From an Akron hospital to Syria, in the realm of the White Helmets

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Originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer

In the auditorium of Summa Akron City Hospital, amongst dozens of intelligent and aspiring first-year pharmacy and medical students, I pondered the words of Dr. Joseph Zarconi. I was stuck on the significance of the color white as we discussed the responsibilities of the white coat we would now finally be granted after admission into the Northeast Ohio Medical University. We would soon don the very white lab coat that some of us had dreamed of as far back as we can recall and all of us had worked extremely hard to attain.

The beginning of the lecture had cut short a conversation between my Syrian friend and me on plans to create a university organization dedicated to providing medical attention to displaced refugees. As students gave their thoughts to what the lab coat would mean to them, my heart smiled as I thought of people in various European countries lining up to welcome incoming refugees. My mind wandered to a potential summer mission trip with our budding organization to the camps flooded with Syrian refugees in Turkey. Gradually, my heart sank as I thought of those that not only couldn’t make it into Europe or other safe havens to create a life for themselves but were unable to make it even to the refugee camps in neighboring countries.

As my thoughts on the significance of my white coat and the plight of the Syrian people converged, I thought of the White Helmets of Syria – an organization comprising some of the bravest, most noble men and women on the planet at the moment. Dodging bullets and barrel bombs, these unarmed civilians save lives where they are the only “emergency services.”

Much like the Hippocratic oath we as students of medicine hope to one day bind ourselves to, the White Helmets function with an oath of their own. In a civil war exploiting sectarian differences between Alawites and Sunni Muslims and pitting loyalists against revolutionaries, the White Helmets save lives irrespective of religious or political affiliations, not caring if the wounded or the trapped person is a freedom fighter or a soldier of Bashar Assad’s army. What is most amazing is that these men and women are ordinary farmers, bakers, and schoolteachers, but are now heroes in the theater of war!

I found myself raising my hand, shifting my weight in my seat as Dr. Zarconi pointed at me, and diving into an explanation of the significance of the white coat that had just dawned on me. I clawed for words and smashed together sentences to articulate how my mind had arrived at the conclusion that the white of the lab coats and the white of the helmets signified impartiality. That white was pure but at the same time highly impressionable. A single mark on our purity, our neutrality, our noble aspirations, would stick out the way a mark on a white sheet sticks out much more than sheets of other colors.

As I sat back in my chair, continuing to ponder over the conclusion that I had felt confident about and now was savoring more and more as it settled in, Dr. Zarconi left us with a paraphrased quote from the Greek philosopher Epictetus that pulled me further on the path of realization. He quoted, “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”

This quote inspired me. The White Helmets didn’t wait for professional training or even emergency training. They saw the suffering around them, knew they wanted to be people who relieved this suffering, and they set out to do what they needed to with the limited tools and skills they had to achieve this noble purpose. Instead of siding with either side or fleeing, they acted to save lives when they saw the 11 million civilians displaced, 7.6 million of whom are displaced internally in the midst of a civil war that has killed more than 200,000 and involves the indiscriminate use of barrel bombs.

Now that we are aware, will we make excuses for why this isn’t our problem or why we don’t have the means to help?

The courageous work the White Helmets are doing doesn’t go without casualties. With only $150 you can help with one night in the hospital for a wounded white helmet. With only $100, you can help a Syrian family stranded in refugee camps in countries neighboring Syria get through the upcoming winter.

The suffering is there and it is our problem. Indeed it is a humanitarian crisis. Now ask yourself if you would be one who saves lives, or ignores the suffering you are well aware of, then do what you have to do.

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