Syrian hospitals and charities hampered by scarce resources and logistical challenges
Medical supplies are brought in from Lebanon at great additional expense
Triplets in the Drop of Milk centre in Damascus where a day clinic provides medical care for 2,500 children
The Italian hospital, once the most advanced in the Syrian capital, faces danger and drama on a daily basis.
Located in a handsome French colonial period building, the hospital, founded in 1913, treats for free the wounded from the inner-city battleground where insurgent car bombs and random mortars kill and maim civilians.
“Just last week there was a mortar on the other side of the hospital,” says Irish sister Bridget Doody, who has spent decades in Syria with the Silesian nuns who serve in the hospital.
“When bombs have fallen near here we have admitted as many 32 to 33 wounded,” says Sr Widad Abiad, the hospital’s chief administrator. “We treat the less serious cases and send the gravely wounded to larger centres.”
Despite the conflict, the hospital, which has 55 beds, “receives only about one-third of the patients who used to come before the war”, she says. The UN agency that looks after Palestinian refugees does not have money to send patients and Syrians cannot come from outside the city.
“The opthalmic centre is not functioning. Few come for dialysis. It is too expensive. We keep the heart catherisation centre going. Many of our best doctors have left – for safety. It’s difficult to get medicine, and the prices of supplies – from alcohol to operating theatre thread – have risen. We are forced to purchase supplies from Lebanon but there are lots of difficulties in bringing them here.
“Girls employed in the hospital spend the night there as they may have to travel three hours [because of checkpoints] to reach the hospital.
“We have not sent away staff but increased wages. We’ve made no repairs although every year we usually upgrade our facilities. Savings from our budget over several years keep us open.”
The World Health Organisation says 37 per cent of Syrian hospitals have been closed and another 20 per cent damaged during the 32-month conflict.
Charities provide care that hospitals cannot. Established in 1922, Drop of Milk is one of the oldest in Syria.
At its headquarters , the society continues to offer assistance to mothers, babies and children in distress. While many who used to come regularly to the society’s centre have fled Syria, they have been replaced by internally displaced people, says board member Um Loei, who is now “distributing fluffy blankets, socks and winter clothing” for children who face Damascus’s cold winter.
“The centre holds a day clinic that provides medical care for 2,500 children, free powdered milk for mothers who cannot breastfeed, and speech therapy for Down syndrome and autistic children up to eight years old. Babies and children are given diapers, blankets, underwear and clothing, and families food packets.
The pharmacy offers medicine at 20 per cent of the cost,” a major saving for poor families.
“I think you should write about all these mothers trying to survive with their children whose fathers went out to work [or] to buy bread and didn’t return . . . Women who do not know they are widows or not.”
Hit by sanctions
Although sanctions imposed on Syria are not meant to impact medical supplies, Mahmoud, an importer, says: “We cannot buy medicines and medical equipment because our [sanctioned] banks cannot pay suppliers. We have to order through middle men in Beirut who take a large commission, raising costs to needy Syrians.”