A Year of Saving Syrian Lives in Jordan

Ton Koene

The Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) trauma surgery project near Jordan’s border with Syria opened in September 2013 and immediately began saving lives. Since then, the project team has conducted more than 2,000 major surgeries—many of which were lifesaving—for more than 600 patients. 

“One of our very first critical patients was admitted in September 2013 after he had been caught in an airstrike in southern Syria. He told our medical team ‘let me die, you can’t fix me,’” says MSF Head of Mission Paul Foreman.

The patient needed major surgery and three external fixators—devices which keep bones stable until they heal. After nine months of care in hospital and more than 30 surgeries, he was discharged.

“Not only did I survive, but I’m going to be able to walk out of here,” the patient told the head of mission.  

The Emergency Surgical Program inside Al Ramtha Government Hospital, where MSF works closely with Jordan’s Ministry of Health, is around three miles (five kilometers) from the Syrian border. MSF runs two operating theaters, two inpatient and recovery rooms, and two wards—with a total of 33 beds. More than 140 national and international staff works in the project.

Operations conducted at the trauma surgery center include treating severe abdominal, chest, and orthopedic injuries, and in addition, physical therapy, mental health services, and general inpatient care are provided. To date, a total of 1,100 mental health consultations have been carried out.

Although not in the country where the conflict is taking place, MSF teams are witness to the devastating impact of the war in Syria through the extensive injuries of our patients. Despite their best efforts, the severity of some of the injuries and the time it takes to reach the hospital mean that not all the patients survive.

“Every single death of a patient strongly affects our team. Despite their skills, hard work, and dedication, unfortunately some people can’t be saved,” Foreman says.

“In the last year, 17 patients have lost their lives, meaning that the mortality rate is less than 3 percent,” Foreman adds. “Among the primary causes of death are complications due to the severity of the injuries, and in some cases patients arrive late to the emergency room due to the long hours of transportation they had to endure coming from inside Syria.”  

The project grew steadily, and in March 2014 MSF opened a post-operative care facility in Al Zaatari refugee camp. This 40-bed facility is for war-wounded patients transferred from Al Ramtha and other hospitals in Jordan. To date, MSF has admitted 179 patients, and as part of the post-injury treatment, more than 190 mental health consultations have taken place as well as other physical therapy services.

Helping people recover physically and mentally from traumatic injuries is a key part of the project. To assist in this process, MSF invited Richard Whitehead, a British Paralympic champion, to meet patients and talk about his disability. He runs with prosthetic legs, as he has a double amputation. He explained how he managed to overcome obstacles and social barriers and become a professional athlete.

“Here in a conflict situation, it is very important to try and be positive and guide people through the process of getting back onto their feet, getting back to their loved ones. I hope that with somebody like me, patients can relate their circumstances to my disability and see some of the challenges that I’ve had to overcome,” said Richard Whitehead.  Watch the film here.

War-wounded patients admitted to Al Ramtha Government Hospital are not registered as refugees in Jordan. Once discharged from the hospital, some return to Syria if they don’t require further medical follow up. Others go to one of the refugee camps in Jordan, including Al Zaatari in Mafraq, where MSF has the post-operative care center. If they are sponsored by a Jordanian family, they are permitted to reside in a host community.

Since the Syrian conflict began, over three million Syrians have sought refuge in neighboring countries, including Jordan. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has been present in Jordan since August 2006 with a reconstructive surgery program located in Amman. Since 2013, MSF has been working to support refugees through Al Ramtha emergency trauma surgical program, as well as a mother and child hospital, and a non- communicable disease project in Irbid to support Syrians refugees, and vulnerable Jordanians in host communities.  

MSF staff working in Ramtha hospital (jordan, near the syrian border) where war wounded patients from Syria are being treated. MSF medical staff is doing rounds in the wards. Surgeon Hayder Alwash (beige shirt) at work.
Ton Koene