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Nine days in Syria: “I wanted to give with my hands,” Lahey Clinic doctor says

For months, Dr. Ghazwan Acash and his wife have watched the news and worried. Their families live in Damascus and its suburbs, and they are now virtually homebound by escalating violence between the Syrian government and rebel forces. Millions more Syrians have been displaced.

Acash lives in Burlington, where he is a pulmonologist and intensive care physician at Lahey Clinic. He had sent money and prayers, but “you always feel like you’re not doing enough,” he said. “You always feel that you want to go there, and you want to help, with myself. I wanted to give with my hands.”

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Acash left on Thanksgiving for Idlib, in northwest Syria on the Turkish border, where thousands of refugees have gathered in tents and a school building has been transformed into a field hospital. Volunteers there ring the school’s bell to summon doctors when a new wave of injured people arrive, some from cities and towns nearly 150 miles away.

In his nine days there, Acash said he helped with basic medical needs and to insert breathing tubes in patients. The hospital’s only ventilator, cobbled together from parts of other machines, was used nearly 24 hours a day in an operating room led by one young surgeon and an anesthesiologist -- “heroes,” Acash said. Most injuries were gunshot wounds or from bomb blasts and building collapses.

While the Syrian government has said it would not use chemical weapons and world leaders have warned the Assad regime that such measures would prompt intervention, Acash said he believes the line may have been crossed already. Some who arrived at the hospital with serious burns said a plane had flown over their town dropping a powdery substance.

“Why would somebody have third-degree burns” from that? Acash said. “I mean these are simple villagers. The most severe [case] was a woman in her 70s.”

As he worked in the hospital on the morning of Nov. 26, Acash said he heard an odd noise. He and other volunteers figured that the electricity had cut out and a generator had kicked on. Then, someone told them to get out. A plane was buzzing overhead, he said. Acash stood outside and watched as it circled. Two bombs missed the hospital and refugee camp, while a third hit an area of unoccupied tents, he said.

Acash said the Syrian people feel isolated, without allies. They believe that Russia and Iran are arming President Bashar Assad, and without support from the international community, the opposition is out-gunned. Those fighting to oust him “are willing to continue, and they will, but they are so disappointed that they were left alone,” Acash said.

He worries, too, about when the fighting is over. So much has been destroyed. “There is no infrastructure,” he said.

Acash, returned home on Saturday. He said he was grateful for the backing from his co-workers and for support from his wife and twin 11-year-old daughters. Acash didn’t tell his extended family that he was coming to Syria. There was no way for him to get to Damascus, he said, and they would only worry about him.

Chelsea Conaboy can be reached at cconaboy@boston.com. Follow her on Twitter @cconaboy.
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