LATONIA, Ky. – Sondra Blythe became a nurse to help people, especially those who cannot help themselves—so it was no surprise that she jumped at the chance to help injured Syrians thousands of miles away in their war-torn country.
“I knew I had to help. Even in such a small way. I could never imagine living every day in fear for my children, my family and myself; never knowing if today will be the day I die.”
Blythe, a 46-year-old Northern Kentucky mother, grandmother and nurse practitioner of 21 years, boarded a plane at The Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport Sept. 5, for the more than 12-hour flight and made her way to Syria with her employer Dr. Husam Hamed, a Syrian native.
“I have always been and always will be an advocate for those that cannot take up for themselves. I know there is plenty of opportunity to help people right here, but the innocent bystanders I would be taking care of are victims of war, one they didn't create nor agree to participate. I feel it is my duty as a human being to offer my specialized services to those in need whenever I can.”
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Blythe was not prepared for what she would see.
“I must confess, I didn't know what to expect when I got here. I was afraid. I was unsure if the patients and community would accept me or if I would be treated as a disease,” said Blythe who was never trained in combat medicine.
As she stepped off the plane in the West Asian country, Blythe felt the warm gentle breeze and noticeably low humidity, unlike that of Northern Kentucky, she said.
Her eyes soon met the city, full of concrete-blocked buildings. It was noisy with traffic bumper to bumper and horns blaring day and night.
An uneasy feeling started to set in.
But her mission was clear, and although her Arabic was not, she reminded herself why she got on the plane to begin with.
She was there to help Hamed treat displaced Syrians with spinal cord injuries, resulting in multiple pressure ulcers—an area of skin that breaks down when something keeps rubbing or pressing against the skin—something she was familiar treating for her Northern Kentucky elderly patients back home at Allied Senior Care.
“He felt my knowledge and experience would significantly benefit them and I was very excited to help.”
“The medical staff taking care of these patients are doing the best they can, but are in need of additional training in managing wounds as well as training in all of the factors involved in managing wound patients,” she wrote in an email from Syria.
Among a 50-person crew, Blythe said they ranged from physicians to humanitarians and most were Syrian natives.
Blythe spent most of her time assessing the wounds in two rehab centers and in a refugee camp.
Most of her work consisted of cleaning up the wounds and teaching the staff how to care for them appropriately, she said. Many of them were not doing the simple things that are necessary to prevent and improve wounds, she said, like turning them off of their wounds frequently in bed, placing pressure reduction pads in their wheelchairs.
“These people are young, mobile and have spinal cord injuries, causing paralysis,” said Blythe. “Therefore, they cannot feel pain when they are sitting on a bad spot to cause a wound or pain sitting on a wound.”
She treated fighters in the Freedom Army as well as innocent bystanders wounded in explosions or gunfire.
“I have seen patients from age 18 months to 70 years old. Their stories are heartbreaking,” said Blythe.
After eight days, Blythe returned to the safety and familiarity of her Latonia home Sept. 13. But she holds close those stories.
The elderly gentleman who was having coffee at his kitchen table when a missile hit his house. The former olive tree farmer lost his leg and the bombing made him homeless.
Then there was the 21-year-old boy who knew his two sisters were killed when the military opened fire on his family. His father told Blythe he hasn’t told his son that his mother was also killed for fear he may give up his fight to live. So, instead the boy continued to ask about his mom.
And then there were the children. So many children. Shot, paralyzed, orphaned.
“There has been one sad, sad story after another. My heart breaks for them,” she said. “I could never imagine living in fear every day as the Syrians do. Never knowing if today is your last day.”
Blythe said she would love to return to Syria. In fact, she’s working to get donations to buy medical supplies for the injured. If she gets enough donations, she hopes to return and educate the medical staff on how to use them properly.
If you’d like to donate, email Blythe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Northern Kentucky Voice: Your Voice, Your Story is a periodic and ongoing series on WCPO.com about the people of Northern Kentucky making a difference in their community. If you would
like to tell your story, or know someone who should, email Jessica Noll at Jessica.Noll@wcpo.com.