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Dr. Rola Hallam, CEO and Founder, CanDo on 'Doctors On The Front Lines' at The 2017 Women In The World Summit in New York City; 4/5/2017

Healing Syria

Doctor talks about ‘the worst and hardest day of my life’ treating severely burned young children in Syria

By Abigail Pesta on April 5, 2017

She calls it the hardest day of her life.

While working at a hospital in Syria, Dr. Rola Hallam saw a boy burned so badly, he looked like bark from a tree. “I had never seen anything like it before. I was so stunned, I could only say, ‘How are you?’ He whispered, ‘I’m OK.’”

There had been an attack on a schoolyard. “A big ball of fire had been dropped from the sky,” Dr. Hallam said on Wednesday at the Women in the World Summit in New York City. “One by one, we were seeing these ghoulish-looking children walking in. Clothes are hanging off them. They’re covered in white powder dust, with the most heart-wrenching smell of singed flesh. I felt like I’d been transported to a horror movie.”

She knew the severely burned boy would would die a painful death from suffocation. And so, she said, “I treated him so he would slip away.”

Dr. Hallam, an anesthesiologist based in the United Kingdom, travels regularly to Syria to help victims of unthinkable attacks. She joined Dr. Annie Sparrow, an Australian pediatrician based in New York, to talk with Women in the World founder Tina Brown about doctors working in Syria — and how they themselves are targeted for trying to help people heal. During six years of civil war, more than 800 medical workers have been killed in targeted attacks on hospitals. Doctors and nurses have been imprisoned and tortured.

Dr. Annie Sparrow and Dr. Rola Hallam at The 2017 Women In The World Summit in New York City.

“From the beginning, doctors were punished,” said Dr. Sparrow, who frequently travels to work in Syrian border areas. “Imagine being at the Women’s March in Washington and being shot at, and you couldn’t go to a hospital unless you were a Trump supporter. That’s what it is like.” The Assad regime, she said, is “using people’s need for help as a weapon against them.”

Describing Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack, which killed dozens of people, including children, in a rebel-held area in Syria, she said, “Imagine, it’s 6:00 in the morning and everyone is sleeping, most in basements,” to protect themselves from bombs. “Here’s the thing about poisonous gases: They sink down into basements. That’s the worst place to be.”

She added that the hospital in the town had been bombed to make sure survivors didn’t get help.

Dr. Sparrow, an assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, noted that Syrian hospitals are often turned into “torture chambers.” People who get arrested or injured at rallies, she said, can get taken to a hospital — not to receive treatment, but to be electrocuted or have their fingernails ripped out.

Dr. Hallam, who spent part of her childhood in Syria, said she has lost more than 30 family members in the war. “One family, all 18 of them were slaughtered,” she said. “They had their throats cut, from an 18-month old to a grandmother.”

However, she said, “I want everyone to know this is not just a story of doom and gloom. What keeps me going are the Syrian doctors, nurses, and aid workers. They get up, massacre after massacre, dust themselves off, and go and do their lifesaving work.”

To that end, Dr. Hallam has launched CanDo, a crowdsourcing platform, to help build — and rebuild — hospitals. “We set up a children’s hospital that opened its doors today,” she said. “Today my heart was smiling. There’s 50,000 children in Aleppo that are going to benefit.”

Dr. Sparrow noted, however, that the platform must be part of a much larger humanitarian effort. “Syrian doctors need a lot of things. They need our support; they need us to know what’s going on. I think we can still be a force for good, but for that to happen, we all do need to give a f**k.”

Additional reporting by Karen Compton.

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