Anesthesiologist from Gaspe, QC talks about treating war-wounded Thierry Petry, an anesthesiologist from Gaspe, Quebec, spent four weeks in October working in a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in northern Syria. Here he shares some of his experience. What did the MSF hospital look like? The hospital was in a normal, well-built private house, with marble staircases and balconies. It was completely transformed into a hospital, with an operating room, a sterilization room, a recovery room and a radio room.

Syria 2012 © MSF
MSF staff providing surgical care to the war-wounded in a hospital set up in the north of Syria in June 2012.

We had one room for female patients and three for male patients. The hospital had 20 beds as well as a number of mattresses for visitors or if we had too many patients. The international staff – there were eight of us – slept on the roof or, when it rained, on the staircase or on stretchers. We had power cuts all the time but usually the problem was fixed pretty fast. We always had enough medical supplies. The team was a combination of Syrian and international staff. The local staff as well as people in the village were grateful that MSF was there. The MSF hospital was one of  the few hospitals in the area. There was only a small health centre in the village, where patients could recuperate after operations or where we could send patients if we did not have space. Who were your patients? Most patients were war-wounded. They were victims of shelling, bombs, mines or explosions. Some were survivors of car accidents. Our staff treated large wounds, burns and multiple fractures. We tried everything to avoid amputations, although that is often the easiest solution. The majority of the patients were male but we also treated a few women and children. I heard stories of families that were destroyed by bombings, of children that became orphans and had to live with other family members. I met incredible patients in my time in Syria. I particularly remember a brilliant guy who was an electrical engineer. He was the victim of an explosion and was severely burned. We did not know if he would survive. He was comatose for three days before coming back, little by little.I remember when we put dressings on him in the operating room, his head covered in bandages. I showed him his hands which had both been amputated, except for the two thumbs. I held up his head so that he could see his leg which we were trying to save. When we moved him back to his bed he started to talk and thanked us profoundly for what we had done. We gave him something to eat. I gave him eggs from our personal fridge because he needed protein.  His brothers fed him.  One of his brothers asked for my email. It would make me happy if this patient would one day stand in front of my door. He was a brilliant guy - he reminded me of the protagonist in the novel, The English Patient. What was the security situation like? I could sometimes hear bombings in the distance though it was at times difficult to distinguish the sound from thunder. There were sometimes gunshots in the village but it was difficult to know the reason; it could have been just young people training. In the hospital, we had a strict no-arms policy but it is not always easy to control. The metal detectors of the guards turned out to be quite useful to find pieces of shelling and metal fragments in patients’ intestines or thighs.