Syria: Inside an overwhelmed hospital on the day the earthquake hit
Like millions of others, when the first earthquake struck Syria and Turkey (Türkiye) on 6 February, MSF midwife Aisha was at home, asleep with her family.
Soon, she would be rushing towards an overwhelmed hospital and a scene that “felt like the end of the world”, answering an urgent call for medical staff.
Here, Aisha shares her deeply personal and at-times harrowing experience from those first hours of the emergency response in northern Syria.
Warning: The testimony on this page contains descriptions which may be upsetting
When the earthquake struck at 4.17 am, my family and I were asleep. We live in a five-storey building and we felt the building shaking… above our heads.
I yelled at my husband to get our two-year-old daughter Lareen. He held her close to him. Our two other children were in their bedroom. I ran to wake them up. We made our way out to the street, not knowing what was happening.
My neighbour was screaming. My husband picked up her son and we helped her get out. Our other neighbours on the upper floors threw their kids down for us to catch them. We caught them and helped them out of the building.
Outside, we looked around us in complete shock. Our tears were mixed with blood.
“I ran into the street, barefoot…. I’m a medic, so I need to help”
I realised I should be helping save people. Some had stayed in their buildings and others might have had their homes collapse over their heads.
I ran into the street, barefoot. My husband was shouting at me to come back: “Aisha, where are you going? Come back here!”
I refused. I couldn’t stand still when so many people needed help.
“There might be people trapped under the rubble,” I called back. “I’m a medic so I need to help.”
I walked through the streets of our neighbourhood until I was sure that no buildings had collapsed. Then I came back and held my children. We spent the rest of the night with our neighbours in the courtyard in the rain.
We were all terrified.
Life-saving emergency care, thanks to your support
The generosity of people like you means expert MSF medical teams can save lives in emergency situations like natural disasters and conflict zones across the world.
As a mother, I just wanted to be there for my children. My eldest son was killed during the shelling of Aleppo. So, the first thing in my mind was the need to protect my children and take them to a safe place.
But I knew I couldn’t stay for long. I needed to go and help.
Hospitals were asking for medical teams to come and support them. People rescued from under the rubble were arriving and they were soon overwhelmed.
My children even encouraged me to go. My son said: “Mama, go to help people. Don’t stay here!”
This gave me the strength to leave my children and go.
An overwhelmed hospital
I got in the car and headed as a volunteer to the hospital that was most in need of medics. I arrived at the emergency room and immediately started working.
I was also in close contact with MSF teams in the area, passing on information about the urgent medical supplies the hospital needed.
In numbers: Our earthquake response in Syria so far
injured patients seen in MSF-supported hospitals
local hospitals supplied with medicines and emergency kits
mobile clinic teams visiting shelters to treat survivors
At 1.24 pm we felt the massive aftershock. The hospital building is made of metal panels and could have collapsed at any moment.
The injured rushed to get out of the hospital. Mothers, children, everyone, they were running for their lives. I saw a pregnant woman who was about to give birth helped out of the building.
It was very frightening.
“The scene was horrifying. Everyone was saying it felt like the end of the world.”
We received more than 50 injured people at once. All four operating theatres were at capacity. The rooms were covered in blood. The surgeons were performing osteotomies and laparoscopies – bone-cutting procedures and abdominal surgeries.
There was a huge shortage of equipment, particularly for the surgeons.
There was also a huge shortage of coffins and body bags. The number of dead bodies was huge: women, children, elderly people.
One man had seen the bodies of his wife, kids, brothers and parents brought out from under the rubble. He couldn’t handle it and was in a state of shock. He couldn’t grasp it. He lost more than 13 family members, and he wasn’t the only one.
We tried to relieve the pain of the children as much as we could. We took them to the nursery to keep them away from the blood and harsh sights of the hospital.
That’s all we could do.
At midnight, there was a call for a bone specialist to amputate the foot of a girl who was still trapped under the rubble. They needed a doctor and an anaesthetic technician to perform the amputation.
Along with other medics, they headed to the location at 4 am to rescue her from the rubble.
The girl was crying: “Don’t worry about my foot, save me without my foot – just get me out of here. It’s dark and I’m scared!”
The scene was horrifying. Everyone was saying it felt like the end of the world.
On the second day, I went to the MSF office in Al-Salameh, northern Syria.
We contacted hospitals hit by the earthquake about what their needs were. After that, we formed four groups, each made up of medics and logisticians, and split up to visit those places: Afrin, Jindiris, Azaz and Marea.
When we reached these regions, we also began to help with distributing relief items: pillows, mattresses, blankets, cleaning supplies and kitchen equipment – essentials for people seeking refuge outside or in crowded shelters.
The weather was very cold and it was raining and snowing. We looked for families who had no shelter and no essentials, especially mothers with babies.
It’s difficult to meet so many people’s needs on our own.
This part of Syria was already struggling with healthcare after years of conflict, and now the damage from the earthquake is immense.
MSF and the Syria-Türkiye earthquake
In the early hours of Monday 6 February, two major earthquakes hit northwest Syria and southeast Turkey (Türkiye) causing devastation on a vast scale.
Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) teams – already working in northern Syria – immediately launched an emergency response and began treating patients and delivering supplies.
Life-saving emergency care, thanks to your support
The generosity of people like you means expert MSF medical teams can save lives in emergency situations like natural disasters and conflict zones.