In Damascus, Syria, she was a prominent lawyer who had heart trouble — but kept it under control. Then the war came.

Her house was bombed, two of her sons disappeared and her husband was murdered. She had to flee in the night to save what was left of her family. Along with thousands of other refugees, they made it to Jordan. Then she had a heart attack, and no access to treatment.

Fortunately, help was nearby.

A high-volume operation

“Once our team arrived, we were able to bring her in, repair her clogged artery and get her back to near normal,” says Atman Shah, M.D., a heart specialist at the University of Chicago — and one of 65 caregivers from the United States, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. He spent eight days in January performing desperately needed medical procedures in one of Jordan’s leading hospitals.

“I was part of a team of four interventional cardiologists,” Shah states. “We would alternate. One of us would evaluate patients at the camp. The rest performed procedures in Amman’s Gardens Hospital.”

These were “intense, 18-hour days,” he said. “A high-volume operation. Everyone we met had a tragic tale. This war has been brutal.”

'“Everyone we met had a tragic tale. This war has been brutal.”'

Unique circumstances

Shah’s prior volunteer efforts focused on countries wracked by poverty. But Syria wasn’t like that. Not long ago, Syrians had good medical care, well-staffed hospitals — modern technology.

Since the war began in 2011, however, half of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million people has been displaced or killed. More than 650,000 refugees fled to Jordan. Those with the greatest needs and the fewest resources live in camps. They have nothing: no home, no job, no savings, no safety net. They rely on charity.

“Every patient has a heart-rending, unending story,” says Shah. “There are millions of Syrian refugees. Where can they go? Turkey has political issues. Greece has financial problems.”

So patients must rely on outside help. Shah’s role was supported by donors to the Syrian American Medical Society. Medical device companies gave supplies. “No big grants,” Shah explains, “just a lot of small and mid-sized donors.”

“The patients, and their doctors, rely on help from these benevolent organizations,” he says. “The refugees need everything.”