ARSAL, Lebanon: Before the war in Syria, Dr. Bassem al-Faris straightened teeth for a living. After his orthodontic clinic in the outskirts of Damascus was looted and burned, however, Faris set aside perfecting smiles to save the lives of the sick and injured. Now the manager of Arsal’s only hospital, Faris is overworked and unsettled by the suffering he sees daily but proud to be providing high quality care to those most in need.
The Al-Rahma (Mercy) Hospital, built by the Lebanese organization Ighatheyya, is an unexpected enclave of medical modernity in the dusty, cinder block town of Arsal. Massive new generators, a sterilization autoclave, a proper operating theater and X-ray machinery were purchased with donated funds mostly provided by a Kuwaiti organization, Faris explained.
The hospital, which cost some $500,000 to build and outfit, was opened less than a month ago, but already some 130 patients pass through its doors daily.
Three surgeons, a gynecologist and a pediatrician are on staff at the hospital, tending both to gravely wounded and sniffling patients. A staff of 25 works at Al-Rahma, but Faris hopes to expand.
Faris manages the pharmacy and the hospital’s administrative duties, occasionally helping treat maxillofacial injuries.
The hospital’s opening coincided with mounting hostilities in Syria’s Yabroud, barely 30 kilometers away.
“All of the injured we have received are from Yabroud and the small villages surrounding it,” the doctor said. “We’ve seen civilians and fighters.”
A young Lebanese man, Mohammad, was admitted last week with a piece of shrapnel in his elbow. He was a civilian, Faris insisted, tending to his sheep in the poorly delineated badlands separating Lebanon from Syria when the regime launched missiles near him.
Mohammad is reassured by an anesthesiologist before he is given a sedative. A nurse rushes to turn on an extra generator, and a team of two doctors set to work on his arm, selecting from a wide array of instruments laid out on a sterile tray. The chunk of shrapnel is soon extracted and examined by the surgeons.
Faris observes the whole process, ensuring the doctors have the equipment they need and documenting the procedure.
A distinct banging from above where workers are busy completing the second floor is a reminder that this hospital is bracing for expected mounting casualties as battles rage on just kilometers away.
The second floor, slated to be completed in the coming months, will house the hospital’s ICU and lab.
“We’re working against time,” Faris said. “We want more room to house more patients and time is against us.”
Some 12,800 Syrians have arrived in Arsal since early February, bringing the number of refugees in the town to 50,800. Many live in camps with little protection from the elements and poor hygienic conditions.
“Often they [refugees] have colds or abdominal problems,” Faris said.
In the waiting room, several elderly men and mothers with young children wait to receive medication from a doctor.
While the majority of patients are Syrian, Lebanese have benefitted from the new hospital as well.
“We see a mix,” Faris said. “Probably about 70 percent are Syrian, and 30 percent Lebanese.”
Faris, like others, is worried that the front lines of the Syrian conflict are encroaching ever closer to Arsal. Several times a week Syrian missiles land in the outskirts of the town.
“At 2 o’clock in the morning last night, three bombs fell,” Faris told The Daily Star last week.
His family, who fled Syria with him after their neighborhood was attacked, were shaken awake by the explosion.
“My son asked what it was,” Faris said. “I said maybe it was the water tank making noise. He said ‘No, Dad, it’s bombing.’ What can I answer him,” the doctor sighed. “We were used to this in Syria, but here?”
To date, Faris said, eight residents of Arsal, including five Lebanese children, have been killed by Syrian missiles.
For Faris, who was trained to fix gap teeth not gaping shrapnel wounds, his new position is somewhat surreal.
“I could never have imagined that I’d be doing this,” he said.
While his official duties are primarily managerial in nature, many patients specifically request that Faris oversee their case.
“I’m working 14 to 15 hours a day,” he said, as his chest rattled from a deep cough. “That’s why I’m sick!”
When patients arrive from Syria in the middle of the night, attending nurses often call Faris for direction. He, in turn, coordinates with a group of ambulance drivers who transfer patients across the border under the supervision of the Army, he said.
Most of the injured, including 25-year-old Ali, arrive at Al-Rahma after receiving basic treatment in Syrian field hospitals.
Ali, whose car was hit by a missile near the village of Sahel in Syria, has his damaged kidney crudely removed at one such field hospital before arriving at Al-Rahm,a where he now rests in semiconsciousness under a doctor’s close supervision, his face and body all but obscured by bandages.
“He will most likely survive,” Faris said. “His body is strong, and he is young.”
Faris scolded a pack of Ali’s friends who arrived from Yabroud to check on their comrade. “It’s not visiting hours,” he chided.
“When I see the injured people, my heart breaks,” the doctor admitted.
Worlds away from his orthodontic clinic, Faris says that he does his best to stay calm and carry out his duties.
“I drink a lot of coffee,” he said. “Without sugar.”