2018 Heroine of Health, Dr. Al-Sonboli, shares her experience on the front lines of healthcare in Yemen
At the World Health Assembly this year, GE Healthcare and Women in Global Health, a movement that strives for greater gender equality in global health leadership, are joining forces to honor and celebrate women in global health. Dr. Najla Al-Sonboli is a pediatrician in Yemen serving the country’s largest city of Sana’a. In the face of war and grave personal risk, Najla has shown incredible resilience, working tirelessly to provide essential medical care to save babies and children’s lives, organising staff to provide voluntary services with minimal resources and being responsive to new challenges her pediatric department faces. We sat down with 2018 Heroine of Health, Dr. Al-Sonboli to hear more about her harrowing experience on the front lines of healthcare in Yemen.
Dr. Al-Sonboli, tell us more about the work that you do with your organization.
Najla: I am the head of the Pediatric Department of Al-Sabeen Hospital for Maternity and Children. This hospital is the biggest tertiary referral pediatric hospital in Yemen. It receives patients from Sana'a, the largest city in Yemen, and all the surrounding governorates, which includes nearly 4 million people, half of whom are replaced due to war.
What inspired you to get involved?
Najla: I love kids and I can't bear the thought that anything could hurt them. So I decided to work for them. Now, I love to work for them even more because they have been hurt in so many ways due to this endless war. They are dying from diseases, hunger, pieces of rocket and gun shots. They are suffering too much; many have lost their parents in this war, many are displaced and separated from their families and their homeland.
Can you share a moment/story about your work that solidified why you got into this line of work?
Najla: Due to war, all the medical staff have no salaries, and because of the blockade there was no medication or medical supplements. Our hospital’s location is in front of a Special Security Forces military camp, and we have had to work under fire. Every time this camp was bombed, parts of our hospital were destroyed, and once, one of the rockets hit inside the hospital. This meant our medical staff couldn't come to work due to security reasons. For me, I had the chance to fly out of Yemen as many did but I preferred to stay and help my people. I thought “if I run away and I am the head of the department, then who will stay? No one will come to work.”So I decided to go to my hospital under fire and to try to encourage my colleagues to come, too.
Where are you getting the support you need to run your department?
Najla: Through the generosity of our fellow alumni at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine --– those friends have collected money to help support our hospital in Yemen. Through this funding, we have been able to pay staff, and reinvigorated our destroyed emergency department, increasing its beds and capacity because we were receiving more patients than usual as many displaced people came to Sana'a. I’ve supported more nurses in the Intensive Care Unit, which also started to work at its capacity. I also encouraged and supported nurses to return to work in the Severe and Acute Malnutrition (SAM) unit and I also opened an emergency room specifically for them; a lot of kids with Severe and Acute Malnutrition (SAM) came to our hospital and they need special attention and care. So through this help, I revived our department and helped a lot of nurses and doctors. Up until now the facility is running well, despite all the challenges we face.
What’s the greatest piece of advice someone in this industry/line of work ever gave you?
Najla: To be a good leader you have to lead by example – you have to become a symbol.
What are the toughest challenges you face in the field?
Najla: The toughest challenges that I faced are to work without salary, and to work under fire. One time, in front of my eyes while I was trying to get in the hospital, three rockets struck the military camp that is located across the road. I was in the street between the gates of the hospital and the military camp when they hit the camp. It was like I was in hell. Each day when you leave home you don't know if you will be back home or not. But when I see how sick people come to the hospital, despite all the security challenges, this make me strong enough to go to the hospital to help them and stand by them.
Of the many trials people are faced with in Yemen, cholera is a major health concern, largely affecting children. Can you tell us about your experience facing the cholera epidemic head on?
Najla: During the epidemic last year, a huge number of the kids, women and even men arrived to our hospital and it brought many challenges. The first few cases arrived to Al-Thawra hospital where my colleague Dr. Nasher works. I remember when he called me saying, "Najla, I think we have cases of Cholera, is it OK to send them to your hospital because you have an isolation ward?" I felt panicked. Cholera? Similarly, all of my colleagues were afraid to deal with those patients. My staff refused to see them or even go inside their ward. So I thought to encourage them then I have to be the first person to touch them, examine and deal with them. I was so frightened to get the infection from them but I must be involved, otherwise no one would help them. I knew I had succeeded when I saw more and more doctors and nurses agreed to help treat those patients.
What does it mean to be recognised for your work?
Najla: It means that I have more responsibility in front of me and this gives me the strength to continue until peace returns to my country.
Dr. Al-Sonboli is one of nine women being recognized at this year’s World Health Assembly as part of the Heroines of Health honors. Learn more about the 2018 Heroines of Health here.