By Rami al-Khattib and Justin Clark

HAMA: Only one cardiologist remains in Hama’s northern countryside, part of a larger shortage of specialized doctors from neurosurgeons to oncologists to pediatricians, says Saheed al-Waheed, director of records in opposition-controlled Hama’s health directorate.

“In total, 25 doctors and 295 nurses and medical technicians remain in the area,” al-Waheed tells the Syrian Voice.

For patients who need specialized care and require a cardiologist or neurosurgeon, for example, getting the treatment they need means braving a trip to regime-held territory, where medical care is more plentiful.

The opposition government in Hama reports that 80 of its doctors have been killed since the beginning of the war, including the former health director, Hasan al-Arej.

Given the risk, terrible working conditions and low pay, many physicians from the area have fled the country, leaving with their families to find work in Europe or neighboring countries.

Only one cardiologist remains in Hama’s northern countryside, part of a larger shortage of specialized doctors from neurosurgeons to oncologists to pediatricians, he explains.

“Whenever a patient comes in who needs special care, sometimes we have to send them far away to get treated,” says al-Waleed.

Radwan Sateef was displaced by the war, and now lives in Hama’s countryside. To get the care she needs, she has to travel across the region to the only women and children’s hospital in the area.

“What I need isn’t provided in my area,” explains Sateef. “It’s challenging to move around here, the roads are often bombed. But I have no other choice.”

The personnel shortage puts pressure on the few remaining doctors as well. For Dr. Abdelqader, a pediatrician in Hama’s northern countryside, he often works weeks at a time across a number of medical centers without a break.

“With how many sick and injured are coming to us, it’s challenging,” Dr. Abdelqader tells the Syrian Voice. “It hits our personal lives as well. There’s just no time for our families anymore.”

The difficult conditions have encouraged many doctors and professionals to join the nearly four million Syrians who have fled the country, seeking refuge in Europe or neighboring countries.

A gastroenterologist who asked that his name not be mentioned spoke with the Syrian Voice from Germany. He worked in Hama until 2015, when he gathered his family and fled Syria.

“There was no safe place for me or my family,” he tells the Syrian Voice. “The regime was targeting medical centers—we had to leave.”

Finding replacements for the doctors who’ve fled or been killed is a tall order. Regime and Russian aircraft bomb the north Hama countryside regularly, making it difficult for doctors from other areas to visit patients in the countryside.

Though the health directorate in opposition-held Hama has launched two initiatives—one in Idlib and one in Aleppo—to train new physicians, they have yet to receive any new graduates.

Last month, one of Hama’s last remaining hospitals closed after it was hit by repeated by bombings. It was the fourth hospital to be destroyed in the area since the war began.