Edmonton doctor helps Syrians in online psychiatric sessions

Psychiatric resident Dr. Saleem Al-Nuaimi and other members of the organization Canadian Relief for Syria are pioneering a unique approach to help Syrians: Using internet technology to conduct “telepsychiatry” sessions.

Saleem Al-Nuaimi works with team from Edmonton, Ontario to provide mental-health services to Syrians

Canadian psychiatric resident Dr. Saleem Al-Nuaimi travelled twice to the war-torn region to treat Syrians suffering from severe mental health issues. (CBC News)

Saleem Al-Nuaimi, a psychiatric resident born and raised in Edmonton, has helped many Syrians cope with the traumatic experiences that haunt their daily lives.

But there is one woman whose story he will never forget.

A 36-year-old mother of six was in her home in Syria, kneading bread, when a bomb hit her home.

She described it very vividly — and kind of coldly — how she had to pick up the pieces of her children,- Saleem Al-Nauimi, Edmonton psychiatric resident

“She described if very vividly – and kind of coldly ­– how she had to pick up the pieces of her children,” said Al-Nuaimi.

The woman went to the refugee camp with her three remaining children and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that, until Al-Nuaimi spoke with her, went untreated.

“It was the look in her eyes,” he said. “There was such a blank, cold stare. But throughout my interview, and talking and listening to her, she warmed up. There was that warmth to her, as a human being.”

Online consultations

While Syria is in the midst of a civil war that has already left more than 160,000 people dead, there are hundreds of thousands more refugees fleeing into neighbouring countries.

Al-Nuaimi travelled with Canadian Relief for Syria to refugee camps in Turkey as well as Syria to treat the men, women and children of all ages that have been psychologically ravaged by the war.

When he returned to Alberta, Al-Nuaimi wanted to do more. Inspired by the work of Dr. Maher Saqqur, an Edmonton neurologist who uses Skype to help Syrian patients, Al-Nauimi decided to continue helping Syrians suffering psychologically — from his home in Edmonton.

Dr. Saleem Al-Nauimi posing with the first family he treated at a Syrian refugee camp. He has since helped the family through "telepsychiatry." (Supplied by Saleem Al-Nauimi)

Al-Nuami, along with a team of doctors from both Edmonton and Ontario, are pioneering a unique approach — using internet technology to conduct “telepsychiatry” sessions.

They are already conducting these Skype-like sessions with Syrians.

“It’s initially a bit weird looking through the screen and talking to somebody through the screen,” Al-Nuaimi said. “But the technology, it really makes the distance so much smaller, so you don’t really feel it. It’s as if the person is in the next room.”

Overcoming obstacles

Al-Nuaimi admits that, at first, many people had doubts about the program.

“That’s what everybody told us — 'Nobody is going to talk to you through a screen. Nobody is going to see a shrink. There’s lot’s of cultural stigma,' but I found it quite the opposite.”

People have come around to the telepsychiatry sessions — just as they came around to in-person sessions when he was in Turkey and Syria.

Al-Nuaimi recalls the first day he held a session at a refugee camp. For 16 hours, he sat in a small room, waiting for patients to come.

She was able to talk about how she was feeling and take a step back from this chaotic environment she was living in.- Saleem Al-Nauimi, Edmonton psychiatric resident

Only one person — a woman with severe depression — came in to see him. That visit alone made his trip worth it.

“Just that interaction really helped her, that someone was able to listen to her and she was able to talk about how she was feeling and take a step back from this chaotic environment she was living in,” he said.

Word spread “like wildfire” and the next day, he said, there was a line half a kilometre long of people wanting to speak to someone about the trauma they have experienced.

A profound need for psychiatric help

Al-Nuaimi said the need for mental-health assistance among the Syrian people is so significant and immense, doctors "don’t even know how large the need is.”

“It’s catastrophic, the level of destruction, the duration of the violence that’s been going on and the severity of it,” he said.

However, Al-Nuaimi said the horrific violence and seemingly never-ending conflict will not discourage him from continuing to help Syrians in need. He sees a profound need to continue helping Syrians.

The small, bullet-riddled room where Dr. Saleem Al-Nuaimi would treat Syrian patients in need of help. (Supplied by Saleem Al-Nuaimi)

He recalls the case of an eight-year-old girl who was shot in the head while playing on a swing. Miraculously, the young girl survived, but she suffered a stroke on the right side of her body.

“Then she developed this very weird kind of sleep disorder where she would have night terrors and her sleep was totally off for her age, developmentally,” Al-Nuaimi said.

He treated her on the ground and has kept in touch with the girl, who has now recovered and is doing well.

Looking forward

Al-Nuaimi is now teaming up with the Paris-based Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations (UOSSM). The group plans to open a chapter in Canada in the near future. 

Seeing that young girl sleep calmly is why Al-Nuaimi dedicates so much time to helping Syrians. 

He understands his impact may not seem significant, particularly while the death toll continues to rise in Syria, but says that “no matter how small the difference is, it’s still a difference.”

“I care because my faith teaches me to care. I care because Canada has a history of caring for other people. I care because I am a physician. I care.”

With files from CBC's Andrea Huncar