KURDISTAN: Global Surgical and Medical Support Group P.1

Updated: Jun 4, 2019

War Doll interviews Aaron Epstein, President of the Global Surgical Medical Support Group.

WAR: Give us a brief intro into who you are and what your organization does.

EPSTEIN: Global Surgical and Medical Support Group (GSMSG) focuses on providing long-term sustainable solutions to the overwhelming medical burden facing the refugee and Kurdish populations that have been persecuted by ISIS.

Qualitatively, GSMSG is providing a level of care and medical instruction that can’t be matched.

Most aid groups offer material support which is a temporary solution to only part of the needs of the population. Very few aid groups such as Medicines Sans Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders can bring medical teams that may include one or two people trained as physicians. With our unique security networks GSMSG is able to bring US trained physicians and surgeons right to the edge of humanity, usually operating only a few kilometers away from the front lines with ISIS.

Not only are our physicians US trained, but they are some of the best in the US and are all members of the American College of Surgeons or their respective American College of their specialty. Being a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons (FACS) is the highest achievement a surgeon can attain in demonstrating their competency.

Some of our surgeons, in addition to having FACS certification, are also the ones training the US Army Forward Surgical Teams (FSTs) and/or have deployed themselves as part of the military before. Bottom line, we are bringing some of the best doctors in the world to this population in need and are the only group able to routinely bring this level/quality of medical support to a forward area.

WAR: So break it down for the readers, what's the plan of action?

EPSTEIN: Our primary objectives are to Train local doctors, surgeons, and medical personnel so that we can have a lasting impact and not leave a vacuum behind when our teams are not on the ground. In some of the photos you can see a crowded room or local surgeons crowding around our surgeons so they can learn how to do the procedures.

Our physicians and surgeons also directly provide aid and help alleviate the medical burden by running medical clinics and doing procedures; all of which is done for free.

Thanks to our extensive networks within the Kurdish government and various refugee communities we are able to facilitate the direct delivery of aid. There are no middle men involved in channeling aid to those in need.

The unfortunate reality is that when it comes to the Middle East, having middle men involved usually means a fair percentage of loss when trying to make sure your support gets to the intended target. However, any aid channeled through our group directly goes to the communities in need.

For example, over the summer we were able to deliver directly (literal hand-off of) nearly $2 million in aid to the Bishop of Erbil (Bishop Warda who is in some of the photos).

WAR: You're headed to Erbil, the Iraqi Captial of the Kurdistan Region, what will day to day operations look like there?

EPSTEIN: This specific mission coming up is going to focus more on training the Kurdish surgeons who are treating the refugee populations as well as the Peshmerga.

It was a significant identified need from our last group to return who indicated that the surgical skills of the local medical personnel was severely lacking.

For security reasons I can’t say how many people will be coming on this trip but I can say that we have some of the highest qualified cardiac and vascular surgeons as well as radiologists in the world (quite literally) as well as surgeons who train the US Army FSTs. Our MD’s will be doing procedures as live demonstrations for all of the local personnel as well as giving lectures and presentations.

On our last trip we focused more on the critical needs of the refugee population by running a medical clinic as there was a significant backlog of cases that needed to be attended to.

The medical system in Kurdistan is absolutely overwhelmed. For example, the medical infrastructure of Erbil was meant to handle a few hundred thousand. The refugee population is now over 1.7 million in that area. It’s absurd. From sun up until sun down our MD’s and surgeons were seeing to the needs of this massive suffering population.

One of our surgeons would routinely stay up late into the evening doing any other surgical procedures that were urgent or had not been seen for some other reason so we had round-the-clock coverage. Future missions involve integrating directly into Peshmerga units so that they can have top-tier medical professionals (though not at the FACS level) right on the front line. We are in the process of standing up that capacity now.

WAR: What precautionary measures do you take to avoid dangerous situations when you are in these high risk regions?

EPSTEIN: Can’t really go into detail about our security but it entails extensive networks on the ground as well as close in protection. If you have any former Canadian SF members that would like to volunteer for a week or two at a time (or as long as they would like), we are always looking to have more folks right there with our medical teams.

WAR: Spending time in unstable regions must pose serious security risks; can you give us an instance where you've had a close call or dangerous situation take place?

EPSTEIN: I’d say overall our security side does a very good job of mitigating threats. Given the level of the medical personnel on our teams. . . we don’t take any chances. An interesting close call was with the car bombing in Erbil at the US consulate. The car bomb went off at the café across the street from the Consulate where I personally would routinely meet with our extended network members.

Car bombs are a bit like lighting though. You can’t predict where they will strike and once they do, new security measures go in place in that area and therefore they are unlikely to strike again in the same place. But who knows. Things like that you can’t do much about. You just rely on an extensive network of contacts on the ground to keep you up to speed.

About a year ago when ISIS was actively attacking Erbil a rocket barrage did land near the major airport which was a bit worrisome because that effectively cancelled all flights in or out. On the other hand our teams have several backup evac plans so the fact that plan A wasn’t an option simply meant plan B was up.

Read more about GSMSG's mission, and the medical needs of the Kurdish people, in Part 2 of our interview with Aaron Epstein.

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