Dr Rola Hallam

“About a year ago in Syria I met an obstetrician who was delivering women on her kitchen floor.” Rola isRead more →


Dr Marianne Stephen

“There might be a more acceptable level of risk, but the grief – that kind of grief is never normalized.”Read more →


Dr Rola Hallam

“About a year ago in Syria I met an obstetrician who was delivering women on her kitchen floor.”

Rola is a British-Syrian doctor in anaesthesia and intensive care. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Rola has been working on health advocacy and the delivery of humanitarian and medical aid.

Is access to surgery really such an issue worldwide?

It’s a huge, huge problem. But we don’t talk about it very much. I think people underestimate how many incidences in our life we do need surgery, partly because it’s something we take for granted in this country. But for millions and millions of people around the world that’s simply not the case. They don’t have it at all, or it’s unsafe. Which means people are dying unnecessarily.

Is this the case for people in Syria right now?

Very few conflicts resemble each other, especially from a health perspective. Some don’t affect the system that much – and some unfortunately, as in the case of Syria, involve systematic targeting of healthcare and health professionals.

Just two weeks ago a hospital in Aleppo was destroyed with what’s called ‘intelligent’ missiles – a three-bedded intensive care unit, three ORs, 20 beds, newly-furbished by an NGO. It killed five patients, relatives, and injured 14 people.

70% of the hospitals and clinics have been destroyed or are non-functional; it’s near total destruction of the system.

What does this mean for the healthcare workers?

Healthcare providers are either killed, imprisoned or have left the country.

And so Aleppo – the largest populated city in Syria, which had just over 5000 doctors before the conflict – now has about 30.

You’re talking about a staggering reduction and therefore a massive burden of care on the remaining doctors.

A recent assessment of need in Syria found that the health sector is the biggest emergency and biggest priority in Syria, just ahead of food security. It shows just what a massive problem this is.

What does this mean for women?

We have a very high proportion of children and women in Syria – approximately 70% of the population, and we used to have relatively good antenatal and maternal care. Now public health becomes a massive issue, primary health becomes a massive issue – and of course, maternal health is significantly compromised.

And we haven’t even talked about the violence itself. If you were a civilian under constant bombardment you’d think twice before traveling to see a doctor – especially when you can’t afford to pay for medication because there’s huge unemployment.

You can’t collect data easily under the conflict, but there’s a huge amount of anecdotal evidence of harm to women and children.

So where are women giving birth?

About a year ago in Syria I met an obstetrician who was delivering women on her kitchen floor. There was no health service nearby but people knew she lived there. They’d literally go knock on her door and she had no choice – she closed the kitchen and turned it into a little birthing centre.

We’ve been hearing about women who set off over long distances in the last month of their pregnancy, under the shelling, to get to areas of slightly better healthcare.

It’s devastating. In any nice world you’d be sitting down and getting excited about your new arrival. Instead you’re crossing really scary military barricades, questioned for hours perhaps – and then you’re essentially homeless. You have to find somewhere to live, guns and bombs going off around you.

Are their babies surviving?

We’re seeing a huge rise in premature birth, which may well be due to poor nutrition and health of mothers. Some are in the siege area, where food and medicine aren’t allowed in. There’s a lack of clean water.

Some people think it might also be to do with their mental state. If you’re heavily pregnant and suddenly bombs are falling around you, and your neighbours are being killed and your house destroyed – a lot of them are delivering early from the stress.

And because the healthcare system is so inadequate, a lot of babies are dying. If not from lack of facilities, from the lack of baby milk. We’re finding – again, anecdotally – that women under these stressful and malnourished circumstances don’t have adequate breast milk.

I must have heard tens of these cases – it only leads me to believe there must be hundreds, if not thousands.

What can people be doing?

Under humanitarian law it’s absolutely illegal to be targeting and destroying healthcare structures. We’ve heard it condemned but there hasn’t really been anything concrete on that, so we need serious pressure on a policy level.

Everyone needs to do their bit. Governments, NGOs, individuals – whether you adopt a health center to rebuild it, provide security and salary support for doctors so they stay, antibiotics for arriving patients.

You have to be specific about what you need. Hand in Hand for Syria went back to the obstetrician’s kitchen and we built a small children’s and women’s facility in the excavated basement, generously funded by the public. It’s amazing what can happen with willpower and staff and incredibly dedicated colleagues on the ground. It can be done, it is being done, and people can engage with that. I hope so, anyway.


Dr Marianne Stephen

“There might be a more acceptable level of risk, but the grief – that kind of grief is never normalized.”

Marianne is an obstetrics and gynaecology registrar who has worked with Médecins Sans Frontières in Pakistan and on the border of Myanmar and India.

Why is access to safe surgery an important issue for women’s health?

Women of childbearing age are a unique group of patients in that they’re usually well when the come to you. Childbirth is one of the unique circumstances where an operation is performed on someone who is not sick, making the decision to do so very important.

For a woman in this country it’s important to think: if this was your daughter, your mother, your sister, going in healthy to hospital to have a baby, how much of a tragedy it would be if they died. The tragedy is the same wherever you go in the world. There might be a more acceptable level of risk, but the grief – that kind of grief is never normalized.

How does surgery in a low-resource setting become unsafe?

The problems are so complex, on many different levels, from bureaucracy at the top end to the grassroots clinical level where local healthcare staff can be extremely overburdened, often working in an environment lacking support and training. It can be very disheartening, on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week; going home and waiting for the phone to ring them back to an ill-equipped theatre with lack of staff and little recovery care.

These people may be the only healthcare professionals for miles around and as a result their work takes over their lives.

The working environment itself presents a challenge. An unreliable electricity supply can mean performing a caesarean by torchlight with very poor visibility or in the blistering heat with lack of fans or air conditioning. This results in a very difficult operating environment for the surgeon. Poor lighting makes it difficult to see what you are doing and a hot operating theatre is an infection risk, not to mention the surgeon can barely stand by the end of the operation.

And when that reality is also conflict zone?

One of the first things to collapse is the structure of healthcare, although despite this women will continue to have babies.

A distressed population will present with many different medical problems, some like trauma are linked directly to conflict but what persists in any affected population are the problems in maternal and child health. Aid workers going into an emergency zone will find themselves performing many caesarean sections and the decision to operate on someone in such circumstances can be a difficult one.

Can you describe a case that stayed with you?

Probably the first post-partum hysterectomy I did for a woman with uncontrollable bleeding following delivery. The staff were able to recognize very quickly that she was unwell, which was the first life saving step. We used our small but well equipped field theatre which had just enough of the right surgical instruments to perform the operation. She had been bleeding for a week before she got to hospital and without the surgery would have died very quickly.

Looking back I can see that it was really good teamwork but at the time it felt a little like a miracle. I came in the next morning and she was sitting up in bed, nursing the baby and eating biscuits.

What’s the role of the visiting healthcare worker?

It’s extremely important not to go in, do operations and then leave again, without leaving any legacy. That’s even more disruptive.

An obstetrician performs about 5 key procedures regularly, all of which are potentially life saving, in a safe surgical setting. By teaching someone to perform a safe caesarean you allow them to go on and teach 5 more, which is important in building a lasting healthcare structure in resource poor settings.

Healthcare workers in ‘developed’ countries have so much to learn from working in low resource settings. The current trend in our training is moving away from the question ‘did you ever do any work abroad’ and towards asking ‘why didn’t you?’. This can only help to broaden our horizons.