Phil Suarez knows trauma. He’s seen it up close as a paramedic for more than 20 years in New York City, responding to calls in the Bronx, Washington Heights and Hell’s Kitchen. But that experience still couldn’t prepare him for what he encountered during a recent mission to Mosul, the ravaged city in Iraq that government and coalition forcesare trying to reclaim from ISIS.
Suarez is co-founder of NYC Medics, a humanitarian aid group partnered with the World Health Organization to provide global disaster relief. While the organization and its volunteers have been helping around the world for more than a decade, this is the first year it has set up inside a war zone.
NYC Medics’ mission in Mosul began in February when the World Health Organization recognized that the number of casualties was certain to mount as the fighting to retake the city intensified.
In his three weeks there ending in early March, Suarez treated dozens of wounded civilians and soldiers. Two children stand out in particular, one was a 4-year-old girl believed to have been shot by an ISIS fighter, and another was a young boy who suffered gunshot wounds to his abdomen.
“The innocents are always the most difficult thing to digest,” Suarez, 46, said last week. “They’re noncombatants. They’re victims and it’s just hard to process who, what kind of individual, what do they tell themselves justifies such barbaric behavior to be able to hurt an innocent person.”
But Suarez said he had to treat the wounds and move on, because there were more injured every day.
“We just wouldn’t last long in the industry if you took this stuff to heart and you really weren’t able to process it. So, I think we have an incredible resilience to be able to bury these things deep into our souls that allows us to go back day after day and keep doing the work.”
While the work is grueling, co-founder Steve Muth who was also a New York City paramedic, said that his years serving the culturally diverse communities of New York prepared him to work abroad, where he met a range of people in need.
NYC Medics began in 2005 when 13 paramedics from the city responded to the Kashmir earthquake in South Asia that killed 75,000 people and left tens of thousands more injured.
From that one emergency response, an organization was born, Muth said. “I don’t think any of us thought that we would be successful, but that wasn’t really the question,” he said. “The question was, are you willing to try?”
Now in its 12th year, NYC Medics has had 250 volunteers who have operated in 11 countries. But Mosul is different. There aren’t many aid organizations willing to travel there because of the danger, despite the desperate need for medical professionals.
“That’s what gets you actually. It’s tragedy,” Muth said. “It’s nothing else. It’s not the blood, it’s not anything like that. Tragedy is what weighs on you and you see a lot of it.”
The operation in Mosul sees a week’s worth of trauma at an ordinary hospital in one hour, said Tim Tan, NYC Medics medical director who is a Queens Hospital Center physician and assistant professor at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine. “I think all of us working in healthcare, working in ERs, we’re used to seeing a certain level of chaos and trauma,” he said. “This is obviously at a whole other level. It’s a war zone. It’s just that much more intense.”
But the chance to do good is what drives the volunteers and the organization. It is what sends them to some of the worst places, like Mosul. There, they said, no one is safe and nothing is off-limits.
“When you can make an intervention in somebody’s life and it changes either their life or their families’,” Muth said, ”it’s an amazing thing and it’s why people go back.”