At a refugee hospital in Jordan, kids deal with war, resilience and friendship

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Marco Werman: Our next story on The World is about kids and friendship, but also about war. It starts with two boys, best friends, we’ll call them Mohammed and Omar since we can’t use their real names. Like nine-year-olds anywhere, they like to explore. One day this summer, the boys were wandering around their town. It’s called Daraa and it’s in the southern part of war torn Syria. The youngsters stumbled upon an electronic device and started playing with it and it exploded. Somehow the boys families were able to rush them across the border to a hospital in Ramtha, in Jordan. Michelle Mays, a pediatric nurse working for Doctors Without Borders, MSF, was in the operating room that night.


Michelle Mays: It was intense. Mohammed came with his mother and Omar with his father, and they had a few other family members who already lived in Jordan and they were all sitting outside the operating room, waiting to hear news, “How are they?” It was really tough, both surgeries were really tough. Mohammed, both of his legs were blown off in the explosion, as well as his left hand, and Omar, he had really severe abdominal injuries, as well as an injury to his leg.


Werman: What was your role in the operations that night?


Mays: That night, it was really to coordinate with the team. We had an anesthesiologist from the UK who was supposed to get on a plane that night to fly back home because he had a job he had to get back to, so there was a lot of coordination that had to take place because we had to operate on both boys simultaneously in order to save their lives.


Werman: So, a terrible conclusion after surgery for Mohammed, waking up without both legs. How did he feel when he came out of the anesthesia?


Mays: When I went to see Mohammed the next morning, we were asking  him, the team and I, “How are you?” seeing if he was oriented waking up after anesthesia. We said “How are you?” and he said “alhamdulillah,” which means “Thanks be to God,” and all of us just had to take a beat because here is this little boy, nine-years-old, who lost both of his legs and his hand and when you ask him how he is, he says “I’m fine. Thanks be to God.” That’s just amazing and such a sign of his own resilience.


Werman: Wow. Nine-years-old. Mohammed came with his mother. How did she react to all of this?


Mays: The next morning, we were doing rounds in the hospital after the boys had had their surgeries in the night. We went into the room, had some discussions with the surgeons about how they were doing. When I came out, the mother just asked me “Is he okay? Is he okay?” I said “Yeah, he’s fine” and she just burst into tears and grabbed me. It’s really so tough for these parents -- not only are you living in a warzone but your kids are there too, in danger, as well as everybody else. So, it’s really difficult for the parents.


Werman: How typical was that night at that hospital where you were at? Two kids seriously injured on this side of death.


Mays: It happens. We’ve had upwards of more than 30 patients come in within a matter of a couple of hours. It can be tough. Thankfully that night it was just those two boys who needed emergency surgery because we only have two operating rooms and sometimes there are tough choices that we have to make about who really has the best chance to survive, and those are some really tough calls that the teams have to make.


Werman: Omar and Mohammed had been such close friends. What were they like together in the hospital once they started feeling more at home there?


Mays: Well, they were both big troublemakers -- they are nine-year-old boys. Mohammed had a really tough time coming back into himself. He lost both of his legs, so that was really traumatic for him and I think the experience itself was really traumatic. But over time, he really just came back into himself and he’s just the sweetest kid. Omar was the troublemaker from the moment he woke up from the anesthesia I think. The boys both love anything electronic, so the team always has to be careful to hide their cell phones and what not because if you don’t, they will be gone.


Werman: It is kind of amazing that their parents were able to get across the border to Jordan. Jordan has been this quiet nation state in the middle of all of this turmoil in the Middle East lately. What exactly is Jordan doing to help all of these people fleeing Syria?


Mays: There are a couple of refugee camps in Jordan; we work in Zaatari refugee camp, which is one of the biggest refugee camps in the world, about 80,000 people. We have a rehabilitation hospital there for patients once they’ve finished their surgeries -- war-wounded patients. So, they finish their surgeries at our hospital or other hospitals in Jordan and then they go there for recovery. But Jordan is doing quite, quite, quite a lot and I think it’s really impressive that they continue to allow war-wounded patients to come in to receive medical treatment as well as the thousands of other refugees who have fled the war.


Werman: 80,000 -- that is no longer a camp, that is a city. We’ve been hearing that the United Nations has been desperate for more cash to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis, they're asking now for $8 billion. What does that money represent? You tell us, because you’ve been in the field.


Mays: There are definitely a lot of needs in Jordan for the refugees. Obviously the war in Syria is going to keep going. So, people can really get tired of it and forget that it’s really important and yet here are these people that continue to suffer, like these two boys. So, it’s really important that the world continues to pay attention to it.


Werman: Let’s just go back to Mohammed and Omar. You spoke with your colleagues at the hospital in Ramtha, Jordan today. What did you find out?


Mays: Omar was discharged today, which was really exciting. He was able to go with his father to Zaatari refugee camp.


Werman: Today?


Mays: Yeah, today, this morning. So, he just has his cast on, so we’ll have to get a little follow-up in our team in Zaatari for that. But he’s doing great and is in really high spirits, though it is really hard for him to leave his best friend Mohammed, who is still undergoing a lot of treatment.


Werman: And will Mohammed eventually, with his family, join Omar in the Zaatari refugee camp?


Mays: We’ll see. Maybe. I hope so. He’s still waiting to get his prostheses for his leg, so. He had a long recovery period. War-wounds are very dirty injuries, so they’re very prone to infection and unfortunately Mohammed did have an infection for a time and had to be isolated, which was really difficult for a nine-year-old boy, not to be able to run around the hospital like he was used to and see his friend. That was tough, and that delayed him being able to get his prostheses. But hopefully he will be able to get that soon.


Werman: Michelle Mays, a pediatric nurse working with Doctors Without Borders. She recently returned from working in a hospital in Ramtha, Jordan. Thanks for telling us about Mohammed and Omar. We really appreciate it.


Mays: Thanks for having me.