Pediatric Associates News

My Day In The Syrian Refugee Camp

August 19, 2016

My husband and I recently went to Turkey on vacation to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. Once at our destination city, we learned there were some unofficial Syrian refugee camps nearby and were asked if we would like to participate in a day visit as volunteers. I have worked on multiple medical teams around the world so saw this as a great opportunity, but there were some challenges. I had no stethoscope and no medications. I spoke with the local physician who visits the camp regularly. He clearly was helping them tremendously, but was grateful for an extra hand, especially from a pediatrician and during the week he would be out of town.

I copied some Arabic handouts off a medical refugee website and took along some ibuprofen and acetaminophen. My interpreter was a young man who had been a pre-med student in Syria until he immigrated to Turkey due to the unrest in his home country. Not wanting to start completely over in his studies after immigrating, he had given up his dream of medicine and chose to pursue business. My assistant was a nurse who herself had been a refugee from Romania.

We started with a baby the Turkish doctor had wanted me to examine. Just the week before she had been in the ICU for several days after she was found seizing and dehydrated with a likely viral infection and genetic syndrome. She had developmental delays, feeding issues, and now some diarrhea. But mostly now that she was no longer lethargic, she was irritable and crying. I was able to reassure her parents she was much improved but it would take time, and suggest some acetaminophen for her fussiness. They wanted to give her to us to take home.  My heart dropped. I wish I could have done more. Their love was so strong for this sweet baby. They just wanted her to be safe.

In the next tent was a young girl who was refusing to move her arm.  Her brother had been swinging her in play the day before. I immediately recognized her nursemaid elbow and as I told my interpreter it would hurt briefly, I performed the manipulation to slip it back into place. She let out a big yell, but then it was over and her arm moved freely and she went back to running around through the camp.

Without my stethoscope I had only my hand to assess breathing, but on 3 occasions was able to tell the patient was wheezing, probably suffering from asthma in the dusty camp.  As I went from tent to tent, I took down the patient’s names and the needed medications.  A fifteen-month-old baby was noted to have a high heart rate when she was upset. I suspected this was normal, until I placed my hand on her chest and felt the swishing of a loud murmur.  I told her father she might need surgery. On further questioning she had already seen a cardiologist in Syria, and the surgery was planned in 2 years unless something changed. I reviewed the signs of worsening heart problems and the dad was reassured.

One young man had severe low back pain due to a strain from his work in the fields. His paraspinous muscles were tight and his face looked so uncomfortable. I offered him some ibuprofen and then asked my accompanying nurse to lie down on the carpet in the tent to demonstrate some back exercises.  As we are teaching him pelvic tilts and knee to chest stretches while several other Syrian men are watching, I am again moved by the moment. Though we are from different cultures, his severe pain and our efforts to provide some relief are all that matter.

I progress to the next tent, a young woman feeling her heart race, dizziness, and fatigue. I recognized this was likely anemia, but wished I had my lab for confirmation. Also on my list was anxiety, which I suspected had to be common in the camp, with the trauma of war and the challenges in relocation they had faced. I taught her some deep breathing exercises and added her name to my medication list for iron pills.  There was a teenage boy with recurrent sores on his legs, clearly impetigo and in need of antibiotics, a baby with constipation, and a few rashes. Then there was a 5-year-old girl who I was told was mostly blind, and also thought to be developmentally delayed. She had the most amazing smile. Clearly she had strabismus with her eyes wandering.  I suspected she had amblyopia too, maybe a retinal problem contributing to her loss of vision. If I held my I-phone flashlight at a certain angle, she was able to follow and see what was in my hand.  Unfortunately, my only advice was a referral to an eye doctor. I was hopeful though, that she could have better vision with some glasses. Her spirit lit up the room.

At the end of the day we enjoyed Turkish coffee and warm bread provided by the Syrians, and together sat in a circle, chatting and smiling. 

The next day I went to a local pharmacy with my list. With a very patient pharmacist and my Turkish dictionary, I figured out a medication for each of them. I passed my bag of medicine on to the group who so faithfully go every week to help these lovely people. I felt grateful for this opportunity to provide medical care, but also to experience the connection of human spirit and the presence of love with Syrians, Turks, Romanians, and Americans.