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What's Next? In Limbo With Syrian Refugees Who Have Spinal Cord Injuries

In this Jan. 14 file photo, Syrian refugees wait to be approved to get into Jordan. In the Jordan capital of Amman, Dr. David Scales treated patients who had suffered spinal cord injuries in the Syrian civil war. (Raad Adayleh/AP)

In this Jan. 14 file photo, Syrian refugees wait to be approved to get into Jordan. In the Jordan capital of Amman, Dr. David Scales treated patients who had suffered spinal cord injuries in the Syrian civil war. (Raad Adayleh/AP)

By Dr. David Scales

“Do you eat eye?” the man asked me, tearing meat away from a sheep’s skull.

“No, I do not eat eye,” I replied, pleased to have been given an out. “Thank you.”

I was the guest of honor at a small apartment on the outskirts of Amman, Jordan, where a group of about 15 Syrian refugee men all live together. Their uniting bond is their paralysis: All have spinal cord injuries from fighting in the Syrian civil war.

The celebratory meal Dr. David Scales was offered by Syrian refugees included sheep stomachs, eyes, tongues and skulls. (Courtesy David Scales)

The celebratory meal Dr. David Scales was offered by Syrian refugees included sheep stomachs, eyes, tongues and skulls. (Courtesy David Scales)

A few of the men had been my patients back in 2013, when I volunteered at a spinal cord injury apartment in Amman. At the time, their situation struck me as hopeless. I had good reason to feel that way — but I turned out to be wrong.

People with spinal cord injuries have complicated conditions that require special beds, cushions to prevent bedsores, physical therapy, wheelchairs, medications and more. In the United States. it can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year for each patient. For some, the first year alone can cost upwards of $100,000.

In Jordan, I thought, things could only be worse. There’s no primary care, and no consistent medical care for these men except for hospital visits. Yet their condition puts them at risk for myriad complications.

They all have tubes in their bladders because spinal cord injuries make them unable to pee. These tubes are nests of bacteria, leading to repeated infections.

Now that they aren’t using their leg bones, their bodies start to dissolve them, making them brittle. The extra calcium in their blood from the dissolved bone makes them prone to kidney stones.

Nerve pain from their severed spinal cords can shoot through their legs, much like that vibrating, electric pain you get from hitting your funny bone. Worse, sometimes that pain is constant. Lacking nerve stimulation, their muscles can become contracted, causing painful cramping.

And Jordan is no safe haven for them. No one knows exactly how many Syrian refugees with spinal cord injuries are living in Jordan, but we do know that many remain hidden. As former fighters that crossed into Jordan illegally, they could be deported back to Syria or confined in a special refugee camp if they are discovered by Jordanian authorities.

Many refugees are injured: According to a study published last year by Handicap International, about 1 in 15 Syrian refugees living in Jordan was hurt in the war, 72 percent of them men.

When I left Jordan in the spring of 2013, many of the patients from the spinal-cord injury apartment where I’d volunteered were destined to scatter to wherever they could find support and housing. Given the daunting risk of complications, I doubted I’d ever see most of them again.

But on a recent visit, I was surprised to see how well some of the guys were doing, many of them resettled into a different apartment in the suburbs of Amman,

Consider Yasir. He’s kept most of the urine infections at bay through some unorthodox antibiotic use; antibiotics are available over the counter in Jordan. He’s also gotten rid of his bedsores and takes no pain medications. Even without the proper equipment and cushions, he’s kept the bedsores away. In short, he’s done an amazing job with what was available to him. Continue reading