Healing Syria’s casualties: Q&A with Syrian American Medical Society’s Dr Bassel Atassi

Syria’s state security forces are denying civilians urgent medical treatment as the uprising continues. Wounded victims have nowhere to go but field hospitals on the border of the country, but even there medical equipment is in short supply. Dr Bassel Atassi of the Syrian American Medical Society speaks about how the healthcare industry can help.


For many casualties of the Syrian regime, hospital is the last place they want to be. If they are suspected of participating in Syria's uprising, injured civilians will not only be denied medical care, but sent to prison for daring to access a public hospital.

Since the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad's rule broke out in March 2011, protestors have been met with violent opposition by state security forces and their only hope of getting treatment in a safe environment has been to visit makeshift field hospitals located in Syria's neighboring countries, Jordan and Turkey.

There, trained doctors carry out emergency surgery on the wounded victims, but they can't always save lives. Medical equipment is in short supply and physicians are in desperate need of donations.

Enter the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). This medical and humanitarian relief effort, comprised of medical professionals of Syrian descent, is accepting medical device donations as part of its "Save Syrian Lives" campaign.

Medical device translation practice Crimson Life Sciences is working with the non-profit, non-political organisation to solicit donations and has published a list of medical devices and equipment that are urgently required.

SAMS has had some success but still has a long way to go, and the violence in Syria shows little sign of stopping.

Board member Dr Bassel Atassi explains how healthcare facilities and technology experts can help save Syrian lives.

Sarah Blackman: What kind of response have you seen from manufacturers and hospitals since you began appealing for medical donations?

Bassel Atassi: Honestly, we haven't received as many donations as we wanted - we got some donations and the most generous donation came from a company called Z-Medica. They donated QuickClot - a special type of gauze to stop bleeding. Other donations came from local hospitals including Michigan State University. But, we have a long list of supplies that we are still hoping to get. The most needed supplies in Syria are not medications, but medical equipment, especially expensive ones like portable X-rays, electric wheelchairs, ultrasound scans and ventilators.

"The most needed supplies in Syria are not medications, but medical equipment."

How has Crimson Life Sciences helped to boost your appeal?

BA: Companies have the option to send a donation to our contact overseas or our central warehouse in the US. Once we receive the donations they are sent to a warehouse here in the US and we can either send the donations individually or ship the containers overseas. Crimson Life Sciences were kind enough to send an appeal letter to the medical industry along with a press release and we are hoping that we will hear from some companies soon.

How do you get medical devices to the casualties in these dangerous circumstances?

BA: Usually we send the donations to the border areas like Turkey and Jordan, but we have also sent them directly to Syria before. We like to work with the physicians because they know what they are getting and they know how to distribute.

Injured civilians have been denied medical treatment by the Syrian regime so where and how then are they been treated?

"Patients don't have access to the main hospitals or the government hospitals, or even private hospitals because they have been destroyed."

BA: Yes, unfortunately that is the case in many areas, especially the hot areas where there is a lot of violence. Patients don't have access to the main hospitals or the government hospitals, or even private hospitals because they have been destroyed. So, the local physicians have put together point hospitals or field hospitals to be able to serve injured patients. They are small, not so well equipped and can't serve patients like big hospitals, but they are the only solution in some areas. However, in the big cities like Damascus and areas where there is no violence, hospitals are still able to work.

What has it been like for your organisation to work under such pressure?

BA: This organisation has been established for humanitarian medical relief and medical education for ten years. We made donations to Syria even before the violence began. There's pressure because this is a country where we came from and we want to give back something to the civilians and we want to help them. But, it's only 1% pressure compared to the pressure they are under. The physicians have the most pressure - they have been detained and killed, so the pressure is not bad here.


Related features


Trauma on the battlefield – notes from a frontline medic

Frontline medics risk their own lives everyday to operate in the world's most perilous environments. Elisabeth Fischer talks to Tom Ashman, a former combat medic with the Canadian Forces Medical Branch, about the incredible pressure of treating soldiers under fire.

Field hospitals: welcome to the emergency zone

Mobile field hospitals have developed from simple tents to modern, highly technological healthcare centres. Elisabeth Fischer finds out how the fabric shelters maintain a clean medical environment and provide safety and comfort in disaster zones all over the world.