I’ll never forget the day I treated dozens of severely burnt people – mostly children – in distress.
It was 2013 and I was visiting one of the field hospitals I’d helped build in northwestern Syria when an incendiary bomb was dropped on a school, injuring and killing tens of people – mostly children.
The makeshift ambulances herding streams of patients wailing in agony felt like they’d never stop coming.
The hospital wasn’t properly equipped to fully treat them all, so my colleague Dr Saleyha Ahsan and I did the best we could – administering pain relief, bandaging burns and resuscitating where necessary.
It was an event captured by the BBC Panorama team and later aired in the documentary Saving Syria’s Children. That day is etched on my heart, mind and soul.
It’s just one of the reasons why I do the work I do as a doctor originally from Syria, but now living in the UK.
As a child, I recall playing with my Barbies and Sindys and insisting on performing life-saving surgery on them.
For me, growing up in Syria was the smell of jasmine on my grandmother’s balcony, biting into the most delicious falafel sandwich and walking around the winding cobbled streets of old Damascus.
It was running joyfully around the fields my family farmed in rural Homs – where my dad was raised – with dozens of my cousins.
This was my childhood until I was 12, when my family and I moved to the UK in 1992 for better work and education opportunities.
When we first arrived, I hardly spoke any English. At school, my teachers thought my GCSE grades weren’t good enough and advised me to apply for chemistry or biology – both of which I excelled at – instead of medicine.
Despite this, I ended up graduating from medical school in 2003 and started working as an intensive care doctor shortly after.
Then in 2011, peaceful protests in Syria were calling for freedom and dignity. As the revolution swept across the country, the brutal regime met it with bullets and bombs – so began the war that goes on to this day.
I was enthralled and terrified in equal measure. I was inspired by the people from my home country demanding their freedom and dignity, yet terrified at the response they would get and what it would mean for my family and Syria as a whole.
As a doctor in London training to be an anaesthetist at the time, I did the only thing I knew I could and joined the humanitarian effort.
Alongside my full-time work in the NHS, I started to work every evening and weekend to raise funds – from friends and colleagues or holding events – collect medical supplies and help build field hospitals and clinics to treat injured civilians via Skype with Syrian medics on the ground.
My holidays became medical missions through the newly formed Syrian-led charity, Hand in Hand for Syria.
As a volunteer and then the medical director, I travelled to northern Syria to carry out needs and quality assessments, support the build of six of our hospitals, deliver medical and humanitarian aid and carry out clinical work.
After the bombing incident in 2013, and for a long while – instead of jasmine – Syria became the smell of singed flesh.
Despite the horrors I witnessed, I also saw the best of humanity – the health and aid workers who risked their lives every day to save others. They still inspire me and make me more hopeful than ever.
It didn’t hit me immediately, but in the years after, I realised trauma had taken up home in every cell of my body. I finally hit a wall after 10 years of dedicated work as a doctor, humanitarian and founder of CanDo – an innovative humanitarian start-up supporting locally-led humanitarian work and local frontline health and aid workers in war-affected communities.
I fell into a valley of darkness. I felt incredulous that I was still advocating to stop bombing hospitals and schools. I also felt lost, trapped and confused. I could no longer see my sense of purpose and self-worth.
On the journey to recovery, I realised my burnout was a mountain of undealt with grief and heartbreak. It was all the painful emotions, thoughts and images that I had swallowed down, as well as distracted my way through until I was an expert at disconnecting from my emotions and their impact on my body.
It was both a personal and collective trauma.
There is a part of me that wants to paint you a picture of a ‘successful’ migrant or wants to encourage other young people who maybe find themselves where I was. But that part of me is no longer insecure. I know I am worthy and don’t have a thing to prove – to myself or others.
Though I am now able to own it all, by the grace of God, it remains the case that I would swap every achievement and accolade to not have my country shattered in a million pieces.
To not have lost over 30 members of my extended family. To not see the rampant poverty and homelessness. To not have had our fields napalmed. To not have seen so much grief, shock and horror on so many faces.
I would swap it all to not have witnessed the worst of humanity.
Being a doctor is tough – whether you’re in Aberdeen or Aleppo.
It is noble and sacred work driven by wanting to save lives. But sadly, it often asks us to sacrifice our own health, wealth and happiness.
Closer to home, we will continue to burn out on the frontlines, to have a workforce calamity and a health service on the brink of collapse until we all realise that the health of our patients is intrinsically linked to the wellbeing of the health workers themselves.
That is why I wholeheartedly support the recent nurses strikes.
We need to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first, otherwise we will be no good to anyone. This isn’t selfishness, it is our highest act of love and compassion.
I have now been a doctor for 19 years and am so grateful to God that I can say I have helped build six hospitals through working with Syrian charities for 12 years – including one hospital that was crowd-funded – helping over 4million people in war-torn Syria, according to my own impact data.
For a long time, I worked every day, evening, weekend and holiday. I thought looking after myself was selfish.
I now know from falling into an abyss of burnout and trauma and coming out again – by the grace of God – that I was 100% wrong. It is in fact selfish to not look after yourself.
You must prioritise your health and wellness, because you can’t heal if you are deeply wounded and you can’t save lives if you are broken.
Look after your health: body, mind, heart and spirit. Only those alive and well can save lives.
To this day, I remain not only hopeful, but firmly believing in beauty and possibility that we humans are capable of.
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