A British doctor has used her summer holiday to travel to war-torn Syria and provide medical help to victims trapped in the conflict.
By Ruth Sherlock, Paris
8:26PM BST 28 Aug 2012
Rachael Craven, 42, usually works as anesthetist for the National Health Service in Bristol. But she has spent the past two weeks in a war zone, treating casualties in a secret hospital that is being run by humanitarian aid agency Medicine San Frontier inside northern Syria.
Operating without the permission of the Syrian government and fearing it could come under attack by regime artillery the hospital is in the guise of a civilian home.
“Luckily it is not like a house in the UK that is furnished with carpets. This had marble floors; the kitchen is a sterilisation room and the living and reception rooms have been turned into the operating theatres and recovery rooms,” said Dr Craven. “The courtyard is the emergency room”.
She was part of a team of local doctors and foreign staff that worked around the clock to treat the constant stream of patients. Snatched moments of rest were taken on the exposed hospital rooftop.
“We slept on the roof. Accommodation is a premium in northern Syria because of the influx from Aleppo. Any house has three or four families staying with them already,” said Dr Craven. “We were at risk of shelling but so far it is a relatively safe area. I think a bigger is when the rain starts!”
The hospital was nearly always full, with patients sometimes spilling out on mats laid on the balconies. “Every few days we would have a mass casualty event. Either when a battle had taken place near us and we saw a lot of rebel casualties, or after shelling attacks where the victims were civilians,” said Dr. Craven.
Close to the end of her stay an artillery barrage hit a village bazaar where locals had been gathering supplies: “The local field clinic took care of most of the casualties in the market, but it was an hour before anybody checked the nearby basement where fifteen children had been playing. Shrapnel had come in through the ground level windows.
“The children were all from one extended family and were from two to 18 years old. Five were killed outright; a few were taken to a local clinic and the rest were brought to us. One was dead on arrival, another died with us, we were able to do surgery on two, and two were sent to Turkey,” said Dr. Craven.
For the past seven years Dr Craven has been using her annual leave to volunteer with MSF in some of the world’s most galling humanitarian tragedies and dangerous conflict zones. She has worked in Congo, Indonesia, Haiti after the earthquake and in Libya in the city of Misurata when it was besieged.
Syria was one of the most difficult operations yet. The whole medical team and hospital equipment had first to be smuggled across an international border and there no escape route should the hospital come under attack.
“There was one occasion when there was a push by government forces and we were aware that a set of tanks were heading very close to us. We were on standby to evacuate, but we had a patient who was critical and could not be transferred. It is not something they really cover in medical training in the UK, the decision of where take a patient into theatre and so commit the rest of your team to stay [in a dangerous situation].
“Every day you had a mental tally in your head of which patients would have to come with you is you had to evacuate. We had one ambulance and one car that we could use,” said Dr. Craven.
Working conditions were extremely difficult, with the medical staff having to adapt to a back-to-basics approach. “You can’t have ventilators and other similar equipment because of things like electricity. It was not uncommon for the operating theatre to be plunged into darkness and then you lose your oxygen and that is dangerous. You need solid simple tools,” said Dr. Craven.
Dr Craven said the hospital also depended on the “exceptional” local staff, who have been working for several months without a break, often treating victims that are their friends or relatives, and on the “amazing spirit” of villagers near the hospital: “If we were ever shot of blood the imam would put out a message at evening prayer and there would be a queue of volunteers”.
Now back at work at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, Dr Craven said that she was likely to use her remaining two weeks of holiday to return to Syria: “It brings a whole new perspective on life and work at home”.