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Open heart and eye surgery brought to Syrian refugees in Jordan

Published: Updated:

An American doctor has taken major surgery to one of the world’s largest refugee camps – including cardiac and optical procedures for cataracts – US daily, the Chicago Tribune has reported.

And the work at the Zaatari camp in Jordan, has been made easier thanks to the success of a call for volunteers by Dr Bassel Atassi.

His latest medical mission to refugee camps in Jordan saw more than 300 people from the US express an interest in joining the mission.

Atassi said: “They all said the same thing: ‘What can I do?’ ‘How can I help?”

Atassi managed to grow his army of volunteers - mostly doctors, dentists and nurses, by 50 percent, to 77.

“People see what’s happening ... They see people getting bombed and killed and they want to do what they can to help,” Atassi said. “They just kept sending emails saying they wanted to go.”

And over two weeks they treated more than 6,500 patients, with conditions including hypertension and diabetes. The physicians also performed 79 cardiac catheter procedures and 51 cataract operations.

“This was the first time we did eye surgeries,” Atassi said. “I called one of the top eye specialists from Emory (University). I told him we needed help and he said, ‘I’m ready. Whatever you need.’ So I said, ‘I need lenses and I need you to come with us.’ He did.”

Two of the cardiac patients needed open heart surgery, he said. A surgeon from Atlanta operated, he said. “This was very unique to do at a camp.”

But cancer is still not usually treated in the camp. Patients need to go to a hospital in Amman and ‘the expense is too great to justify’, Atassi said.

Without a sponsor cancer patients - even treatable ones – lose the fight.“For these people, the word cancer means death,” he said. “In the rest of the world, more than half the people with cancer get cured. But not here.”

Yet despite the limitations, Atassi said he saw 25 possible cancer cases.

But the most difficult aspect of the job, he said, was the children. He explained that two had conditions that could have been treated elsewhere.

“So on this day, I almost cried. For me, as an oncologist, I am used to breaking bad news and telling people they have this cancer or that. I'm used to it. Over there, I almost cried because I felt like there was nothing I could do. These people are young and there is nothing I can do. If they were anywhere else they could be cured. But here, at the camp, nothing,” he added.

And he said he relied on the army of volunteers to take the message back to the US, appealing for more help.