Chapter 14: The doctors from Achaia

‘Petro, hurry up here, we need medical transport to Mytilene!’ Alexandros tells me in a seven o’ clock morning call. On my way down to Sykaminia I find the UNHCR/Stage-2 camp chock-full with many refugees already there, the first line-up forming outside its gate. ‘Shit, today they arrived even earlier!’ I say to myself, as I slow down the care to a crawl as to carefully go through the long columns of people walking up all over the road from our camp to Stage 2. Again anxious taps on the window, questions about where the next camp is, where Mytilene or Athens is, women cradling babies, old men and women wearily looking on while younger members of their families ask me for directions. ‘Damn, I should start doing transports up to Stage-2’ I say to myself, momentarily forgetting what Alexandros told me, the scenes of helplessness around me overwhelming. ‘Petro are you close by?’ Apollo asks again on the phone, ‘There in a few minutes!’ I reply. It takes me nearly ten minutes to drive the last kilometre to our camp through the village, the road choke-full of refugees walking up. With Asimo having left for Athens yesterday, I expect only the Norwegian nurses to be around to help us with medical issues. In Mytilene’s main hospital the doctors have set up an impromptu refugee section, beds reserved only for them. However, patient assessment and transport is still up to us, and with Asimo now gone it would be much more difficult to judge what to do for particular cases.

It was thus the happiest of the occasions when a new team of doctors arrived. They swarmed our operation, the Greek Coast Guard ships, Mytilene’s hospital, Moria’s processing center, with their numbers, good will and humour. These were the doctors of EINA (Greek initials standing for: Association of Doctors of South Achaia, a province of the Peloponnese) who came to join our efforts today, all leaving their regular jobs in Achaia behind. They arrived to Lesvos last night, some staying in a local monastery, others in Molyvos. Today one of them, Katerina, was waiting for me outside the medical tent with a baby, wrapped up in a golden-foil thermal blanket, no more than a few months old. This was my medical emergency to transport to Mytilene’s hospital, along with its mother and father and a Norwegian nurse. The baby should have blood tests for a suspected infection. I look at Katerina, green eyes, long wavy honey-brown hair, no more than 30 years old, ‘Should we check the entire family in the hospital so that they stay together?’ I ask her. ‘That would be good, but I am not sure they can do this’ she tells me. She then hands me a referral paper to use for the hospital, smiles, ‘see you later’ and steps back into the medical tent. This was my first encounter with an EINA doctor, one of many to come.  Later that very day they were joined by two very young doctors from Germany, Alina, and Wolfgang, who stayed with us for quite some time. Wolfgang’s is a tall trainee doctor with a serious studious face, balanced by Alina’s brightest of smiles, and easy nature. So all of the sudden with the EINA people, and the two young German volunteers, there was a formidable medical team at hand!

I drive the baby and the family, Afghanis from Kunduz, to Mytilene, the most careful drive of my life, reassured by the presence of Ingrid, a Norwegian nurse sitting next to me. In Mytilene’s hospital the nurses there took the baby and the parents in. They would keep them, they told us, until all exams were done and see what was wrong with the little one. It is hard to overstate what this meant to those parents and us, Ingrid was elated.

We were back to the camp by late afternoon. I went to the medical tent to report that all went well, Katerina was now gone, and a happy-go-lucky of a man, short, and with closely cropped grey hair came out, Manos, another EINA doctor. ‘She went out with one of the volunteer cars to the west coast’ he said, ‘many more boats have landed there since you left’ he added, ‘the refugees that came out of them still walking towards us…’. He then told me of a patient inside the tent that he just treated for what appeared to be a war-inflicted wound in the gluteal muscle. ‘Somebody just stitched him up and send him on his way’ Manos tells me, ‘His wound got badly infected, so when I opened it up the entire tent smelled, pseudomonas infection you see’, Manos says. I pretended to understand, then his next words echoed in me: ‘The things I saw today in the tent and around here, man we are really not far from a war zone…a war zone…’ his voice trailing off. Then I suddenly remembered a 7-8 year-old boy I saw today in Mytilene’s port just before I left to come back here. He was going happily about playing when I noticed his right hand, amputated an inch above the wrist. I replayed his image in my head and remembered that there were several deep parallel scars, starting from the amputation line going up towards the elbow. ‘It may have been such a wound’ I thought. Suddenly all those barrel bombs that the military of that bastard Assad was dropping on Syrian civilians were not exploding that far off from Lesvos.

In the days that followed Manos’ last words came back to me, not only because people kept coming to us with war wounds like the one he had just described, but also because so many arrived with medical conditions that should have kept them in a hospital rather than make a perilous journey over land, then travel on a damn dingy of a boat to cross the Aegean. There was a case of a woman with a kidney removal operation, stitched up, and send on her way a mere three days after her operation, people arriving on wheelchairs(!), others with fresh wounds inflicted by the traffickers, people taken out of intensive care units and send on a dangerous journey, their conditions made worse by the time they arrived. The list was long.

I leave Manos behind to go and get a few thermal blankets and bottles of water before driving out to the west coast, heeding his words that many more people must be there walking towards us. While I drive on the coastal road, I look to my right, I see no boats nearby, only a navy-grey ship of the Greek Navy is out on patrol. After 15-20 minutes of driving I stop the car stunned, the sight far in front of me overwhelming. There are hundreds, hundreds(!) of people marching towards me on a long patch of the coastal road, the equivalent of many boats. I just sit there not knowing what to do. Should I go up to them with my paltry stock of thermal blankets and water bottles or go back and restock with a much bigger supply than I have? I decide to press on. For this large number of people and the perils of their journey, statistics dictates that there will almost certainly be serious medical cases among them. I better go and find them.

Sure enough as I approach Yannis’s red car whizzes by, its stop lights flashing, a family seems to be inside. I continue on and stop in front of the column. A man with doctor insignia on his volunteer jacket is there speaking Arabic to some people at the head of the column. He is cradling a small boy that seems asleep in a thermal blanket, my breath catches up…

‘Nothing serious, he is just very tired and a bit hypothermic’ he tells me quickly after seeing my worry, ‘please put him in the car and take him back to the camp’ he tells me, in flawless Greek. Seeing my surprise, he quickly introduces himself. He is Hamdi, a neurosurgeon from a large hospital in Athens that just arrived in our camp to help. This is how I came across one of our two Greek-Syrian doctors, the other one, Iman, riding on the car of Yannis that had just passed me. Their knowledge of Arabic and Greek, in the context of their profession was a great combination to have during our operations in Sykaminia. They would not help only as doctors, Hamdi in particular, could be seen transporting families from our camp up to Stage-2 at all hours of the day and the night.

I take the boy along with his mother and his siblings, Syrians from Aleppo, and drive them to the camp. There I find Manos joined by yet another EINA doctor, a rather colourful character called Meliades, a paediatric surgeon, specialised in intensive care. One could not have chosen a better specialty to have on that coast those October days, and here he was, magisterial, calm, and insidiously humorous. In the days that followed he somehow maintained all these elements, even during the worse situations. His experience in the intensive care unit for children in a hospital in Patra, helping him I guess. I leave the boy in their care, and go back to the still far-off long column of refugees to bring back other emergencies in the usual fashion. By the time we were done with this wave night was upon us, and the winds have picked up noticeably.