In August 2016, LEAP’s International Disaster Relief Program sent a group of three plastic surgeons and one anesthesiologist to Beirut to provide care for Syrian and Palestinian refugees at al-Hamshari Hospital located in Saida, Lebanon. I was privileged to be one of the plastic surgeons selected for this mission, which was also my first encounter with international relief work. My colleagues on this trip included plastic surgeon Dr. Adam Hamawy, plastic surgery resident Dr. Giancarlo McEvenue, and anesthesiologist Dr. Kevin Healy. We were accompanied by LEAP Program Director Ryan Snyder Thompson.
During our seven days working at al-Hamshari Hospital, we evaluated over 70 patients and performed almost 40 surgeries on children who had been directly injured by bomb blasts and rockets in Syria, or who had sustained injuries while living in refugee camps in Lebanon. The majority of these injuries were from scald and flame burns to the upper extremities and face, and in most cases patients had not received any care aside from traditional topical treatments to their burn sites. The surgeries we performed included contracture releases of the hands and digits, skin grafting, scar excisions, and even one case of fat grafting for severe volume loss of the face following a rocket blast injury. Dr. Hamawy also performed a heroic latissimus flap in one patient with a significant soft tissue contracture of the axilla. I was struck by how stoic our young patients and their parents were; after having witnessed so much trauma in their short lives, undergoing elective surgery under controlled conditions must have seemed comparatively easy. While we did not have the benefit of seeing most of these patients in follow-up given the relatively short duration of this trip, it is my hope that we were able to make the lives of at least a few of our patients a little bit easier.
Although I had always wanted to do relief work, it took me many years to be able to make the mental and physical commitment to go on a mission. For me, the limiting factor was always fear. Fear has many forms for me: fear of being away from my son, fear of a change in routine, fear of entering unknown and possibly dangerous lands, fear of not being able to communicate with my patients, fear of being unable to provide the level of care required, and fear of an overwhelming schedule on my return.
I will forever be grateful to Ryan Snyder Thompson, Program Director of LEAP, who in addition to arranging our transportation to Beirut and accommodating our schedules, ensured that we were safe and comfortable at all times. Understanding my concerns about flying alone into Lebanon after midnight without any knowledge of Arabic, he arranged for me to fly from Dubai to Beirut seated beside Dr. Hamawy, with whom I did my general surgery training over 15 years ago. Our hosts were also incredibly hospitable and gracious. Mahmoud al-Hajj, Area Coordinator for the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund, facilitated every aspect of our stay by coordinating patient visits to the clinic, operating room schedules, transportation to and from the hospital, and our many memorable meals.
There were many reasons which drove me to complete a mission, including a desire to give back, a feeling of helplessness when reading the news every morning, and simply a need to fulfill some inner calling. The choice to perform relief work is ultimately a very personal one. My life was certainly changed by my experience.