A Medical Teams International-supported health center in Syria, immediately after an airstrike.
A plane flying overhead was a sign something wasn’t right in the northern Syrian city of Atarib. The sound of an airplane means only one thing – bombs are on the way.
When the manager of the local health center, Dr. Hassan, heard the plane circling above, he ordered his staff and patients to evacuate immediately. They did. With everybody out of the hospital, seeking safety and refuge elsewhere, the strike began at 3:10 p.m. sharp on Nov. 13.
Explosions rocked the central market, near the health center. Though the building didn't take a direct hit, the bombs caused extensive damage, toppling walls and caving in parts of the roof. Bombs tore through the drug warehouse, waiting halls and examination rooms, leaving behind plumes of dust and rubble.
Omar, a staff member at the hospital who lives near the market, said the attack was unrelenting.
“I felt as if there was an earthquake, then I heard one huge explosion followed by several smaller ones,” Omar said.
Medical Teams International supports the health center by paying staff salaries. It's one of several Syrian health centers that Medical Teams supports, in partnership with the International Blue Crescent Relief and Development Foundation. These efforts keep critical health facilities like the one in Atarib open and staffed, despite the ongoing civil war that has decimated Syria's health system.
Fortunately, none of the hospital’s staff members were injured. Others in the city -- located in besieged Aleppo, home to some of the fiercest fighting in Syria -- weren’t so lucky. The airstrikes killed 85 people, including many children. Others were left injured and trapped amid the ruins, with the closest health facility now smoldering.
The health center's drug warehouse was completely destroyed by the blast. Medical staff were able to salvage some of the medicine that was in the warehouse after it was hit.
Health center staff rushed to reach the injured at the market, but wreckage from toppled buildings impeded roadways, making it impossible for cars to pass. On foot, health center staff scrambled over the debris. When they found people, staff would carry them back over the bricks and rebar to the nearest vehicles and transport them to the remaining functioning hospital.
Shortly after the attack, Dr. Hassan ventured back to the health center. He wanted to assess the scene. All he saw was desolation.
“I couldn’t open the doors because of the rubble," he said. "The backyard of the (health center) was totally destroyed. The health center was out of service."
Resilience: The Power of Life
The next day, as staff members surveyed what was left of the health center, there was a collective sense of loss. They shared feelings of shock and despair, pain and depression. But they also felt something else: courage and strength.
They had to reopen the health center. So, with their bare hands, they cleared the rubble and salvaged as much medicine as they could. In the face of loss, they were called to act.
Less than three days after the attack, they reopened the health center, using the four rooms that were spared during the attack. This dedication yielded immediate results, as the health center's doctors saw 365 people that week.
“After I saw the courage of the team and the urgent need for medical services, I decided to re-open the facility," Dr. Hassan said.
The needs in Atarib remain high. One midwife explained that there's "no water for drinking or cleaning."
“Our neighbors provided us with cleaning tools and water," the midwife continued. "The health center was in a big mess."
Since the November bombing, reconstruction efforts have moved forward in earnest. Through it all, the health center hasn't missed a work day, serving more than 4,230 patients.
Sometimes, the darkest hours shed light on what's most important in life. Even the most challenging times offer glimmers of hope. These are the times when people rise above and demonstrate how responding selflessly is the ultimate act of love.
As Medical Teams continues to support health centers in war-torn Syria and refugees in neighboring countries, remember that you are an important part of this team. You, too, are responding where needed most. Whether it's through your prayers, donations or volunteering, you are supporting efforts that are making a difference in the lives of deeply vulnerable people around the world.
One person injured in the strike, who relies on the health center for care, had a message for everyone.
“I keep coming to the health center to dress my wound," she said. "This team is so professional. God bless them!”