First Published: 2016-10-14

Lebanese heart surgeon saving Syrian babies’ lives
Dr. Rassi sets aside one day each week to operate on Syrian refugee babies, sometimes waiving fees for parents who struggle to pay amid lack of UN financial aid.
Middle East Online

More than one million Syrians are seeking refuge in Lebanon, only half their health needs are met

BEIRUT - Nine-month-old Amena al-Helou's skin sizzles as the surgeon cauterises an incision in her chest, beginning a heart operation at a south Lebanon hospital to save the Syrian refugee's life.

She is just one of dozens of refugees treated each year by Lebanon's leading paediatric heart surgeon Issam al-Rassi, who each week sets aside a day to operate on Syrian and Palestinian refugees.

But for all his efforts, including on occasion waiving his fee, Rassi's work runs up against the reality that many refugees simply cannot afford the life-saving treatment Amena is receiving.

"I have lost babies while the father was looking for help for money," he says in his office at the Hammoud hospital in Sidon.

"I have a baby who should have been operated on at six months being operated on at nine months because the father needed three months to get the money."

So, despite being born without a right ventricle, Amena is in some ways lucky, because her parents have been able to scrape together loans to pay for her treatment.

She is barely visible as Rassi, 50, and his team perform the procedure, her tiny figure dwarfed by the operating table and cloaked in green sheets.

The skin on her torso is painted brown with antiseptic and wrinkles like old leather as it is pulled apart to reveal her rib cage, which Rassi snips open.

He works to reroute the blood flow from Amena's head directly to her lungs, ensuring it is oxygenated despite the missing ventricle.

The room is quiet except for the occasional request for a tool and the beeping of a machine monitoring Amena's vital signs.

As he completes the procedure, Rassi observes her blood oxygen saturation rate rise to 98 percent.

"It's working," he says.

- 'Huge sums' -

Outside the operating room, Amena's parents Khalil and Amira al-Helou are waiting anxiously to hear the fate of the youngest of their six children.

They have been refugees in Lebanon since they fled their home in war-torn Syria's northeast in 2013, with 39-year-old Khalil relying on seasonal farm work to scrape together money for food.

Hammoud hospital offers discounts to refugees, and the UN covered 75 percent of her operation -- but the remainder was still nearly $2,000 (1,800 euros), far beyond the Helous' means.

"I gathered the money from different people, my brother, my cousin, other relatives," Khalil said.

"What's hard is not now, but paying it all back later. I don't know how we'll do it."

Khalil said he approached several charities in Lebanon for help but was told they "don't help Syrians."

More than a million Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon since the war began in March 2011, testing the already-limited resources of the tiny nation and the patience of its four million citizens.

The UN says it lacks the funds to respond to the crisis, meaning refugees who can barely afford food are left to pay thousands of dollars for life-saving operations.

The situation infuriates Rassi, whose voice raises in a rare show of emotion as he discusses it.

"We cannot ask a father living in a tent... to pay $3,000, it's a huge sum of money," he says.

"For a Lebanese middle-class person, it's the salary for three months."

Until recently, Rassi was Lebanon's only paediatric cardiac surgeon and he sees his work with refugees as a matter of responsibility.

"It's really part of our duties, not part of our job. You have a baby, you have to operate on the baby," he says.

- 'Rationing care' -

After Amena's successful operation, Rassi immediately moves on to 18-month-old Ali, who breathes in rasping gasps, eyes buried in his swollen face.

Like Amena, he is missing a ventricle, but his procedure has been delayed by three months.

"The operation should have been done a long time ago, we're doing it late because we had to collect the money," says his 29-year-old father Ahmed Hassoun, from northwestern Idlib province.

While Ahmed borrowed from relatives, Ali developed a chest infection, further delaying the operation.

UN refugee agency UNHCR says it sought $134 million for hospital care for Syrian refugees in Lebanon this year but only received pledges worth $36 million.

UNHCR senior public health officer Michael Woodman, himself a doctor, said that was a huge sum but fell far short of needs.

"We need a much bigger commitment... The fact that we are 30 percent funded for lifesaving care is appalling," he said.

The UN is currently only able to cover 50 percent of the health needs of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, he said.

"It's very difficult, it's a tragedy... No one wants to be in this position of rationing health care, we shouldn't be."

For now, Amena's parents are focused on her recovery, her mother tearing up at the sight of her fragile daughter in the ICU, sedated and breathing through a tube.

"Of course you feel afraid," Khalil says quietly, "but there's no other option."

"She's the most precious thing I have."

 

Iraq dismisses US call for Iranian-backed militias to 'go home'

Opposition calls on Iraqi Kurd leader to step down

IS ‘executed’ 116 suspected of Syria regime collaboration

Israel arrests 51 Palestinians for ‘terror-related’ crimes

Greening the Camps brings food and hope to refugees

UNICEF says 1,100 children malnourished in Syria’s Ghouta

UN says Yemen children in desperate need of aid

Orthodox Jews block Jerusalem entrance in protest

Six terror suspects arrested in Morocco

EU announces 106 million euros in aid for Sudan

French judges to rule on whether 'Jihad' is acceptable name

Saudi Aramco chief confirms IPO despite doubts

Lack of accountability hinders governing in Morocco, analysts say

Sudan editor convicted after Bashirs accused of graft

Russia’s Lavrov urges Iraq-Kurd dialogue

Kurds to arrest 11 Iraqis in response to similar Baghdad move

Car bomb attack kills 9 in south Yemen military base

Rouhani boasts about Iran’s greatness in region

Iraq unrest highlights long-standing political divisions

Bahrain temporarily frees female activist

Egypt court sentences 11 people to death for 'terrorism'

Israel police arrest 15 over anti Jewish-Arab dating campaign

Tillerson woos Gulf allies to curb Iran influence

Abadi, Sadr meet in Jordan

No clear US strategy in Syria after Raqqa liberation

Tillerson pushes to undercut Iran at landmark Saudi, Iraq meeting

Gulf share values plummet

US-backed forces capture key Syria oil field

More than half of Austrians vote for anti-immigration party

Washington sees potential Hezbollah threat in the US

UN ends Libya talks with no progress made

Cairo killing sparks security concerns among Copts

Iraq PM arrives in Saudi to upgrade ties

35 Egyptian police killed in Islamist ambush

Morocco recalls Algeria envoy over 'hashish money' jibe

Ceremony marks 75 years since WWII Battle of El Alamein

Somalia attack death toll rises to 358

Long road ahead for families of jailed Morocco protesters

How Raqa recapture affects complex Syrian war

Israel hits Syrian artillery after Golan fire

Germany advances Israel submarine deal after corruption holdup

Bashir Gemayel's killer convicted, 35 years later

SDF hails 'historic victory' against IS in Raqa

Hamas delegation visits Iran

Turkish court orders release of teacher on hunger strike