Baby, ‘miracle’, ray of hope in Syria | earthquake

Afrin, Syria – On the afternoon of that day as a series of earthquakes struck Turkey and Syria, Dr. Hany Maarouf, 43, returned to his duties at Jehan Hospital in Afrin, northwest Syria, after having ensure the safety of his wife and 7 children.

Around 3 p.m., a man and woman ran in, the man holding a small package in his arms, shouting that they needed a pediatrician. Their faces showed that panic had turned to despair. This was the sixth hospital they ran to with their precious bundle – baby Aya, just born in the ruins of a collapsed building to her deceased mother.

Miracle in the Ruins

Assuring them he was a pediatrician, Maarouf gently lifted the baby from their arms but what he saw left him “terrified”.

“I’m not sure she’s alive – she’s pale, cold, silent. Her limbs were pale and her body was covered with bruises,” he recalls.

Then a weak pulse is detected and he and his team take action. They wrapped the baby in a warm blanket and placed him in an incubator, watching him until he was warm enough that they could find a vein to connect him to the calcium and glucose solution.

Baby Aya is checked with a stethoscope
Baby Aya doesn’t like the stethoscope, but it helps the doctors determine that she’s fine [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

The man who had brought her in – her aunt’s husband – and the woman who had accompanied him – a neighbor – were relieved that Aya would be saved, but the harsh reality of that day made it impossible for them to stay with her longer. they must find their own families, and be able to count and bury the dead.

Four days after baby Aya was first brought in and named by hospital staff, Maarouf told Al Jazeera that she was much better and that the hospital team had regrouped to ensure that she was cared for. attentive. Despite still spending the day in an incubator, baby Aya is being breastfed several times a day by a volunteer, which provides her with the human skin-to-skin contact a newborn needs to stay healthy. development, in addition to the antibodies and nutrients found only in breast milk.

And she has thrived, Maarouf said proudly, adding that she is gaining weight, showing all positive indicators and everything around is much better than he is. expectation. While he, as a father of seven, often finds himself too emotional by the baby’s plight to spend too much time with her, many nursing staff have come visit her, sit by the incubator and watch her sleep or comfort and wave. .

Dr. Maarouf reached into the incubator to check on baby Aya
Dr. Maarouf is proud of Aya’s remarkable growth, but as a father of seven, he is deeply saddened by her plight. [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

The circumstances of Aya’s mother going into labor have yet to be determined, but Maarouf says it’s very likely a woman goes into labor due to shock and labor will continue until it’s over. The fact that rescuers on Monday heard Aya’s cries in the rubble and were able to get her to help within a few hours was “first and foremost by God’s mercy”, Maarouf said.

Surprisingly, he added, it’s possible that the extremely complicated and frigid rescue efforts played a key role in keeping baby Aya alive until she was found. Because of the cold, she had hypothermia, which is actually a therapy used in neonatal hospitals to save babies who were hypoxic at birth. This will preserve her brain function until hospital staff can warm her up and start caring for her.

‘We’ll always be open, no matter what’

When Maarouf reassured baby Aya’s relatives that they would take care of the baby and that they should go check on the rest of his family, he spoke with full knowledge of the horror that had befallen her. Afrin that day. And what war-torn Syria has had to go through over the past 12 years, when he himself had to relocate from Maaret al-Naaman to Afrin in 2019.

Doctor Maarouf in portrait, wearing a medical mask
Dr Maarouf and his family were relocated from Maaret al-Naaman to Afrin in 2019 [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

He spent hours in the car with his wife and children on the day of the earthquake until their home was deemed safe to return to, and that day they had 40 people sheltering with them because they were no longer alive. where to go. It was that thought that prompted him to go back to work that day, that someone might need help.

“We are pediatricians, we are not the heroes of these tragedies,” he told Al Jazeera. “The real heroes are the surgeons, the wardens, who are literally saving lives by the minute in the most terrible of circumstances.

“This is not the first disaster to hit this area, God only knows, we have had years of bombardment and war. During that time, we were the second line of defense, we often looked after children who needed regular care, children with pre-existing conditions, children who still needed their care. me even when the walls fall. That’s why I said we’re not going to close the hospital, we’re going to keep it open, no matter what.”

Even that was difficult in the first days after the earthquake that has killed more than 21,500 people to date. “Pharmacies close, medical warehouses close, everything stops. We are reeling because we don’t have much medicine in the hospital dispensary,” Maarouf said.

A doctor looks at an X-ray film near baby Aya's incubator
The team went through all the necessary checks and was amazed at how well Aya passed her challenge. [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

“One day, we needed some formula for baby Aya because the volunteer hadn’t come to feed her yet. I was messing around until I remembered that I had some small samples of formula somewhere in my office, so the situation was saved. Now, things are a little better, maybe at 50 percent.

“But that’s still not good enough. Look how long we waited to get any help! They say that the border crossings, those organizations and the United Nations have been closed. So they can’t all find a helicopter to fly aid into here?

The northwestern part of Syria is held by forces opposing President Bashar al-Assad during the country’s 12-year war. It is largely isolated, with only one approved land border crossing used to bring aid through Turkey to its more than four million residents, most of whom are internally displaced people. water.

No aid crossed the Bab al-Hawa border crossing for three days after the earthquake due to heavily damaged roads in Turkey, but convoys continued through on Thursday. Still, demand is huge, with the World Food Program warning on Friday that it was running out of stock in northwest Syria and calling for more corridors to be opened.

Baby Aya in the incubator
Many nursing staff visit Aya, sitting by the incubator to watch her sleep or whisper and wave. [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Despite his anger and sadness at the circumstances, or perhaps because of the inner resilience that had been built up over the years of successive disasters to the region, he spoke in an exceptionally calm voice and with deep empathy for what everyone around him is experiencing. pass.

Maarouf said her aunt’s husband has been visiting Aya since then, but it doesn’t appear the family can afford to come pick her up. And that’s fine with him, all the people at Jehan hospital are happy to take care of baby Aya for as long as he needs.


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