BEIRUT: US-trained emergency doctor Nour al-Jalbout wanted desperately to serve her fellow Lebanese, but less than 2 years after returning home she says the country’s catastrophes are forcing her to leave.
“I gave everything I had to Lebanon for these 2 years, but Lebanon is not giving back,” she says, her eyes welling up above 3 face masks, inside a top Beirut hospital.
“So I applied for immigration to the US,” al-Jalbout said, to take up a job offer at Harvard.
As soon as her visa gets approved, she will join hundreds of doctors who are escaping from Lebanon’s economic and political crises, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Doctors warn a country once dubbed “the hospital of the Arab world” is haemorrhaging its best and brightest.
Hair tied back into a floral surgeon’s cap, the 32-year-old medic rushes around the bustling emergency department at the American University of Beirut Medical Center.
Her white coat streaked with blood from treating a patient’s gunshot injuries, she holds up an X-ray to understand the pain of another visiting from a nearby Arab country.
In the corridor between the emergency and COVID-19 wards under her watch, trainee doctors repeatedly approach her for a second opinion.
The decision to leave, she says, “eats you up every day”. But “you’re doing what’s best for you and your kids if you want to have a family.”
Since starting work in September 2019, she has treated injured demonstrators, witnessed economic collapse, fought a pandemic, and helped treat hundreds after a massive blast rocked the capital Beirut.
– ‘Catastrophic’ –
She was at the hospital on August 4 when hundreds of tonnes of ammonium nitrate detonated at the port, claiming the lives of more than 200 people and sending shockwaves through the capital.
“The ceiling fell on us,” she says, pausing between tears.
Up to 500 wounded streamed in, followed by desperate relatives looking for their loves ones.
Hours later, her husband told her their flat had been badly hit.”Beirut is like opium,” says Jalbout, whose anaesthetist sister will also emigrate. “It’s so good, but it’s so bad for you.”
Lebanon’s worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war has hit even the top echelons of the population.
Doctors have seen their wages or fees plummet in value, and their dollar savings trapped in the bank, all the while being overwhelmed by a deadly virus. Even basic medication has gone out of stock.
Many say they are far better off than most, but still see no future for their children.
Meanwhile, a deeply divided political class — blamed by many on the street for its corruption and inaction — has for seven months been unable to form a cabinet.
The head of the doctor’s syndicate, Charaf Abou Charaf, says 1,000 doctors have left since 2019, while a similar number of nurses have departed as well, according to their representative. “If it continues like this, it’ll be catastrophic.”
Many of those departing are specialist experts in their fields, and essential for both patient care and training the next generation.
They “are mostly aged 35 to 55, and form the backbone of the healthcare sector,” Abou Charaf added.