In 2013, Dr. Hassan Masri (AUA Class of 2010) traveled to Syria for twelve days to provide medical assistance to refugees of the country’s ongoing civil war. While there, he went through challenging trials that tested everything he learned as a physician. His extraordinary story begins in an Intensive Care Unit in Canada.
Why He Became a Doctor
Born in Saudi Arabia to parents of Syrian descent, Dr. Masri moved to Canada when he was a boy. He did not have much exposure to Syrian culture apart from occasionally speaking in Arabic with family and eating Syrian food. When he was growing up, his two greatest influences were his uncle, a renowned cardiologist who always wanted to help people, and an ICU doctor dedicated to treating a relative that was seriously ill. The ICU doctor would give updates around-the-clock and would often stay overnight to monitor his patient.
The example set by these two people convinced him to become a physician. However, when it came time to apply to Canadian medical schools, he faced a challenging application process, which led him to consider international medical schools. After researching several schools, applying to many, and getting accepted to some, he ultimately chose AUA.
“The staff at AUA were very clear about my options and made the process extremely transparent,” said Dr. Masri. “Medical school is a huge investment and they made me feel comfortable with my decision.”
He hoped that by becoming a physician, he could influence someone else’s life just as his uncle and the ICU doctor influenced his.
Four Years of Education to Treat One Patient
Upon arriving in Antigua, he suddenly felt the weight of what it means to earn an MD. During his first class, his Anatomy professor spoke to the students as if they were already physicians, but the reality of becoming a doctor hit him hardest during his White Coat Ceremony.
“I still remember slipping on that white coat and feeling the weight of responsibility that comes with becoming a doctor,” said Dr. Masri. “But as a resident with a white coat now longer than that of students, I felt a massive increase in that responsibility.”
While attending clinical rotations, he had his first memorable patient experience. He was assigned a patient with terminal cancer and found there weren’t many long-term treatment options for her. Nonetheless, his patient was upbeat and would always give him a hug whenever he visited her. A few weeks after leaving the hospital, Dr. Masri received a package from her that included a thank you note and a sweater embroidered with the simple saying: “Hugs Not Drugs.”
“Physicians who lack empathy, professionalism, and thoughtfulness aren’t physicians,” said Dr. Masri. “At AUA our education was shaped by the principle that in the practice of medicine, compassion and professionalism go hand in hand.”
The medical education he received at AUA helped him on a daily basis at his Internal Medicine residency at Harbor Hospital. His first patient took deep breaths between each word he spoke – a symptom of heart failure. Dr. Masri patiently spoke with him, checked his background, and ran numerous tests. By the end of it, he understood the underlying symptoms and prescribed the appropriate medication. Within a few days, his patient was no longer short of breath while speaking and his health improved dramatically.
“You need four years of education to treat one patient,” said Dr. Masri.
“I Didn’t Think My Life Was More Important Than Theirs”
During his residency, civil war broke out in Syria. Dr. Masri was glued to the war coverage and was seriously concerned about the shortage of physicians there. He held a fundraiser that raised more than $100,000 to sponsor an entire orphanage in the Syrian refugee camps. Despite this fundraising, he felt he could do more. He got in touch with the Syrian American Medical Association and the Syrian Expatriate Medical Association to find out how he could join doctors on the ground there.
“My parents told me not to go because it was dangerous,” said Dr. Masri. “But other doctors risked their lives to go there. I didn’t think my life was more important than theirs.”
While other residents were going home to their families during the holiday season, he took the necessary precautions and flew to Turkey, where he then travelled to a town located on the Syrian/Turkish border. He packed medical supplies and medication but nothing could prepare him for what he saw upon arrival. From the outside, the place he would work at for the next twelve days appeared to be a school, but inside it was a fully-functioning hospital.
“If it looked like a hospital on the outside, it would’ve been bombed,” said Dr. Masri.
The hospital was located about twenty kilometers away from an active war zone. He could hear the bombs being lobbed at populated areas by the Syrian army on a regular basis. It was a shockingly foreign experience for Dr. Masri who had only heard those sounds on television.
“Although you’re there to help people, you realize your life is also on the line,” said Dr. Masri.
The Reality on the Ground
While he was there, he treated hundreds of patients, many of whom have never seen a physician before. The elements and time were working against him. In the mountains, the temperature was below freezing and most of the people he met were wearing t-shirts and sandals. He tended to patients with diseases and injuries he thought he would never have to treat. It was an overwhelming and harrowing experience.
“I could barely sleep because patients were coming in at all hours of the day and night,” said Dr. Masri. “I might have to treat a patient with massive war injuries.”
He had limited resources, which meant that not every situation could have a happy ending. A 70-year-old patient came in with considerable chest pains. Dr. Masri determined he was suffering a terrible heart attack but didn’t have the resources to completely stabilize him. The only place that could treat him was over the border in Turkey, but it was too dangerous to travel at night. He checked on him every ten minutes and, at daybreak, lifted him onto a stretcher and escorted him by foot to Turkey. The patient passed away before they reached to the border.
“You always remember the patients who don’t make it,” said Dr. Masri. “Even though he was very grateful for our help, I will always look back and be sad and disappointed that someone had to die due to lack of resources.”
During his time in Syria, he lost a lot of weight. His diet consisted of some bread in the morning and a tiny bowl of pasta with tomato sauce at night. If he had time to sleep, it was in a tent outside in the freezing cold. Nevertheless, the little victories made it all worthwhile.
One patient, the 6-year-old daughter of one of the hospital security guards, would always watch what he was doing. She would play doctor with her friends by imitating what he did with other patients. She had contracted Hepatitis A from the drinking water, but maintained a sunny disposition. Under Dr. Masri’s care, her health improved and she soon went back to playing doctor. When he left, he gave her his pens.
“I told her that when the conflict is over and she’s grown up, hopefully she will play doctor for real and use those pens to write her first prescriptions,” said Dr. Masri.
The Privilege to Return Home
Returning to Canada put a lot of things in perspective. He felt thankful for all the little conveniences available in a country not ravaged by war. He could now sleep in a warm bed every night and never had to worry about going hungry. Even though there is a physician shortage in Canada, patients have easier access to health care.
“Lots of people are waiting for us to graduate so we can dedicate time to helping them,” said Dr. Masri.
Currently, he is a Critical Care Fellow at Queens University School of Medicine in Kingston, ON and is completing a world-renowned echo cardiography training course at Stanford University. Despite all the hardships that came along with his trip, he says that going to Syria was one of the proudest moments of his life. Even though he’s thousands of miles away, Dr. Masri still tries to relieve Syrian refugees and in November 2014, he raised $175,000 to send heating fuel and winter clothing to Syria.
He’s also incredibly proud of his alma mater for helping him reach these fundraising goals and fostering the necessary skills to treat underserved communities.
“AUA is there to train people from underprivileged backgrounds who are then able to provide healthcare to those who are also underprivileged,” said Dr. Masri.
Since returning from Syria, he realized that his education and commitment to medicine has instilled a sense of greater responsibility. There is more to being a doctor than gaining financial wealth. He hopes other medical students follow his path and use their skills to treat those most in need.
“Every medical student says he or she wants to help people, but I think that helping people doesn’t always have to come along with a paycheck,” said Dr. Masri. “People need a doctor and you are one. You don’t have to insert yourself in a war, but you must go to the people that can’t come to you, serve those that are less privileged. This is what being a doctor is all about.”