Treating Wounded Syrians in Tsfat

Mural in lobby of Ziv Medical Center in Tsfat (Safed), where almost a thousand wounded Syrians have been treated over the past five years.

Health care in Syria is almost nonexistent after six years of civil war. Yarden, an Arabic-speaking social worker at Ziv Medical Center in Tsfat (Safed), cited a few illustrative statistics: “Their medical system is 70% destroyed. About a million people live in the border areas, but there are only seven doctors.” One doctor for every 143,000 people? The number was shocking.

My husband and I were on an Honest Reporting trip to learn more about how wounded Syrians were receiving care in Israel. Ziv’s program has evolved in response to a need.

In March 2011, when the civil war startedi Syria, the IDF had a policy of watchful waiting. But then, on Saturday, February 16, 2013, seven badly wounded Syrians crossed the border into Israel. IDF medics evaluated them and transported them to the nearest hospital. Ziv doctors were called to come in for an emergency. They had no idea who the patients were or what the problem was until they reported for duty and met the wounded Syrians.

Syria has been at war with Israel since May 1948. Syria’s leaders have refused to participate in any peace talks. They have never considered negotiating a treaty. These wounded men were our enemies. But the doctors did not hesitate—an injured person is a person in need of care. The men were treated. When they recovered the IDF took them back to the border and sent them home. Since then Ziv Hospital has treated almost 1000 patients who have made their way over the border.

Yarden instructed us not to take any photos. Photos could endanger the men and their families. We never learned any patient’s name. All newspaper and TV stories about treatment of Syrians in Israel change patients’ names and either blur their faces or photograph them from an angle which does not reveal their identity.

Dr. Lerner describes care

We met with Prof. Alexander Lerner, the Director of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery. He first described the care of a young bearded Syrian man whose left arm looked like it was caught in a metal cage. The elaborate fixation device was attached by pins to his arm. Dr. Lerner explained that the man’s elbow joint had been destroyed. The hinge in the middle of the device was locked to keep the reconstructed joint still. As the bone and muscle start to heal, therapists will release the lock to perform physical therapy. Later, the patient will also need a skin graft.

Like many of the injured Syrians who are treated at Ziv, this young man will probably go home with the fixation device still in place. The devices cost $2000 to $3000 each. For local patients, they are used several times. But Syrian patients do not come back to the hospital for follow-up; the expensive devices are not returned.

Another young man walked out of the room with his left leg in a cage-like fixation device that was longer than his leg. His foot hung in the air several inches above the end of the device, which rested on the floor. Despite the disparity in the lengths of his legs, the device enabled him to walk. He had arrived at the hospital with a partial amputation of his leg. When he recovers from a leg elongation procedure, he will receive a special shoe to enable him to walk.

Both Yarden and Dr. Lerner pointed out that they know nothing about these patients. Unless the Syrians themselves choose to reveal something, the medical staff have no idea if they are civilians or fighters. Many of the men say they were injured in an accident, and leave it at that.

The lack of medical history is a serious problem. Previous injuries, chronic diseases, even allergies are all unknown. The doctors can only hope the patient is not allergic to needed antibiotics.

Complicated trauma frequently results in infection. Dr. Lerner said that similar injuries treated at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington have an infection rate of 17%. However, the Syrians at Ziv are all infection-free by the time of discharge. It’s not just a matter of antibiotic use. Dr. Lerner believes the difference lies in continuity of care. By the time injured US military personnel arrive at Walter Reed, they have already been treated at a field hospital, a local military hospital, and the military hospital in Germany. At each point, a different doctor with a different approach cares for them.

At Ziv, one doctor directs all care from initial admission until discharge. He plans the first surgery with follow-up care, future operations, and

Dr. Alexander Lerner’s book about what the staff have learned about complex trauma from treating wounded Syrians

rehabilitation in mind. He can follow those plans throughout the patient’s hospital stay.

Someone asked what Dr. Lerner had learned anything caring for these patients. Had he published anything about such complex trauma?

The doctor smiled. He proudly showed us a photo on his phone of his latest book, Complicated War Trauma and Care of the Wounded, which he co-edited with Salman Zarka. The book describes not only orthopedics and other surgical treatment, but also psychological therapy and ethical issues involved in treating soldiers and civilians from an enemy country.

Getting to Ziv Hospital

As word spread that free medical treatment was available in Israel, more and more Syrians started showing up at the border. They always arrive at night; it is impossible to safely cross the border during daylight. The IDF carries out initial stabilization of patients, and transports them to Ziv or to Poriya hospital for treatment. Because they arrive at night, it is often easier to get time in an operating room than during the day. The patients arrive with nothing. After an incident when a fighter pulled a weapon hidden in his clothing, the hospital only accepts patients in their underwear. The Red Cross provides them with clothing, a toothbrush, soap, and other necessities.

The patients are unaccompanied. No family member or friend can visit during their entire hospital stay, which can last several months. The only exceptions to this rule are children; a parent accompanies patients less than 18 years old.

Recently, Ziv has opened a free one day pediatric clinic. Every three weeks a bus brings Syrian children from the border. A parent accompanies each child. The clinic provides standard well child checkups as well as treatment for more complicated problems. Most of the children return to the border at the end of the day. Occasionally a child will stay for further treatment. Although they arrive during the day, like the wounded men, they probably travel to the border under the cover of darkness.

All patients are given a summary of their medical treatment when they return to Syria. Written in Arabic on plain paper, the summary has nothing on it to indicate they received treatment in Israel. I suspect the Syrian doctors know where their patients were treated. Injured people could not have found the sophisticated treatment in their home country’s collapsed medical system. And they could not have afforded care in Lebanon or Jordan.

The wounded Syrians are not charged for their care. It is paid for by the Israeli government, Ziv Medical Center itself, and by individual contributions to Ziv. The medical center brochure we received points out that contributions to Ziv are tax deductible in both the US and Israel. (Friends of Ziv Medical Center, Inc. is a registered 501(c)(3) charity).

We’re not the only visitors who have come to observe the treatment of Syrians at Ziv. A few weeks ago Conan O’Brien stopped in during his tour of Israel. His team was allowed to film in the Syrians’ room, on condition that they not show any of the patients’ faces. His hospital visit became part of his Israel show.