Former Lockport resident Dr. John Kahler understands the perils the people in Syria face all too well. So, when an opportunity arose to complete a short-term medical relief trip to help those in need, he knew what he had to do.
“The last pediatrician in East Aleppo died,” Kahler said. “When I saw that [last spring], I contacted the president of the Syrian American Medical Society. I said, ‘send me, I’ll go.’ I have no Syrian blood, but I could be of great help.”
Kahler, of Palos Park, is a 70-year-old pediatrician who retired from practicing medicine on Jan. 1. He has spent the past 25 years traveling and completing short-term medical reliefs.
Kahler was raised and grew up practicing the traditions of the Catholic faith. It wasn’t until recently after he had fallen out of step with the church, that he came to terms with wanting to change his outlook on life.
“I had cancer a couple of years ago,” he said. “When you have an understanding of mortality—a lot of this is buried deep—it comes to the forefront what you leave and how you lead your life. With me, this was an epiphany—a change in the way I view life.”
Kahler said he finds a renewed life’s purpose in this chapter of his life.
“I’ve served the underserved,” he said. “This is my first time dedicating myself to refugee work.”
Within the past two years, Kahler has traveled to Jordan, Lebanon, Greece, Turkey and Haiti. But his trip to Syria in June 2016 was unlike any other medical relief mission he had completed, Kahler said.
“The amount of destruction [was massive],” he said. “I had been to Haiti after the earthquake. This was powers of 10 greater than that. When you go to East Aleppo, there’s nothing to go home to.”
Kahler recalled watching a “60 Minutes” special in 2015 where a host of civilians were killed in an attack on the Ghouta region of Damascus. Syrian rebels blamed Syrian President Bahar al-Assad for what occurred.
Kahler also referenced the now-viral news photo depicting the body of a 3-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, found facedown washed up on a beach in Turkey.
Kahler said as a father and grandfather, he felt compelled to serve the world’s people by delivering pediatric healthcare and wanted to be on the side of the “real heroes—the doctors.”
“This has my soul and brains in it,” Kahler said.
Kahler recounted being told by Dr. Zaher Sahloul, chairman of the Global Relief Committee of the Syrian American Medical Society and another physician he was traveling with, that it was too dangerous to travel to Syria and said he managed to convince him. That’s when Kahler, Sahloul and a Syrian-American orthopedic surgeon at Northwestern Medical, Dr. Samer Attar, went on a medical relief trip in late June 2016.
“I hoped we could deliver some services to provide relief,” Kahler said. “The overarching goal is to be available when the war ends.”
While in working out of the emergency room and intensive care units in the M-2 and M-10 hospitals, Kahler treated maternal and pediatric patients exhibiting a host of ailments, including war-related injuries, physical trauma, anxiety, nightmares and bedwetting. Additionally, he helped individuals with problems commonly left untreated, such as hypertension and diabetes.
Attar said though he did not get to work alongside Kahler while treating patients in Syria, they met up for dinner during their trip.
“I was doing surgery [in M-10],” he said.
Attar said he’s traveled on medical relief trips to Syria multiple times and the experience was incomparable.
“The level of destruction was overwhelming—more rubble, more buildings,” he said. “It was relatively quiet, which was weird.”
East Aleppo was under siege by the Assad regime at the time leaving medical professionals with reasons to be concerned.
“They were running low on supplies,” Kahler said. “[Sahloul and I] left in July. By December, there were no supplies.”
“There wasn’t safety for humanitarian healthcare workers,” Kahler said. “There were 800 healthcare workers. They were targeted in attacks.”
When Kahler and Sahloul left, Attar stayed behind for another a week of service.
“When they left, that’s when all hell broke loose,” Attar recalled. “I remember people dying. Nothing prepares you for that.”
“We personally saw thousands of patients,” Attar said. “There were a lot of wounded people.”
Still, Kahler said he looks forward to returning to Syria on another medical relief trip. The fact is that it’s important not to be afraid of refugees and be receptive, he said.
”Fear is driving the agenda,” Kahler said.
Upon returning stateside, Kahler learned of the change in the federal administration and said he’s concerned that compassion for the world’s people will be lost and is not optimistic the war will end.
Kahler said though he thinks there’s enough awareness drawn to the plight Syrians face in today’s world, the root of the problem remains in tact.
“I don’t think there’s enough compassion,” Kahler said. “It was on the news. No one can say they don’t know.”
In May, Kahler intends to continue living out his life’s purpose by going on another medical relief trip.
“Yemen is the next big trip,” he said.