprofit Syrian American Medical Society, or SAMS, arranged for translators, local transportation and access to medical facilities.

Frustrated by the conditions of refugee camps and compelled to do more, Saleem and some of his colleagues hope to return to Lebanon this fall. The country has absorbed more than 1 million registered Syrian refugees, according to a United Nations report.

"You leave a part of your heart with them, and you want to go back," Saleem said.

Twelve physicians and nurses affiliated with Edward-Elmhurst Health joined a team of volunteers who treated Syrian refugees in Lebanon last month. Dr. Moeen Saleem, an Advocate Health Care cardiac electrophysiologist kneeling in the blue scrubs at left, went with his 17-year-old son, standing in a red shirt.
Twelve physicians and nurses affiliated with Edward-Elmhurst Health joined a team of volunteers who treated Syrian refugees in Lebanon last month. Dr. Moeen Saleem, an Advocate Health Care cardiac electrophysiologist kneeling in the blue scrubs at left, went with his 17-year-old son, standing in a red shirt. - Courtesy of Moeen Saleem
Find a way to go on

Saleem, an Oak Brook resident, went on his first SAMS medical mission in Jordan last year. He worked at a refugee camp where thousands of people live within roughly 2 square miles.

In Lebanon's Beka'a Valley, by contrast, refugee camps are scattered across an agricultural region near the eastern border with Syria.

Each camp has a "father" who oversees its organizational structure, said Dr. Madhavi Ryali, who coordinated the April trip with the Midwest chapter of SAMS. One of those men wanted something beautiful in his camp and had flowers planted.

"The amount of effort and energy that was put toward living in these camps is heartbreaking because these people don't want to be there," said Ryali, a kidney specialist at Elmhurst Hospital. "They want to be back in their homes, but yet you have to live. You have to find a way to go on."

Many of the medical problems stemmed from lack of running water and nutritious meals.

"By virtue of that they get sick more often," said Ryali, noting cases of cavities, vitamin deficiencies, skin infections and head lice.

Doctors long accustomed to electronic records saw refugees keep papers -- "everything to do with them and their medical history" -- in plastic grocery bags, Saleem said.

Dr. Madhavi Ryali, a kidney specialist at Elmhurst Hospital, had to tap her medical school skills to care for babies at refugee camps in Lebanon.
Dr. Madhavi Ryali, a kidney specialist at Elmhurst Hospital, had to tap her medical school skills to care for babies at refugee camps in Lebanon. - Courtesy of Madhavi Ryali
Dialysis rationed

Sometimes the volunteers only could comfort their patients. Ryali knew surgery wasn't a viable option for patients with fused fingers because follow-up physical and occupational therapy wouldn't be available.

Treatment options also are limited for Syrian refugees who need dialysis, Ryali said. They typically must find an NGO, or nongovernmental organization, to sponsor their care.

"Unfortunately, dialysis, which is a life-sustaining thing, is rationed. I thought about how I could change that and what I can do, and I still haven't come to any conclusion," Ryali said. "I almost felt like -- and this is heartbreaking for me as a nephrologist to think about this -- end-stage renal disease is essentially a death sentence in that situation. That would never happen here."

But there were success stories. During the weeklong trip, Dr. Mufaddal Hamadeh, Midwest chapter president of SAMS and a native of Syria, reunited with a mother he diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma last July. He paid for her treatments for the cancer that's now in "total remission." Hamadeh learned last month his patient, a Syrian refugee, was gaining weight she had lost.

"How can you turn your back on this patient?" he said.

A Syrian refugee child gets a visit from Dr. Samer Najjar, a vascular surgeon at Elmhurst Hospital and DuPage Medical Group.
A Syrian refugee child gets a visit from Dr. Samer Najjar, a vascular surgeon at Elmhurst Hospital and DuPage Medical Group. - Courtesy of Madhavi Ryali
'Inspired'

The volunteer medical team stayed in Beirut and commuted to various camps. At the end of the day, they reunited for dinner and to "check in with one another," Ryali said. That camaraderie fueled the jet-lagged Westmont mom, who didn't sleep more than three hours at a stretch.

"What my colleagues did, how hard they worked, how focused they were," she said, "really inspired me beyond words."

Ryali and many of her colleagues have no personal ties to the Syrian crisis. She, for one, was haunted by news of Syrian physicians killed in hospital bombings and began attending SAMS events about three years ago.

The group supports doctors working in Syria and funds medical facilities. This year, it plans to spend $2.5 million on its programs in Lebanon, Hamadeh said.

The doctors themselves raised about $42,000 to cover the costs of hotels, travel and other expenses -- plus donations from medical suppliers.

An online fundraiser has started for an October trip. Saleem hopes to make arrangements to care for at least 30 patients he learned on the trip were prime candidates for cardiac procedures.

The volunteers play another key healing role for refugees. "We feel like we've vindicated their existence," Saleem said.

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