US coronavirus battle evokes painful Syrian war memories for Arab American doctor

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Doctors in America are facing the same kinds of life-and-death decisions and life-threatening challenges with the coronavirus that many doctors face in war-torn countries like Syria, Yemen and the Sudan, says Syrian American doctor Zaher Sahloul. (Supplied/MedGlobal)
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Doctors in America are facing the same kinds of life-and-death decisions and life-threatening challenges with the coronavirus that many doctors face in war-torn countries like Syria, Yemen and the Sudan, says Syrian American doctor Zaher Sahloul. (Supplied/MedGlobal)
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Doctors in America are facing the same kinds of life-and-death decisions and life-threatening challenges with the coronavirus that many doctors face in war-torn countries like Syria, Yemen and the Sudan, says Syrian American doctor Zaher Sahloul. (Supplied/MedGlobal)
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Doctors in America are facing the same kinds of life-and-death decisions and life-threatening challenges with the coronavirus that many doctors face in war-torn countries like Syria, Yemen and the Sudan, says Syrian American doctor Zaher Sahloul. (Supplied/MedGlobal)
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Doctors in America are facing the same kinds of life-and-death decisions and life-threatening challenges with the coronavirus that many doctors face in war-torn countries like Syria, Yemen and the Sudan, says Syrian American doctor Zaher Sahloul. (Supplied/MedGlobal)
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Updated 01 May 2020

US coronavirus battle evokes painful Syrian war memories for Arab American doctor

  • A Syrian-American doctor spent six years from 2011 trying to save civilian lives from Assad regime onslaught
  • Dr. Zaher Sahloul now sees US doctors facing similar life-and-death challenges as they treat coronavirus patients

CHICAGO: Doctors in America are facing the same kinds of life-and-death decisions and life-threatening challenges with the coronavirus that many doctors face in war-torn countries like Syria, Yemen and the Sudan, says Syrian American doctor Zaher Sahloul.

Sahloul, who headed the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) effort to save civilian lives during the Syrian civil war from 2011 until 2017, has brought his experience to America in the hopes of defeating the deadly coronavirus pandemic which he says is as threatening to lives as is war.

A critical-care physician, Sahloul says he sees the same parallels challenging the medical industry in the fight against coronavirus as he did in beleaguered regions of the world like Syria.

“I don’t know what to call it, maybe a strange twist of fate when I left Syria to come here and now must fight this very deadly virus, COVID-19,” he said.

“When you have a disaster that overwhelms the health-care system to respond to the disaster, the same principles that applied in the Syria war apply here.”




Doctors in America are facing the same kinds of life-and-death decisions and life-threatening challenges with the coronavirus that many doctors face in war-torn countries like Syria, Yemen and the Sudan, says Syrian American doctor Zaher Sahloul. (Supplied/MedGlobal)

The medical profession in Syria was overwhelmed by the thousands of civilians who were injured and died during the civil war and political violence through standard military weaponry like fighter jets firing missiles spraying civilian areas with bullets or dropping chemical weapons, according to Sahloul.

The coronavirus, he says, is different only in that it does not have a political agenda, and does not target people based on their race, ethnicity or religion.

“In Syria, for the past nine years where everyone knows we have had crisis after crisis and sometimes it is a population under siege,” he said.

“We saw bombings of hospitals and the killing of doctors and chemical weapons being used. Healthcare providers were struggling to manage with very limited resources.”

Sahloul says he sees the same limited resources being used as doctors and medical centers around the country struggle to provide care for everyone infected by the virus.

“You cannot as a doctor or nurse in Syria save every patient that comes to you after a barrel bomb because of the limited resources,” Sahloul said.

“I was in Syria in hospitals that were built underground for protection in Aleppo and Idlib. You would see an influx of patients who came into the emergency room after a barrel bomb and you had to make difficult decisions,” he said.

“You know you have limited resources and you don’t have the best technologies. Sometimes you don’t even have enough surgeons who are qualified to do the surgeries. So, you have to decide which patients you have to direct your resources to.”

Sahloul says there are differences between treating casualties in war zones like Syria, Yemen or even in the Gaza Strip, but that in a region where it is a virus and not a war, medical professionals are seeing a similar “crisis standard of care.”

“Doctors and nurses are human. When you are dealing with crisis, people have depression, anxiety and PTSD and that is why it is very important to take care of the health of doctors, nurses and medical staff during this pandemic,” Sahloul said.

“We have many patients who have COVID-19 who end up in the intensive care unit. Some of them will live and some of them won’t. We don’t have enough ventilators for them all.”

Many of the patients needing treatment for COVID-19 are doctors and nurses, he said.




Doctors in America are facing the same kinds of life-and-death decisions and life-threatening challenges with the coronavirus that many doctors face in war-torn countries like Syria, Yemen and the Sudan, says Syrian American doctor Zaher Sahloul. (AFP)

“The protection of healthcare survivors is another parallel. In Syria we had suffered many doctors suffered from the lack of protection from bombs. Here, we suffering because of a lack of protection because we have a shortage of PPEs,” Sahloul said.

“At the peak of the chemical weapons used in Syria, I remember in one of the medical missions I took with me a bag full of gas masks for physicians so they could protect themselves.

“Some of them died just because of exposure to sarin gas and chlorine gas. Here, we have physicians dying because of exposure to virus because we don’t have PPEs.

“This is also another parallel that we have to the disaster in Syria and other places in Yemen, Gaza and now in many countries around the world including right here in the United States.”

Sahloul was born to Syrian parents who believed in public service in Algeria and were provided education instruction there.

He was raised in Homs and graduated from medical school in Damascus in 1988. He later immigrated to the US where he studied pulmonary medical care at the University of Illinois at Chicago.




Doctors in America are facing the same kinds of life-and-death decisions and life-threatening challenges with the coronavirus that many doctors face in war-torn countries like Syria, Yemen and the Sudan, says Syrian American doctor Zaher Sahloul. (Supplied/MedGlobal)

That same drive to help people also drives the life of his wife, Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, who heads the Syrian Community Network that helps Syrian refugees. They have three children.

After leaving SAMS in 2017, Sahloul established a private practice in Chicago’s suburbs.

Pulmonary Consultants, based in the Chicago suburb of Chicago Ridge, was launched in 2017. Sahloul has 20 partners who cover six of the largest hospitals in the Chicago area in America’s Midwest.

Sahloul also launched MedGlobal, which brings together a thousand medical professionals from 25 different countries to provide medical support in war-torn regions of the world.

“The purpose of MedGlobal is to reduce health-care disparity by providing health care to areas going through disaster,” Sahloul said.

“MedGlobal hosts programs in Gaza, Yemen, Syria, Columbia, Venezuela, Bangladesh, Pakistan and more.

“MedGlobal strives to build resilience within the local communities through the training of healthcare providers, the donation of technology, medical supplies and medications, and through other aspects of supporting healthcare providers in those countries.”




Doctors in America are facing the same kinds of life-and-death decisions and life-threatening challenges with the coronavirus that many doctors face in war-torn countries like Syria, Yemen and the Sudan, says Syrian American doctor Zaher Sahloul. (AFP)

Sahloul spent many years in Syria working with SAMS and tears up when he speaks about the people who perished, including many doctors he knew as a result of the conflict.

About 920 medical professionals were killed during Syria’s war and hospitals continue to be targeted, he said.

“It’s bad there,” Sahloul said.

“We started a fund to support a ‘safety net hospital’ in Chicago that was providing care to African American and Latino communities that has a shortage of supplies, ventilators and PPE’s at St. Anthony’s Hospital. Health-care disparity is everywhere.

Syria “is the worst humanitarian crisis of our lifetime,” but COVID-19 is as brutal of a killer and threat to the entire world, Sahloul said.

“We have to stop it. We will.”


Pregnant mom, unborn child die in India

Updated 08 July 2020

Pregnant mom, unborn child die in India

  • Devastated family mourn latest victim of health system struggling to cope with outbreak

NEW DELHI: The death of an expectant mom and her unborn child after 13 hospitals in one day refused to treat her has put India’s strained health care system under the spotlight.

The devastated husband and 6-year-old child of eight-month pregnant Neelam Singh, 30, are still struggling to come to terms with the “unwarranted loss” a month after her agonizing death in an ambulance outside a hospital in New Delhi.

With more than 100,000 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases in the Indian capital, Singh became another victim of a health system battling to cope with patient demand due to a lack of bed space and infrastructure.

That, however, has been little comfort for her family members who said they would never be able to overcome the trauma.

“Those 12 hours were the most traumatic experience of our lives, and we have to live with that trauma,” Shailendra Kumar, Singh’s brother-in-law, told Arab News on Tuesday. Singh had developed complications with her pregnancy on June 5, and Kumar said she was rushed to the same hospital in Noida, Uttar Pradesh where she had been going for regular checkups, but was turned away.

“Shivalik (hospital) gave no reason for refusing to admit her. Despite our pleadings, the hospital did not budge from its stand,” Kumar added.

A day-long ordeal ensued, with one hospital after the other unable to treat her. Eventually, she died in an ambulance some 35 kilometers away from her home in Khoda.

“I took her to 13 hospitals, both government and private facilities, and every one refused to admit her. The image of her writhing in pain will always haunt me,” said Kumar, who was accompanied by Singh’s husband. He added that the reasons provided varied from “high costs” to a lack of facilities.

“One hospital told me that I could not pay the high cost so better try my luck somewhere else. At Sharda Hospital in Greater Noida, I was asked to buy a coupon for COVID-19 treatment for 4,500 rupees ($60), which I did, but still, they refused her entry. It was not the loss of one life but two lives,” he said, referring to her unborn child.

He pointed out that the entire family was in a state of shock following her death with her husband “the worst impacted.”

Kumar filed a complaint against Shivalik and other hospitals but said so far “no action has been taken.”

A day after Singh’s death, the district magistrate of Gautam Buddh Nagar, which Noida falls under, ordered an inquiry and issued instructions for all hospitals “to admit patients regardless of the nature of the case.”

However, 20 days later, on June 26, a similar incident was reported in the Dadri area of Noida.

On that occasion, 21-year-old Robin Bhati had developed a fever, and relatives had taken him to a nearby hospital where a week earlier he had been admitted suffering from influenza. However, the hospital refused to admit him and referred him to a different facility.

Five hours and four hospitals later, a city hospital agreed to take him in, but by then Bhati was already seriously ill and hours later he died after suffering a heart attack.

“We don’t know whether he was a COVID-19 patient or not, but why should hospitals refuse to admit a patient in need of immediate attention,” his uncle Jasveer Bhati told Arab News. A number of the Noida hospitals which allegedly denied admission to Singh and Bhati refused to comment on the cases.

In a statement on Monday, the office of Noida’s chief medical officer said: “Strict instructions have been given to all the private and government hospitals to admit all patients showing COVID-19 symptoms.”

Dr. Loveleen Mangla, a pulmonologist working with Noida-based Metro Hospital and Heart Institute, said: “The government did not prepare itself to face this situation. Now the government is trying to create extra beds and medical facilities, but it’s late. They should have done this three months ago when the nationwide lockdown started.

“With the entire medical infrastructure overstretched and not many quality health workers available in the government hospitals, it’s a grim scenario now,” Mangla added.

With more than 723,000 COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, India is now the world’s third worst-affected country after the US and Brazil, with approaching 21,000 people losing their lives.

And the problem is not unique to northern India.

On Saturday, the southern Indian city of Bangalore reported the case of 50-year-old Vasantha, who was rejected by 13 hospitals before she was accepted by the K.C. General Hospital where she eventually died.

Lalitha, a relative of Vasantha, said: “Some hospitals said they didn’t have beds; some said they didn’t have COVID-19 testing facilities, and that way we lost critical hours. She died because of a problem with her respiratory system.”

Experts have questioned whether health care facilities in India are being overstretched purely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Anant Bhan, a Delhi-based independent researcher in global health, policy and bioethics, said: “Is there a real shortage of beds or is it the shortage caused by lack of efficient management? If the cases increase further, we might find it difficult to provide care.”