Updated: Jun 4, 2019
War Doll interviews Aaron Epstein, President of the Global Surgical and Medical Support Group, in part two of the series on Kurdistan.
WAR: You must have a few great stories that have stuck with you, can you share with us anything that sticks out to you in terms of lives saved or emergency medical help given?
EPSTEIN: I and most of the MD’s and surgeons on our teams have seen multiple gunshot wounds where we try to do what is called “heroic” procedures for hours on end only to see the person still die on the operating table.
The dramatic photos of us exhausted in an OR at 3am could be had but to the surgeons this is just another day and another effort. If you want to know what sticks with people in the medical field, it’s when you mentally/emotionally make a change for the better since no scalpel can do that. So I can share a few that have stuck with me.
I personally think that just interacting with the local population was very important. My medical experience has led me to believe (and I have witnessed on many occasions) that half of medicine is in your head. Additionally, if Georgetown University School of Medicine has taught me anything, it is Cura Personalis, which is to care for the whole person and the community, not just the clinical picture sitting in front of you.
I have seen many times that how
you “feel” psychologically can have a very real and significant impact on how you “feel” clinically. On the ground in Kurdistan, it means a lot for the tens of thousands of refugees who have lost everything to know that some of the best medical talent from the US has come all the way to Northern Iraq to help them expecting nothing in return.
We all know how different our medical experience can be if we meet with a physician who genuinely cares about us versus one who doesn’t. For this population to know that we care meant that things weren’t so bleak and that they hadn’t been abandoned. There was also very real evidence of this on the ground in refugee areas. For example, on days when we would run the medical clinic for refugees, many times we were finding that patients had absolutely nothing wrong with them, or had conditions that had been stable for several years.
At some point I asked our local liaisons why are there literally dozens and dozens of people in line to be seen by our doctors if they have nothing wrong with them? The reply was, “They know they have nothing wrong with them, but they just want to hear it from an American doctor!”
Peace of mind about their health goes a long way in a population that has lost literally everything and whose future is unclear.
Another instance was when one of our neuropsychiatrists was tending to burn victims. An unfortunate reality is that the medical care often times is good enough to stabilize the initial injury but not good enough to fight off the subsequent infections which can be lethal. In this instance we found a burn victim who was a 15 year old girl. Only 15 years old and nearly burned to death and suffering immensely. When we found her, the local medical professionals had indicated that she was beyond saving because of widespread infection and her organs were already beginning to shut down.
Our MD’s confirmed this and our neuropsychiatrist had offered to stay with her and provide palliative care until she passed. Local doctors had never encountered such a thing as palliative care before. They just assumed if she was gone, then she was gone.
Our MD was able to provide powerful pain relievers that allowed the young girl to not suffer in her final hours. With tears in her eyes and with her family that was surrounding her, they thanked him and called him an angel. I guess it is hard to describe, but to ease the suffering is what our professionals are called to do.
Another example is a simple thank you email we received from one of the local medical professionals when our last team returned to the US:
“Thank you very much dears , thank you for coming to our country, thank you for all the assistance you have given to the people of Iraq, God bless you and your families and your country, the days we spent together was one of the happiest days in my life, I learned from you a lot and I hope to meet you someday , we will stay in touch ..
I am very sad because I was not able to come with you to the airport, I hope to meet you one day, and I'm proud because I have dealt with you .. the Lord bless you and grant you success in your work always ... Thank you so much for everything
I wrote this letter and a tear in my eyes .. My wish is that we will meet again .. Thank you very much"
WAR: On average, how many people walk through your clinic in a day, and what are the most common things they are treated for?
EPSTEIN: In a single medical clinic we can see about 300 people in a day for various reasons. Surgeries usually are approximately 3-8 per day depending on the complexity.
WAR: How much time do you spend away from home, and how does this affect your personal life with the sacrifices you are making?
EPSTEIN: I can’t go into detail about how long our teams are on the ground for security reasons but I can say that everyone who goes does it gladly knowing that they are making a significant impact in an area where the rest of the world has left this population to fend for themselves. We and our loved ones back home know that if this is how our lives are to end, then we went out in the service of others and everyone unanimously agrees that there can be no higher calling.
I frankly find it disgusting that in such a purely black and white conflict of good vs evil, governments can’t make it past their narrow and selfish political objectives to help this population.
These are innocent Christians fleeing from ISIS, which is probably the most deranged and evil force we will see in our lifetimes. We have heard and seen the scars of horrific stories such as children being burned alive, crucified, or beheaded in front of their families in order to force them and the local community to flee.
This is absolute barbarity and yet nearly every interaction we have had with governments results in the response in varying forms of “This is not our fight” or “let’s just sit back and wait to see how this plays out.” That is absurd.
So we went ahead and formed our organization to take care of this population with or without the support of larger powers.
To quote Martin Luther King, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
WAR: How can our readers get involved with either donating time or money to your cause?
EPSTEIN: There are a few ways to help: Directly donating always helps. Our goal is to be able to purchase a mobile surgical unit. Of the nearly 2 million refugees in the Kurdish areas, only about half of that can even reach the medical centers in the major cities. So one of our next projects is to bring the surgical expertise to these remote refugee camps.
100% of all donations go toward providing medical care to those in need. Donations can be made directly on our website at gsmsg.org. No one in our group is compensated for their time and effort etc. Like I said, everyone that is a part of our team is a volunteer in service of others.
Another way to get involved is if the person is a licensed physician in the US or Canada they can apply on our website to join our medical teams. Once they apply we can fill them in with more details if they are qualified.
If the individual is a former member of the military and in particular SF teams, they can also join our security side by applying on our website.
Lastly, if they can’t make a donation (though any amount helps because a single suture set for $5 can literally save a life) and they can’t join our teams, then just actively spreading the word that there is a non-profit organization committed to bringing some of the best medical talent in the world to this population in need is all we would ask for.
If at the very least, someone tells one other person “Hey, there is group trying to do good, unlike any other aid organization, for those persecuted by ISIS. Maybe we should help them out in their mission.” Then we will have done enough. There are forces of good in the world and just knowing they are out there can often steer people to do the right thing.