News / Science & Technology

US Doctors Aid Syrians With 'Virtual Surgery'

US Doctors Aid Syrians With 'Virtual Surgery'i
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September 16, 2013
A field hospital near Aleppo was destroyed Wednesday by shelling, killing the six medical personnel inside, and patients. The Syrian American Medical Society says that hospital was the third that has been destroyed in the town in two years - in a war that has killed more than 100,000 people. A group of surgeons in the United States - through the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations and the Syrian American Medical Society - is assisting with the increasing medical needs - without ever entering a Syrian operating room. VOA's Carolyn Presutti takes us into a secret Skype surgery session for this exclusive report.
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— A field hospital near Aleppo was destroyed Wednesday by shelling, killing the six medical personnel inside, and patients. The Syrian American Medical Society says that hospital was the third that has been destroyed in the town in two years - in a war that has killed more than 100,000 people. A group of surgeons in the United States - through the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations and the Syrian American Medical Society - is assisting with the increasing medical needs - without ever entering a Syrian operating room.

A secret Skype surgery session was made available for this exclusive report. We should warn you, this story contains some graphic images that may offend sensitive viewers.

This patient will never know that his destiny lies in the expertise of a man 9,400 kilometers away. The 19-year-old took a bullet to the leg.

“He hasn't been able to walk since,” said a doctor.

Assisting from States

Neither the surgeon nor a visiting British doctor in Syria has expertise in peripheral nerve damage. So in the midst of war, they are consulting via Skype with Dr. Abdalmajid Katranji, a hand surgeon - in the Midwestern U.S. state of Michigan.

“What type of nerve graft are you using?” asked Katranji. He had volunteered at the same hospital during visits to Syria. “I've operated in a kitchen. I've operated in a warehouse. In a greenery, in a converted school,” he said.

This northern Syria hospital has been bombed three times, including this near hit, caught on tape. The doctors want a no-fly zone over all hospitals. They say the death of one doctor knocks out an entire health-care system.

Dr. Jomaa is the director of the Bab al Hawa Hospital. His operating room works around the clock. Ten surgeries a day - many with assistance from overseas.

"Sometimes we get sophisticated cases. So we consult with doctors in the West and soon we will have an intensive care unit and radiology," said Jomaa.

Aiding surgery procedures

Katranji and other U.S. doctors monitor as many as five surgeries a day in different field hospitals. He consults on a baby with shrapnel wounds. They used a portion of a metal bed to set her little arm.

Doctors find themselves playing God - deciding who should die and who should live, based solely on the lack of supplies. Katranji thinks people should see the Syrian conflict through a surgeon’s eyes.

“As people hear all the political noise, they really have to eliminate it and start looking at the human equation here. You just heard a doctor say he doesn’t look at people’s ID badges. He just needs to be able to deliver care and deliver care safely,” said Katranji

In this office, Katranji runs a hectic hand practice, and he weaves in Syrian assistance when he can.

This woman caught her finger in a chain.

“Does this hurt?”

“A little”

Invaluable help

Katranji has his staff tape the quick procedure, then upload it to Syria. He says field doctors typically cut off fingertips to save time. He wants to show them they don't have to.

“The benefit of having all your fingers, even fingertips, far exceeds the challenge of amputation,” he said.

In between patients, he joins a Syrian Facebook discussion. Then he joins a conference call to lobby Congressman Keith Ellison, urging him to vote for U.S. intervention.

“Abdalmajid, what can I say, man, but you've been on the front lines. You’re my idea of a credible witness,” said Ellison.

His practice is running late.

"It was stiff most of the day, but again it's feeling much better."

Another check of his iPhone. His medical advice is needed again - Syria is calling.

Carolyn Presutti

Carolyn Presutti is an award-winning television reporter who works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters.  She has won an Emmy, many Associated Press awards, and a Clarion for her coverage of Haiti,  national politics, the southern economy, and the 9/11 bombing anniversary.  In 2013, Carolyn aired exclusive stories on the Syrian medical crisis and the Asiana plane crash, and was VOA’s chief reporter from the Boston Marathon bombing.

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