Get to Know the 2016 MedicalMissions.org Physicians of the Year
International Honoree: Wael Hakmeh, D.O., Emergency Medicine, West Bloomfield, Mich.
Domestic Honoree: Dr. Roy Blank, Retired, Internal Medicine, Charlotte, N.C.
Wael Hakmeh, D.O., Emergency Medicine
From the moment he arrived at the hospital for his first mission trip in Alleppo, Syria, Dr. Wael Hakmeh was surprised by the sheer violence and trauma the people there faced, and the bravery in which they went about their lives with war raging all around them.
This hospital, known as M10, is the largest trauma hospital in northern Syria. It has been bombed eight times by the Syrian government over the past two years. As a Michigan-based Emergency Medicine physician, he was there to serve as part of a mission trip with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), an organization of Syrian-American healthcare workers who do relief work around the world. Before arriving in Alleppo, he had been teaching an Emergency Medicine/Critical Care course to Syrian healthcare workers in Turkey, preparing them to treat the traumatic injuries commonly seen there.
En route to start work at the hospital, a massacre had just been committed, and dozens of patients had just arrived. He noticed dead bodies, including children, laying on benches outside. The injured were being brought in by pick-up trucks which serve as ambulances in the battered city. The staff learned that a barrel bomb--crudely composed from oil drums, shrapnel and explosives-- had been dropped on an open-air market busy with shoppers. Dr. Hakmeh immediately began to help the badly-injured patients, working alongside the staff using the limited resources available. His first patient was a diabetic man in his 70s with a severe blunt abdominal injury with intra-abdominal bleeding and a low blood pressure.
“In the U.S. this man almost certainly goes to the operating room, immediately after a CT if he is hemodynamically stable. But here there was no CT and his surgery was slated for the next morning because of several more severely-injured patients triaged ahead of him. “
Dr. Hakmeh treats a badly-injured patient in an Aleppo, Syria, hospital. Faces of local healthcare workers are blurred to protect their identities.
After working for 14 hours, he retired to his room at the hospital and checked the internet for any coverage of the chaos he had witnessed or the more than 50 dead. There was little mention of it other than a report on BBC.
“Over 50 innocent people were killed and there was barely a mention. This confirmed what people at the EM/ICU training courses were telling us; the world has forgotten and forsaken Syrians.”
After going to sleep, he was shaken awake by a bomb that barely missed the hospital, shattering windows in the facility. In the face of this violence, he thought about his new colleagues and the risk they faced every day in coming to a work at the hospital.
“The resilience and reliance only on God and each other in the face of such adversity is why the bonds these healthcare workers have is unlike any you will find in any other environment. They literally are ready to die for one another, and some already have,” he said.
Dr. Hakmeh chose SAMS as his partner since it is the main healthcare organization delivering assistance and providing medical services to the people of Syria. His first interaction with SAMS was teaching the EM/ICU course to first responders and healthcare workers in Syria.
Dr. Hakmeh’s colleagues from SAMS also witnessed the dedication of his work. “Dr. Wael is passionate about what he does. He saves lives by treating patients directly or through educating others,” said fellow SAMS volunteer Dr. Ammar Ghanem. "I saw the excitement and pride of every action he took during my work with him in Gazianteb, Turkey, last year."
Dr. Hakmeh (in white pullover) teaching a critical care course to Syrian healthcare workers in Turkey. Faces are blurred to protect the participants’ identities.
He is now working with other SAMS members on a global response team aimed at providing medical relief to Syrian refugees who have fled to Greece and other parts of Europe. The most rewarding part for Dr. Hakmeh has been working alongside people who have lost everything, but still risk their lives daily to help others.
“I still have a text message from one of the technicians, showing a picture of two buildings with rubble between them, indicating that this is where his house had been that morning,” he said. “The only thing he had left was the clothes on his back, but despite all of this he feels blessed. The ability of medical staff to return to the same hospital, the same building that has been bombed eight times, speaks volumes of their courage and moral fortitude.”
Dr. Hakmeh works full-time on a locum tenens basis, a career choice that enables him to set his own schedule and dedicate more time to his work in Turkey and Syria.
“Working locum tenens has provided me the opportunity to take a week or two off every three months to perform these medical missions. I’ve been blessed to have gone to southern Turkey seven times and into Syria twice in a two-year time span. This was not possible with my previous permanent job.“
He offers the following advice to other physicians who haven’t yet done medical missions work, which he truly believes has made him a better doctor overall.
“Pray about your mission before you go; you can’t second guess yourself. Keep your intentions noble,” he said. “I also bring stuffed animals for the kids as they value it dearly. You should take the time to cherish those moments and experiences because they will leave an indelible mark on your life.”
Dr. Roy Blank, M.D., Internal Medicine
Dr. Roy Blank was admittedly late getting started in medical missions work. But you can say he’s done a lot in just a few short years to make up for lost time by being a dependable volunteer, leader and teacher, both overseas and in his own backyard.
After spending his 40-year career in private practice, with his final years in the Charlotte, N.C. area, his first foray into medical missions work was the result of a hallway conversation with a colleague.
It was January 2010, and a devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake had just happened in Haiti, an event that killed more than 250,000 people. A local physician assistant student, George Collins, was recruiting a team of healthcare workers to travel there. He asked Dr. Blank, his professor at Wingate University, to go. After discussing it with his wife, he joined the team of 22 people.
“It was an amazing experience. We didn’t know where we were going or how to find out where we were most needed,” he said. “We all took a leap of faith. One of the moments I’ll never forget was as we were driving through Port-Au-Prince, people were out in the streets, dancing in the rain. They were celebrating being alive.”
Dr. Blank with children in Nicaragua near the Bless Back Worldwide clinic.
After going to Haiti and seeing the need that went far beyond disaster relief, Collins founded Bless Back Worldwide (BBW) with Dr. Blank agreeing to become its first medical director. Desiring sustainability that would give people ongoing access to quality healthcare, the organization has found partners for permanent clinics in Haiti and later, Nicaragua. The organization has full-time health care workers present to work alongside and mentor Haitian and Nicaraguan staff members on public health initiatives such as prenatal care, diabetes, hypertension and dental care. Since that first trip, he has now helped to organize more than 50 brigades to the two countries, and BBW now serves as the primary care provider to more than 8,000 patients in the two countries.
Sustainability and quality are always top of mind with Dr. Blank. He authored a field manual based on World Health Organization guidelines that set quality protocols for treatment and formularies. He has worked to install Electronic Medical Records at the Haiti clinic, and the system will launch in Nicaragua this summer. Hearing of the high standards, other mission-centered organizations have asked for his help in developing their own protocols.
“We didn’t want to be a disaster relief organization, going in for a couple of weeks and then returning home,” Dr. Blank said. “We are about providing quality healthcare, community development and sustainability to help people improve their lives.”
Dr. Blank’s efforts to bring organization and sustainability to patients has been appreciated by his colleagues at BBW.
“He truly has been a blessing to our ministry, our community and our overseas partners in terms of his servant heart,” said Bill Smith, executive director of BBW.
Beyond providing care, Dr. Blank also works to be a health educator. After observing high incidences of respiratory illnesses due to people cooking on open fires, he developed educational workshops and found partners to provide rocket stoves, which has reduced toxins by up to 70 percent.
Dr. Blank treating a young patient in Nicaragua at the Bless Back Worldwide clinic.
At home, Dr. Blank also applies his primary care background with two other organizations, Project 658, which mostly serves refugee populations in the Charlotte area, and with Community Health Services of Union County, which helps uninsured diabetic patients with education and medications. He serves as medical director for both organizations and volunteers to see patients weekly.
Bringing together the people, organizations and causes he supports is something he loves to do. For several years, Dr. Blank has served as medical director and associate professor for Wingate University’s Physician Assistant program. Now, he annually takes students on the BBW trip with him to Nicaragua, and many of them volunteer alongside him locally at Project 658 and at the Community Health Services free clinic for diabetic patients, where he works every Thursday. This has helped them to gain more hands-on field experience and instilled in them a sense of service very early in their careers.
“Practicing medicine has been the ultimate gift to me,” he said. “I love the work I do now that I’m retired. I don’t have to worry about filing insurance or charging patients. I’m only focused on helping patients and teaching. I’m honored to do the work I’m doing here locally and by the fact that thousands of patients overseas consider our team at BBW to be their primary care provider.”
If you are a healthcare professional seeking volunteer opportunities, or an organization that need to recruit healthcare personnel, please visit www.medicalmissions.org and register. Registration is free for volunteers and mission-sponsoring organizations.