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Coming back to life: After Beirut blast, young surgeon finds new sense of duty

It was a night Dr Bassam Osman says changed his life. At around 6 pm on Aug 4, the 27-year-old surgical resident was about to leave his daily hospital shift.

Coming back to life: After Beirut blast, young surgeon finds new sense of duty
Dr Bassam Osman daily hospital shift; Hospital room is damaged from a massive explosion


Then a massive explosion shook Beirut. The floodgates opened and hundreds of wounded poured into the American University of Beirut Medical Center, one of Lebanon’s best hospitals.

The medical staff of around 100 doctors, nurses and aides juggled priorities and space in treating the torn-up and bloodied men, women and children. They sutured wounds by mobile phone lights when electricity conked out. The wounded kept streaming in because several other hospitals closer to the port were knocked out of service by the blast.

Veteran doctors who had worked through Lebanon’s civil war said they’d never seen anything like it. In six hours, they used up a year and a half’s worth of emergency supplies. Osman ended up working the next 52 hours straight. He treated more than two dozen patients. He lost one. “There was no moment in my life where I felt more in touch with my own and my surrounding humanity,” Osman said of those 52 hours in a tweet afterward. Osman, at the beginning of his career, finds himself in a medical field far different from what he expected when he entered the profession.

Lebanon’s health facilities were once considered among the region’s best. In a short time, they have been brought to near collapse, battered by Lebanon’s financial meltdown and a surge in coronavirus cases, then smashed by the Beirut explosion. But the blast has also given Osman a greater sense of duty. That day’s trauma, he says, forged a deeper emotional bond between doctors and patients, left with no one else to trust in a country where politicians and public institutions take no responsibility.

The disaster, caused by explosive chemicals left untended for years at Beirut’s port, has stoked anger at Lebanon’s corrupt officials, who are also blamed for driving the country of 5 million into near bankruptcy. More than 190 people were killed in the explosion, thousands hurt, and tens of thousands of homes were wrecked.

“Day by day, these (crises) are becoming our normal life,” Osman told AP. “We are tired. It feels like one long marathon.” Harder days may be ahead, he feels. The blast exacerbated shortages in medical supplies caused by the financial crisis. Replacement supplies are not coming fast enough. In one of Osman’s recent operations, lack of supplies nearly turned a small but critical procedure into invasive surgery. Osman and the other surgeons didn’t have the right size balloon to expand the patient’s arteries and were about to open her chest, before they found a way to improvise a replacement.

Medical facilities hit by the economic meltdown are laying off staff. More doctors are emigrating. Osman’s salary, denominated in Lebanese pounds, dropped in value from nearly $1,300 to just around $200 a month because of the local currency’s crash.

It will cost nearly $30 million to repair health facilities damaged by the blast, the World Health Organization estimates. Eight hospitals and 20 clinics sustained partial or heavy structural damage. Two hospitals remain largely out of service. One, deemed totally unsafe, has to be levelled and rebuilt. The blast damaged the WHO’s main warehouse for medical supplies, destroying a shipment of COVID-19 protective equipment. It destroyed an COVID-19 isolation centre used for migrant workers and vulnerable groups, and damaged centers for HIV and tuberculosis. The strained health system faces a coronavirus surge. Since the Aug 4 blast, there has been a 220% increase in reported infections, according to the International Rescue Committee. COVID-19 patients are filling hospital and ICU beds. More than 25,000 confirmed cases have been reported, and 8% of all tests are coming back positive, according to the lead COVID-19 doctor Firas Abiad. More than 250 people have died. The number is expected to rise, with 115 patients in ICU, up from single digits before July.

Associated Press

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