Guelph doctor returns from war-ravaged Syria

The Syrian hospital where Guelph surgeon Barbara LeBlanc worked was only about 50 kilometres from the front line of the country bloody civil war, so close she could hear bombs explode.
A view of the operating room at the hospital Doctors Without Borders runs near the Turkish border in Syria. Guelph surgeon Barbara LeBlanc just returned from a month working there. (Doctors Without Borders)

 The Syrian hospital where Guelph surgeon Barbara LeBlanc worked was only about 50 kilometres from the front line of the country’s bloody civil war, so close she could hear bombs explode.

"You would hear sometimes bombings and shellings, but the town we were in was not target or a focus, so we felt reasonably safe," LeBlanc told The Morning Edition host Craig Norris on Wednesday.

LeBlanc works with the organization Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières or MSF) and has recently returned to Guelph after a month in a Syrian hospital near the Turkish border.

The United Nations says that over 70,000 people have been killed in Syria’s civil war since 2011. This week five UN agencies have joined forces, making a rare joint appeal for the international community to stop the "cruelty and carnage."

It’s something that LeBlanc experienced first-hand while working at the hospital in Syria, a large house that was converted in just one week last June. The staff at the MSF hospital is a mix of expatriates and Syrian nationals.

"One of our nurses was killed where they volunteered on the front line as a medic. On his day off he would work, and he was killed in a bombing while he was working," said LeBlanc.

LeBlanc said as fighting increased, they saw more war injuries, but MSF doesn’t make a distinction between civilians and fighters.

 "We treat people as they come based on need, not on what they were doing," said LeBlanc.

The hospital itself is relatively small.

"There’s an operating room, there’s a 15-bed inpatient ward, and there’s a small emergency department and outpatient ward," said LeBlanc.

Many of the injuries LeBlanc saw weren’t battle injuries, but burns resulting from the use of poor quality fuel.

"This was leading to a lot of explosions and home fires. We saw a lot of patients who had been badly burned including children. At one point, our 15-bed hospital had 13 beds that were being used by burn patients."

LeBlanc sees the toll that years of fighting is taking on people in Syria.

"You could see it in the way that peoples’ lives were disrupted. Most of the people we see had someone in their family or a friend who had been killed or injured in the war," she said.

"I think they’re starting to fail in their coping. Their supplies are getting more and more limited. Even though it’s been two years, March was the worst month for deaths. There were 7,000 people killed in March of this year,"

It can be a struggle for MSF to get supplies too, as trucks often get hung up at the border, sometimes for as long as week according to LeBlanc. That’s in addition to the fact that it’s difficult for aid workers to get into Syria.

"Right now you go in, sort of in a semi-clandestine way, and we would like free access and supplies of aid workers to help the people," she said.

LeBlanc said, among other things, MSF was focused on providing vaccinations for Syrian people, because it was one of the health care needs that isn’t being addressed. She also mentioned the group wanted to focus on treating long-term serious health conditions like diabetes and cancer.