After our initial introduction to Jordan, we met as a large group to sort our medications and have lunch. We got to know each other a little bit as we went through our stash of medications in preparation for setting up our pharmacy in our clinic.
The Mafraq governate of Jordan is the only governate in the country that borders three other countries – Iraq to the East, Syria to the North, and Saudi Arabia to the South. Since the onset of the Syrian conflict in 2011, there has been a large influx of Syrian refugees into Mafraq, due to its proximity to the border. Zaatari, the largest of the syrian refugee camps, was opened in 2012 and its population now pushes close to 1 million people.
Flying Doctors of America supplied all its team members with t-shirts for the mission, which we put on proudly on our first day, ready to treat as many patients as we could. We boarded our small bus, all in our “uniforms” and headed off to set up our clinic.
As we exited Amman, driving on the main road, we started seeing signs for the Syrian border. Even though we had already been in Jordan for a full day and had gone through the process of sorting our medications and debriefing, this was the first time it felt truly real. We had arrived.
As we got closer to Mafraq, the signs included Iraq, due to its close proximity (as discussed earlier on the map).
The landscape remained dry and barren, with an abundance of trash scattered on the sides of the roads in most areas. We occasionally passed people walking, sometimes with animals. My heart went out to them; in the hot, dry, dusty weather, we were lucky to be traveling with air conditioning, while they weren’t as fortunate.
As we arrived in Mafraq, our bus wove through the tight streets to make its way to the building where we would be setting up clinic. As I looked out the windows, I found myself laughing at this bodybuilding gym we drove past. Even coming halfway around the world, my passions still followed me.
As we pulled down a small side street, men walked in the road, stopping to greet each other or do business.
Our bus pulled to the side of the road and a man rushed out of the building next to us, moving some place markers for a parking spot so we could pull in. We grabbed our things and unloaded our box lunches and medications. As we entered the clinic and went up the stairs, we found large groups of women and children already waiting for us and being triaged.
Our Jordanian medical student friends took our bags of medications (which were already sorted) and quickly set them up in our room that was designated to be the pharmacy. We were then directed to our rooms where we would be working for the remainder of the week.
Due to my background, I was set up in a family medicine room with the plan to see pediatric patients. A colleague had a family medicine room down the hall with a focus on gyn patients. We also traveled with 2 emergency medicine physicians, an opthalmologist, three dentists, a surgeon, an internal medicine physician, a urologist, a gastroenterologist, and two nursing students.
Luckily, because of my training in family medicine, I knew that I could practice with minimal equipment and still provide good patient care.
As I opened my clinic and started to see the children, my heart was quickly stolen. Each child I saw had a unique (often heartbreaking) story and I found myself wanting to give them as much love and hugs as I did medicine.
I learned to ask the parents “How long have you been here?” and at first I expected to hear answers within a range of a few months to possibly a year. But as the day progressed, my heart began to ache in my chest as I realized that it was a rarity to speak with a family who had been living here, outside their country, in meager conditions, for less than 4-5 years. This mean that so many of these children that I was seeing were born here, in a refugee camp, without so many of the things that we often think of as basic care…or even meager education.
Whenever I travel abroad, I like to bring something small for the local children. This time, my parents sent me with a bag of these little fluffs…sticky feet with googly eyes and antennas. I could never have guessed that they would be such an enormous hit. Every kid I saw LOVED them and wanted one on their hand after their visit.
Over the first day of our clinic, we saw around 500 patients. And that night, back at the hotel, I cried. I cried for the children that I saw that were living in conditions that most of the world is completely unaware of. I cried for the families who were unable to provide for their loved ones, in a world that is beyond difficulty and the farthest thing from fair. I cried for the patients I saw that I couldn’t give adequate medical help to and were unlikely to be able to get help elsewhere due to living outside of an organized camp. And I cried for feeling so helpless.
In medicine, we are trained to help others. We spend years upon years getting an education so we can give people answers and treatments and make things better. But in situations like this, it sometimes feels like we are spinning our wheels. Yes, doing something is better than doing nothing – but sometimes, even that something is not enough.