STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Syrian-American doctors are quietly providing medical aid inside Syria. The Syrian-American Medical Society - or SAMS, as it's known - has a long record of supporting health care inside the country. And as the revolt has grown more lethal, these Syrian-American doctors have sided with the rebels. It's risky work, as NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a pulmonary specialist from Chicago, is on his fifth medical mission to Syria - a mission that takes skills he didn't learn in medical school, like the heart-pounding dash across the Turkish border into Syria and back.

DR. ZAHER SAHLOUL: Never in my dreams, I expected to sneak to the border three times and have the border guards shouting at me.

AMOS: With smugglers urging him through a hole in a barbed-wire border fence.

SAHLOUL: Going in the mountain at night, walking for three hours.

AMOS: All this to get to Syrian field hospitals and clinics in urgent need.

SAHLOUL: I think this is part of the reality now, in Syria for physicians trying to help, especially if they're from the outside.

AMOS: He's hardly an outsider. Dr. Sahloul graduated first in his class from medical school in Damascus. He was a classmate of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad.

Do you think he knows what you're doing now?

SAHLOUL: Probably, he knows that the Syrian-American Medical Society is doing a lot of medical relief work among the people that he is trying to hurt.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORS SHUTTING)

AMOS: When we get to the Syrian town of Aldana - close to the Turkish border - and pull up to the hospital, the staff is lined up to welcome him. Everyone looks tired. Medical supplies are scarce, and the casualties are rising. The wounded come by taxi, in cars and on foot. Surrounding towns and villages are within range of the Syrian military's long-distance artillery and air strikes, the head surgeon tells him.

SAHLOUL: The last battle, they received 110 wounded person, and they have only 10 beds.

AMOS: And so the rest went to Turkey?

SAHLOUL: Yes, rest went to Turkey.

AMOS: Patients are dying because Turkish hospitals are too far away. The doctors urge him to help expand this hospital, to save more lives.

DR. IYAD: We see a lot of shrapnel, really bad shrapnel injuries. I mean, you see these small metallic shrapnel, like little flying knives, literally. We've certainly seen a few deaths out of these.

AMOS: That's Dr. Iyad. He gives his first name only, a Syrian-American on break from a hospital in Tennessee. He volunteered to work in Aldana after rebels took control here.

How safe is this town?

IYAD: I think, for the moment, this town is relatively safe. I mean, if you spend the night here, you can here the bombing all the time. Some of them - is near, some of them is a bit further; but relatively safe.

AMOS: Relatively safe - it's what Dr. Sahloul sees, too, as he walks out on to the streets of Aldana at sunset.

SAHLOUL: This area is definitely the safest area I've seen south of the Turkish border.

AMOS: On the drive out of town, we see open barbershops and restaurants; children playing in the streets. Some residents are even repairing damaged homes. The Syrian army is too stretched fighting rebels elsewhere, to retake Aldana. Dr. Sahloul sees a place to rebuild in these relatively safe Syrian towns that hug the frontier where the Turkish military provides unofficial cover. Syrian doctors who fled the country could come back here to work.

SAHLOUL: Many of them already want to come back to Syria and want to volunteer, actually, in Syria. Some of them may serve in the emergency room, especially if it is relatively safe.

AMOS: Doctors have a special place in Syrian society: the top graduates, the cream of the crop, natural leaders. So doctors were an early target of the regime when the revolution began, says Dr. Sahloul. At least 60 physicians have been killed, more than 200 arrested, he says. Syria's health care system, one of the best in the Middle East, is near collapse.

SAHLOUL: Hospitals are being targeted. Patients are pulled from the operating room. Patients are being tortured inside the hospitals. You have reports of doctors on the other side who are killing patients. This is unheard of. I've never seen something like this.

AMOS: Many doctors fled to Turkey, and they're caring for a refugee population that has overwhelmed the Turkish health care system.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNAPPING NOISE)

AMOS: This patient bears his pain in silence as a doctor bandages the stump of his leg, recently amputated below the knee. This rehabilitation center in southern Turkey is run by Syrian doctors, funded by a Syrian businessman in the Gulf. The medical staff all fled Syria under threat, says Dr. Ammar Martini, who heads the center. When protests broke out in his hometown of Idlib, security police ordered doctors to withhold treatment from anyone shot on the streets.

DR. AMMAR MARTINI: Of course, three or four times they told me, it is not allowed for you to treat any wounded person.

AMOS: Is that why you left and came here?

MARTINI: Yeah. When I thought I will be killed, I leave.

AMOS: Now, he can offer long-term care for patients from across Syria - Idlib, Hama, Homs; protest towns under fierce army shelling.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRAWER OPENING)

SAHLOUL: (Foreign language spoken)

AMOS: Dr. Sahloul is here to see the new center. He stops by the bed of a young woman from Homs. She tells him she waited days for treatment; was smuggled out of the besieged city through a sewerage pipe, her wounds badly infected during the long ordeal. His physician's composure slips for a moment, as he surveys her damaged body.

SAHLOUL: She was shelled by a missile to her left arm and to her left side. As you see, she has several surgeries on her belly and her left leg, and her left arm was amputated. She's 24 years old.

AMOS: Rebuilding Syria's shattered health care system is one of the biggest challenges ahead. Treating the wounded inside Syria is his immediate concern.

SAHLOUL: We learn in medical school and training how to deal with crisis, how to deal with patients who are in the intensive care unit. And right now, Syria is in crisis, is in critical condition.

AMOS: A critical condition caused by his old med school classmate, President Bashar al-Assad, he says. But Dr. Sahloul is convinced this is a turning point in the revolution. As rebels take more territory across the country, it is now time for the doctors to go back.

Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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