MedGlobal Sends Aid Mission To War-torn Yemen

Photo Credit: Zaher Sahloul

According to a Word Health Organization (WHO) situation report, there are 18.8 million people in Yemen who are in need of some sort of humanitarian aid. 14.8 million people in Yemen have no access to health care services. As of May 3,2016, it was reported that approximately 600 healthcare facilities were forced to close as a result of the ongoing conflict there.

Earlier this month, MedGlobal, a US-based, medical non-profit organization, took a week-long trip to Yemen to try to change the conversation on healthcare there.

According to their website, MedGlobal  “…was founded by seasoned healthcare practitioners and young medical professionals who sought to address the conflicts and humanitarian disasters of the world through saving lives, healing, and medicine. Its members carry diverse nationalities, with family origins and language skills scattering the globe.”

Photo Credit: Zaher Sahloul

“Our vision is that the globe should not have disparity in healthcare,” explains Zaher Sahloul, a Chicago-based critical care specialist and founder of MedGlobal.

Photo Credit: Zaher Sahloul

The group provides healthcare in five areas, and takes a culturally sensitive approach to everything they do.

“The focus of MedGlobal is to provide healthcare in 5 areas: women’s health, children’s health, infectious diseases, non-communicable diseases, mental health,” explains Sahloul.

The group is also very aware of the fact that sometimes, the physical can affect the psychological. According to a 2014 study, approximately 7% of the population in Yemen suffer from clinical depression. Sahloul says that many of their patients have had amputations, or suffer from some sort of chronic disease. They turn up at the group’s clinic with symptoms that can’t be explained by any sort of physical diagnosis.

Those end up being the times when the most useful tool the doctor has isn’t found in any medical supply kit.

Those are the times when the best thing one of the doctors can do is just offer a listening ear, and ask the right questions.

“This is the silent killer of patients, even in the time of conflict,” says Sahloul of the psychological trauma experienced by some patients.

Their willingness to listen was but one of many ways they managed to break the “fear barrier” that some would say has been in place for quite a while.

“We were the first American team that comes…in 10 years or so,” says Sahloul.

Sahloul says the group felt “welcomed and embraced” by the local communities. People understood, and appreciated the risk associated with four physicians from Chicago making such a long trip and risking their lives.

There were certainly many risks: rebels, Saudi coalition, Daesh.

And being a western physician only adds to the risk.

But the popular saying is very true: “Without risk, there IS no reward.”

“They embraced us,” says Sahloul, “They treated us as celebrities and heroes.”

Sahloul has a hard time selecting just one specific, memorable moment from the trip. He recalls one time when his group stopped at a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). According to 2015 statistics provided by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC), there were 2.5 million IDPs in Yemen.

“We stopped in IDP camp which has a few thousand families,” says Sahloul, “It was a very hard area to get to.  You have all of these families in tents, in very primitive situations.”

When the group arrived at the camp, they were surrounded by children who asked for candy.

Sahloul also remembers once visiting a center that specialized in the treatment of Cholera. According to statistics, approximately 2000 people have died from the infection since this past April, and there are currently approximately half a million suspected cases of Cholera in Yemen. Sahloul says that particular center saw nearly 3000 cases in two months. While at the center, Sahloul recalls seeing a baby with Cholera, receiving IV fluids.

In the end, the baby did survive.

“I think it was very successful in terms we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish,” says Sahloul of the trip.

The group was able to establish ties with different communities, and develop relationships with NGOs and local hospitals. Groups such as Al-Hayaat & the Global Needs Foundation also helped to provide the team with information about the situation on the ground in the areas where they worked.

The MedGlobal team also provided training to local healthcare workers who would be in a position to continue their work after the group returned to the US.

The people they met with also wanted help with a maternity center. As it stands right now, only approximately 20% of all births are attended by a health professional according to statistics provided by the Journal of Global Health Perspectives.

“Newborns are not taken care of because they are born in villages or in homes without even midwives,” explains Sahloul.

To try to remedy that situation, MedGlobal has plans to start training midwives and other professionals so deliveries can be attended.

The group also has plans to establish mobile clinics to serve Yemenis who aren’t in the habit of going out and seeking medical care. Now the care will be able to come to them.

MedGlobal even took a meeting with the Prime Minister of Yemen.

“We also met with an advisor to the Prime Minister of Yemen who also pledged to support our future missions…”says Sahloul.

In contrast, here in the US, we have a president who has made his anti-immigrant and anti-refugee positions clear.

Sahloul hasn’t given up hope on President Trump.

“He’s a human and I think we should not just give up on him,” Sahloul says of Trump.

Instead, he suggests getting Trump to see the pictures of children, some with severe malnutrition because of the war.

“He says that he’s a Christian and that he cares about life and he cares about children,” says Sahloul.

Now, Sahlul says, we just need to find a way to make Trump connect with these lives and these stories. Once we’re able to do that, Sahloul thinks that the US can even play a role in alleviating some of the burdens faced by Yemenis.

The group is back from Yemen, and already has plans for other trips. They have 120 volunteer nurses and physicians in the US & UK who are prepared to go help Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. They're also prepared to send a team of cardiologists to Yemen.

“We’re a small and young organization, but we have a very big vision,” says Sahloul.