Far from war, Libyans start to heal, talk
22 men injured in rebellion now hospitalized in Salem
Marwan Mafud, 22, wasn’t a soldier.
During the Libyan revolution, he was a college student who used his car to bring medical supplies to rebel troops.
Though he was a civilian, government soldiers pulled him over. They spotted a rebel flag in his car and dragged him to the ground. They beat him, fracturing his skull and breaking his right hand. They called him a rat. Then, the soldiers demanded that he declare that Moammar Khadafy was god.
Mafud refused. “Allahu akbar,’’ he said. God is great.
Mafud is one of 22 Libyan men who were flown out of their country and brought to Spaulding Hospital North Shore in Salem almost two weeks ago to receive rehabilitation care for their war injuries.
The Libyan National Transitional Council organized the transfer, with the help of the US State Department. The patients, from different parts of Libya and ranging in age from 16 to 49, arrived with injuries of all kinds: bullet wounds, broken bones, nerve and spinal damage.
Yesterday, Mafud and two others talked to journalists about the atrocities they endured under Khadafy - beatings, interrogations, torture - and their care at Spaulding.
Osama Ali El Amin, 30, said he was participating in a peaceful demonstration when Khadafy’s troops opened fire. Bullets struck him in his left side - one is still lodged in his chest. He was captured by Khadafy’s troops, then tortured and interrogated. He finally reached a hospital, but feared that was not safe either - soldiers had been known to look for rebel fighters receiving medical attention.
“I was scared they were going to start executing people in hospital beds,’’ he said.
Many of the Libyans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, said Kevin Love, an occupational therapist at Spaulding who has also worked with US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“The things that are awful about war have nothing to do with the nation you come from or the language you speak,’’ he said.
To prepare for the Libyans arrival, medical staff at the hospital underwent cultural training. Nurses learned to ask for permission before moving aside a Koran to set down a meal tray. The hospital altered the menus - practicing Muslims do not eat pork - and scheduled meals and medicine to accommodate Muslim prayers five times a day. Staff set aside a room with prayer mats and a window that faces Mecca.
“Everybody went to the ultimate degree to try to recognize these folks’ sacrifice, but also to assure that they don’t feel way out of water,’’ said Dr. Ross Zafonte, Spaulding’s vice president of research, education, and medical affairs.
Then there were the creature comforts. The hospital installed satellite television so the patients could follow Arabic-language news and watch Libyan soccer matches and Egyptian movies. Administrators also set up computers with Skype so patients could speak with their families in Libya, brought in a Wii video game, and installed a foosball table to please the soccer-crazy Libyans.
Yesterday, in the hospital’s physical therapy room, three patients exercised their hands, twisting them in different directions and squeezing shapes out of putty.
While the men stretched their hands flat, a nurse counted to 10 in Arabic - “thmania, tis’a, ‘ashra’’ - then smiled when a patient complimented her pronunciation.
“See?’’ she laughed. “I’m learning.’’
The hospital has interpreters on call around the clock. But nurses have been trying their best to learn basic words. Name tags are written in both English and Arabic, and a packet of vocabulary words hangs on medical carts.
Another patient, Ramadan Aliah Naser, 37, said he was helping to expel Khadafy’s troops from his hometown in April when he was hit in the leg by a rocket-propelled grenade.
Lying in a bed - Twizzlers, chewing gum, and imported dates on his side table - Naser said he is grateful for the opportunity to receive medical attention in the United States. In some ways, he said, the warm reception from hospital staff has surprised him.
“It has been a kind and very sincere welcome,’’ said Naser, through a translator. “It has changed completely my vision of America.’’
Doctors said they are not sure how long the Libyans will stay at the hospital - some must still undergo surgery at other hospitals to make a full recovery.
Mafud, who was dragged out of his car, will likely have corrective hand surgery, and doctors are still assessing whether he will need an operation to treat the traumatic brain injury he incurred from his beating.
He said he is confident he will make a full recovery and return to Libya to finish his degree in economics. He wants to become an accountant and help his country succeed as a democratic nation.
There’s just one thing he may miss once he returns to Libya: American pizza, he said, is far superior to the stuff at home.
Martine Powers can be reached at email@example.com.