The second “pill journey” occurred in the past two months. This time, the Parkinson’s pills took a longer and more difficult journey. Utilizing social media, my family members found acquaintances to facilitate the medication’s travels. The pills were sent from my hometown of Charleston, W.Va., to Washington via FedEx, where a friend of my sister-in-law, a college student, was traveling to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, for the holidays. The pills transferred to another acquaintance, who took them from Dubai to Beirut, and a family friend transported the medication to Aleppo and then finally to Homs.
The pills traveled though war zones in Syria, demonstrations in Beirut, immigration offices in Syria and many checkpoints along the way manned by different fighting factions. Bribes were paid and taxis took narrow mountain roads to avoid armed conflict zones. Similar journeys for various medications take place frequently among Syrians trying to help family members. Facebook community pages are full of requests for overseas travelers to carry and deliver medications to family members.
As a physician, I had been able to manage my father’s health on the phone through WhatsApp when the internet and electricity were available for the past five years, but my arms couldn’t reach to check his pulse moments before he passed last month. Nor was I able to help with the funeral arrangements or to even attend the ceremony because the Syrian government forces burials within a few hours of one’s death. My last remaining high school friend in Homs, who braced the poor living conditions and stayed in town, stood in for me at my father’s burial. He told me he was the only person in his early 50s in attendance; the rest were older. All the young people are gone.
I am fortunate to have had the means to pay for such a journey for the medication, but not every sick person in Syria has that privilege. Still, money doesn’t guarantee ease. My aunt had a terrible, painful death from metastatic breast cancer a month ago in Homs. Talking with my cousin on the phone, I could hear her in agony in the background. There was no morphine available to ease her suffering and pain. No one should die this way.
My father’s death is a consolation; he didn’t fall and break a hip, or have a paralyzing stroke or a debilitating heart failure. The fear of not being able to provide end-of-life care always gripped me. Electricity in the big cities in Syria is a luxury, and doctors are sometimes forced to operate with flashlights. The country’s entire health care system is in a shambles. Many Syrians do not have access to the basic human needs of medicine, food and shelter. According to the World Health Organization, over 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line in Syria, and 13.2 million people “need health assistance.” Because of repeated attacks or staff shortages, “only about half of Syria’s public health facilities are fully functional,” the W.H.O. reported.