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A Sacred Honor!

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Of all the people who are alive in the world today, the one person who I would like to meet most of all and spend a little time with is Samer Attar. You probably have never heard of him. 

Samer Attar is 48 years old and grew up in the Chicago area, where he graduated from Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, Illinois. 

Today Doctor Samer Attar is an orthopedic surgeon with Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago and the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. He is Syrian-American and he volunteers most of his life to the Syrian American Medical Society and to Doctors Without Borders. I have followed Dr. Attar’s incredible and awe-inspiring work in Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Liberia, Burma, Bhutan, Panama, Nepal, and especially the last two years in Ukraine and Gaza. His has been featured on 60 Minutes, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic and The New York Times.  

Today Dr. Attar is working to comfort and to save lives in Gaza. Last July he spent two weeks embedded in a hospital in southeastern Ukraine, his third volunteer mission there since the start of the war. Dr. Attar started volunteering in Aleppo, Syria in 2013 during the civil war there. 

He speaks about his missions in Syria and in Ukraine: In Aleppo we worked out of a basement. In Ukraine at least the hospitals were still standing. But injuries from mines and mortars do not discriminate. The wounds that I encountered in Ukraine looked the same as in Syria: disfigured faces pocked with shrapnel; disemboweled bellies; dismembered bodies; limbs with massive defects of skin with jumbled bone shards, shredded muscle and noodled tendons; gaping chest wounds with collapsed lungs; severe head wounds.” 

After a decade of traveling to the worst places on earth and ministering to people hanging on to life by a thread, during wars, epidemics and famines, Dr. Attar finally has some answers to why he does all this with his life. 

He says that people in the United States ask him: “Why are you going there when you don’t owe them anything?” And people in the war zones ask him: “Why would you leave your home to come here to risk it all?”

Dr. Attar wrote a Guest Essay in the New York Times on September 20, 2023. He concluded his essay by saying –

As doctors, we develop skills and build experience and, along with that expertise, a desire and a sense of obligation to help those most in need. In Syria I learned how to manage war wounds in a battle zone with few supplies. From that sprouted opportunities to assist in other faraway places.

It wasn’t only a matter of doing the right thing. I was also compelled to bear witness to atrocities that some people experience only in words and images — or opt to ignore. It was a way of bringing voice to the voiceless and making a connection with local doctors and patients, many of whom feel beaten down and isolated. The simple act of being physically present, of being able to look a local doctor in the eye as we worked alongside each other, sometimes had a greater impact than an extra box of medicine. It let my fellow physicians know that they are not forgotten.

The medical students I supervise at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine tell me they are inspired by my stories and that they, too, want to work in disaster medicine. The work is meaningful, but it is dangerous and can take a heavy psychic toll, I warn them. You operate with the understanding that you may find yourself dead or wounded next to the people you are trying to help. You may find yourself alone in a bunker shuddering from artillery blasts, sleeping on a basement floor next to 10 strangers, taking cold showers with a bucket, cutting limbs off humans and wrapping dead children with white shrouds.

“Guard your souls,” I tell them. Be careful not to drown in anguish and hopelessness. That can take a lifetime of practice.

These experiences can also make you a better doctor. My mentors in humanitarian medicine taught me the first rule: Be quiet and listen. We’re not in charge. We’re not heroes or saviors. We’re there to serve.

I learned from Syrian and Ukrainian surgeons how to do more with less: how to operate in an austere, hostile, low-resource environment; how to stay steadfast in the middle of an operation when the hospital you work at is being bombed; how to walk away sane and stable from mass-casualty events in which you can’t save everyone and the closest you get to helping is holding people’s hands as you watch them die.

I learned other lessons. The ambulance drivers, the schoolteachers, the railway workers, the journalists, the soldiers, the nurses, the physicians and the patients that I met in Ukraine taught me more about bravery, leadership, sacrifice and service than any profit-seeking hospital administrator or ladder-climbing academician.

Of course, as doctors, we don’t have to go to Syria or Ukraine to witness courage. It’s right in front of us. In Chicago this year I took care of a 35-year-old woman with cancer of her femur. She was 20 weeks pregnant. She didn’t have enough money for her phone bill, so her obstetrician paid it. She decided not to terminate her pregnancy while undergoing treatment. To save her leg, we surgically removed half of her femur and replaced it with an internal titanium prosthesis. She underwent chemotherapy while pregnant. Last month she delivered a healthy baby but still has a long road ahead as a new mom with more debilitating chemotherapy to come.

That’s courage.

What we as doctors do for a living on the most mundane day is a sacred honor, wherever we do it. It’s unfortunate that it sometimes takes service in wars and disasters to force us to step back to see how terrible the world can be and how good some of us have it. It shows we really are all one community connected through suffering and also how capable we are of helping others through sacrifice.

But sometimes we have to take a journey to find out.

Thanks to Lemniscate L for the picture. 

Every day I have to ask myself whether I see my life as a priest as “a sacred honor?” If I do, how am I practically living out my life as “a sacred honor?” Your life – Your Skills, Your Talents, Your Blessings – “A sacred honor?” Practically, how are you living them out as “a sacred honor?”

How often do you reflect upon the fact that “we really are all one community connected through suffering and also how capable we are of helping others through sacrifice.” 


This is a powerful Message to be shared. Please listen to my Podcast. 

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