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Sense of obligation leads doctor to Syria

Last spring, Dr. Ammar Ghanem, a pulmonary and critical care physician with Lutheran Health Physicians, briefly left his practice and traveled to a field hospital on the border between Turkey and Syria to treat people injured in the civil war in Syria.

It was dangerous work. The victims could get no care inside Syria, so they had to be smuggled across the border into Turkey.

It was something that Ghanem, who is Syrian-American and has family in Syria, says he had to do.

Ghanem told grim tales. The Syrian regime was allowing no one, no international organizations at all, inside the country. Just delivering bread could get you killed.

Many of the injuries Ghanem saw were head wounds, he said, because the Syrian military was deliberately shooting people in the head. It didn’t matter who they were, a man, a woman or even a child.

If they showed themselves in the wrong spot, it could get them killed.

Meanwhile, many doctors in Syria were in hiding, so dentists were called on to provide care for the wounded, something they really weren’t qualified to do.

A few weeks after I spoke to Ghanem, he returned to Syria again.

I learned about it when I heard him being interviewed on the radio. That report said he was carrying a large, red backpack filled with medical supplies, and he was about to cross into Syria to provide medical care to the wounded.

It was a deadly dangerous thing to do, but he did it anyway.

This week, Ghanem will be going back a third time. He plans to train doctors how to handle some of the gruesome wounds they are seeing, and also train paramedics to treat people in the field before they are taken to hospitals, either across the border or hidden in buildings in Syria.

Even the borders aren’t safe, Ghanem said, “but I’m obligated to go.”

As time goes on, new dangers threaten to emerge in Syria.

Ghanem compares the regime in Syria to the mafia, and the army, he said, has been carefully built up by president Bashar al-Assad over the past 30 years to protect him and his position of power.

“I think he’s going to use chemical weapons,” Ghanem said. “He’s a psychopath. He’s probably going to use chemicals.”

Assad, however, is not going to last much longer, Ghanem believes.

Ghanem said he has connections in Syria, and the belief is that Assad’s fall “is going to happen soon,” perhaps in a few weeks, perhaps a little longer.

I asked Ghanem if it was a good idea to announce that he was returning to the area.

Here in America, he said, he has nothing to worry about, and in Syria, Ghanem said, the regime is now struggling to stay alive and doesn’t have time to spy on people any more.

One of Ghanem’s major concerns is raising money to help finance the efforts of other Syrian doctors from around the world who have traveled to the area.

“I wish we could do something locally to raise funds for humanitarian aid,” Ghanem said.

So far the Syrian American Medical Society ( has been one of the major contributors, providing supplies and member doctors.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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