Local doctor helps Syrian refugee children in Lebanon

MIDDLEBURY — Dr. Morris Earle Jr. probably goes through suitcases the way most people go through Kleenex.
The pediatrician has made Middlebury his home base for several decades, but his medical talents take him throughout the world. The most recent travel sticker on his Samsonite reads “Lebanon,” where Dr. Earle spent two months setting up a pediatric intensive care unit serving young Syrian refugees flooding that Middle Eastern nation.
Earle has been a pediatrician since 1986 and has been practicing pediatric intensive care since 1991. Last year, he concluded a 21-year run as a physician with Middlebury Pediatrics.
He continues to work per diem at Middlebury Pediatrics, but his career now often takes him regularly to Massachusetts. He’s employed as a pediatric hospitalist in Northampton, Mass., and as a pediatric intensive care doctor at University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester.
Earle has also cared for sick children throughout the world, including in Haiti, Liberia, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Bolivia, Ecuador and Zambia. Most of those trips were through the UMass Global Health Program, and had the goal of teaching medical residents and physicians in other countries.
“I think people wherever they are can do work that feels useful and needed,” Earle said during a Tuesday interview. “Since I do intensive care, that’s something there’s quite a bit of need for, internationally.”
He first became interested in international service as a medical student at the University of Vermont. He took a course during his final year titled, “History of the Third World.” Now considered an outdated and pejorative term, “Third World” referred to developing nations with fewer resources.
“It made me realize there was this whole part of the world that I knew very little about,” Earle said.
He read a book this past spring about dire conditions at refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya, that serve many Somali refugees, and wanted to use his medical skills to help ease the pain among the world’s growing refugee population. He learned the French organization Doctors Without Borders was looking for someone to establish a pediatric intensive care unit in a hospital in Zahlé, Lebanon, just seven miles from the Syrian border.
Zahlé is the fourth-largest city in Lebanon and provides temporary refuge for some of the 1.5 million Syrians who have fled their war-torn country. Many of the refugees have witnessed horrifying events in that civil war and escaped with little more than the clothes on their backs. Many need medical attention.
Earle believed he was the physician that Doctors Without Borders was looking for.
“I felt this was something I could do, that I could be useful there,” Earle said.
Once the medical organization picked Earle for the job, he enrolled in a four-day orientation program to educate him on the cultural and medical conditions in which he would be working. This set the stage for his arrival in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley on Oct. 10 for a two-month stay.
“The people there were so nice and welcoming,” Earle said of his Doctors Without Borders and Lebanese colleagues, as well as the many Syrian patients he saw. “They were loving, warm and friendly.”
Earle’s first big task was organizing the new pediatric intensive care unit. Fortunately, Doctors Without Borders had already acquired most of the sophisticated medical equipment needed to treat severely injured and/or sick children. Many of those children had witnessed terrifying violence and were suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; some had sustained injuries as a result of that violence.
Others were incredibly malnourished; Earle recalled one child whose arm was a thick as his thumb. Some refugee children were in the late stages of major diseases that had not been addressed because of the upheaval in Syria an the transient existence of most of the families.
“There were a lot of difficult cases,” he said.
“I find when I get out of my comfort zone, I get a bit more of a perspective on what I’m doing and other people’s problems,” Earle added. “I’d pictured refugees as sort of photographs of people crowded in boats. But really, when you get to know them, they’re just like people in Bristol, in Middlebury — except they are living in tents.”
Patients and their families were very grateful for the care they received, according to Earle. Since the parents spoke little English and Earle’s Arabic is limited, communication often took place through pointing to body parts, coupled with facial expressions.
Because he is an experienced physician who has virtually seen it all, Earle would invariably get to the root of the problem and get the young patient on the mend — much to the joy of the families, who had not had access to such good care.
Earle recalled treating a child who had come in with an intestinal blockage that likely would have killed him without medical attention.
When it was clear the child was on the mend, his mother looked at Earle and repeated three English words she had studied before coming to the hospital that day.
“I love you,” she told Earle. “I love you.”
“It was very moving,” Earle said.
Appreciation and close-knit families were two fundamental qualities Earle saw in virtually all of his patients.
“They felt like they were being treated with dignity by (Doctors Without Borders),” Early said of the Syrian patients, whose lives had been filled with severe hardship. “I felt proud to be part of the organization.”
Earle and approximately 10 other Doctors Without Borders physicians lived in apartments close to the hospital. They spent long hours performing their medical rounds, so there wasn’t a lot of time for tourism.
“There were some incredible workaholics,” Earle said.
No rest for the weary. Earle will return to Zahlé in March to spend another month working at the hospital, where he has heard that business has unfortunately picked up.
Earle relishes the challenge.
“It’s the best thing I’ve every done,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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