“One day, change will happen. Until then, we’ll keep the flag flying”

On Friday 21st October, David was interviewed by the Chair of Action for Humanity, Dr Ayman Jundi, at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan). He shared stories from the frontline, the bonds he formed in Syria’s underground hospitals, and how he copes with the monstrosities of conflict.

We were delighted to be joined by over 200 attendees, consisting of supporters, medical students and UCLan staff members. All listened intently as David offered a personal insight into his work and mind.

Becoming a war doctor

“Back in 1993, I’d just become a consultant surgeon at Charing Cross,” shared David. “I was watching the news about the Bosnian war and the terror going on there. Similar to Ukraine, Sarajevo at that time was being shelled heavily. I remember the story of a man looking for his daughter. He found her, pulled her out the rubble and took her to hospital, but there was no doctor there.

That’s when I thought, I have to do something.

The following morning, I couldn’t wait for the sun to come up. I called Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and two days later I was in Sarajevo.”

David’s experience in Bosnia – performing difficult surgeries on injured civilians in the freezing cold – lit a fire in him and he was soon grabbing every opportunity he could to take unpaid leave and travel to where he was needed. In 2012, David’s work in Syria began.

The first Syrian mission

“I was in Libya with MSF. It was then that I got a call about a conflict in Syria. I first travelled to Atmeh in Northern Syria, which was very dangerous. The medical set-up was not good.”

There were few ambulances in the region, so cars and vans were used to transport the injured to make-shift hospitals. They’d screech to the entrance and beep their horns to alert doctors inside.

“The hospital we worked in at that time was a converted house. The dining room was the operating theatre, the kitchen – A and E, and bedrooms were turned into wards.

At the beginning of the conflict, there were incidents of people making bombs in their homes. Unfortunately, there were many accidents, leading to awful blast injuries and loss of limbs.”

Action for Humanity

Following Atmeh, David began working with Action for Humanity (formerly Syria Relief) to lead multiple surgical missions in Syria.

“Starting my work with Syria Relief, now Action for Humanity, was the best thing I’ve ever done. They helped me enter the heart of Aleppo, which will always stay with me.

In Aleppo, I was predominantly teaching, so skills were left with the doctors living there. I did some operations to show them how to do things, but after they learned a procedure, I would assist and help. They knew what to do.”

“I was determined to get them out”

Working shoulder to shoulder with Syrian doctors naturally led to strong friendships built on the foundation of shared humanity. In 2016, bunker-busting bombs were destroying buildings and obliterating underground hospitals in Aleppo.

“I thought everyone I’d come to know, all of the doctors I’d met, were going to get killed. I was determined to get them out.”

David contacted President Assad’s office and after four days of trying, his call was connected and he made his case with passion. David will never know if his efforts contributed to the ceasefire that later followed, but he was elated when his friends were granted safe exit from eastern Aleppo.

“There were so many wonderful people working incredibly hard to get a ceasefire. I hope I was able to play a small part.”

Coping with conflict

When asked during a very engaged Q and A how he copes working in conflict zones, David shared:

“You have to be resilient. It can’t be taught to be honest – it’s learned with life experience. There are some things that are out of your control though – the terror that someone might come for you.

After Aleppo, I needed treatment, which helped. But if it’s terror during work or a patient case, talk about it, share the load, you’ll get through the hard times and become more resilient over time.”

A Masters of Disaster Medicine student at UCLan asked, ‘What can we do about healthcare systems being targeted in conflict?’

“Healthcare is indeed used as a weapon of war,” said David. “It’s like a form of psychological warfare. The act of killing a doctor takes down the psychology of whole communities.

We’ve stood on podiums and talked about how we need to protect doctors, written a letter to the Prime Minister, raised placards on a protest in London. We’ve got to do what we can to support healthcare workers.

One day, change will happen. Until then we’ll keep going, we’ll keep the flag flying.”

Meeting Heston

The event ended with a reception, giving guests a chance to meet our team and our one-of-a-kind surgical simulator model, Heston, beautifully presented by Manchester’s Friends of David Nott Foundation (FDNF) Society.

Dr Ayman Jundi, Chair of Action for Humanity and Clinical Senior Lecturer and Disaster Medicine Course Leader at the University of Central Lancashire, said:

“I was honoured and privileged to have a conversation with David Nott. His honest, down-to-earth and inspiring approach engaged the audience and instigated a wonderful and fulfilling discussion.”

Watch the event