Syria’s brave doctors: “should I run for my life or stay with my patients?”

On March 25, an orthopedic surgeon named Ali Darwish was operating on a patient in a suburb of Hama, Syria, when two barrel bombs were dropped at the entrance of the underground hospital where he was working. Soon, a strong smell of chlorine spread throughout the hospital. The underground rooms, built to protect patients and medical personnel from aerial attacks, became de facto gas chambers.
As patients and staff workers fled, Dr. Darwish refused to leave his patient on the operating table. Without even minimal protective equipment, Dr. Darwish collapsed. By the time he was taken out of the hospital it was too late. He died shortly afterward from severe lung injury. Thirteen other medical personnel, along with 18 patients, were severely hurt in that attack.
In the early hours of Tuesday, just 10 days after Dr. Darwish was killed, the Syrian government dropped barrel bombs on the town of Khan Sheikoun in Idlib Province. Some of those appear to have released a toxic nerve gas, killing dozens of people and injuring hundreds. The Syrian forces then bombed clinics treating the survivors. (The town’s hospital had been severely damaged two days earlier.)
Days after the chlorine attack on Dr. Darwish’s hospital, several areas in Hama Province were hit by barrel bombs containing chlorine and other chemical agents similar to sarin gas based on the symptoms seen in patients: pinpoint pupils, convulsions, irritability, nausea, vomiting and shortness of breath.
Doctors in my group on the ground in Syria have been reviewing the symptoms of the affected patients and medical personnel from the recent attacks. We are worried that a new phosphorus chemical agent is being used in chemical weapons, in addition to the identifiable chlorine. Some of the patients have exhibited symptoms similar to the effects of a nerve gas: pinpoint pupils, foaming at the mouth and the loss of consciousness, slow heart rate, slow breathing, vomiting and muscles spasms.
In these unimaginable situations, doctors often face a terrible decision: Should I run for my life or stay with my patients? As doctors, we have one duty: saving lives, even under the worst and most dangerous conditions.
Dr. Darwish and many medical personnel and emergency workers have been killed in line of duty. They are heroes, and their stories are a testament to the courage and dedication of Syrian health workers. How many more stories must we hear before decisive, meaningful action is taken to end these crimes?

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