‘Our stitches ran out’: Beirut’s struggle to deal with injuries from port blast

Shadi Rizk thought he knew a thing or two about scars. The telecoms engineer is also a part-time actor, often playing grizzled fighters or Viking warriors covered in battle wounds and fake blood.

When almost 3,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate illegally stored in Beirut’s port exploded earlier this month, Rizk found himself dealing with the real thing. The blast devastated his office, and flying glass left him needing 350 stitches, including for deep cuts to his face and arms, as well as problems with his eyesight that may be permanent.

“I really have no idea how I survived,” the 36-year-old said. “My memory is blurry but I know the doctors and nurses worked on me for hours. Our bodies will heal eventually but the soul will take a lot of time.”

Beirut, a city that already bears many old scars, finds itself struggling to deal with new psychological and physical injuries in the aftermath of the explosion.

The powerful blast in the Lebanese capital killed at least 178 and injured about 6,000. Many suffered cuts to the eyes, arteries, tendons and nerves as half of the city’s windows shattered.

“It has been a very sad and difficult time. I wish we could unsee it. Frankly I thought the new generation would not have to deal with scenes like this, that look like war,” said Dr Fred Bteich, a neurosurgeon at the Hotel Dieu hospital, which functioned as one of the major crisis centres after three facilities nearer the blast site were ruined.

“We had to operate right away, even if we knew some of them would not make it. Under those circumstances all you want to do is stop the bleeding, try to close up big cuts as much as possible. We ran out of stitches. Can you imagine? It’s a big hospital and we still ran out of stitches.”

As the emergency response gives way to dealing with complications caused by burns, concussion, internal bleeding and eyes and limbs that cannot be saved, the extent of the life-changing injuries is becoming clearer. Bteich worries there will be more fatalities.

Those who are recovering well, like Rizk, are starting to look at what can be done to fix the extensive scarring caused by quickly sutured wounds. Several plastic and reconstructive surgeons are offering free consultations and help to those affected, many of whom were already struggling to make ends meet because of Lebanon’s financial crisis.

Diaspora organisations and local pharmacies and wholesalers have also donated supplies such as local anaesthetic, which was in short supply even before the blast.

Rizk had the last of his facial stitches removed on Thursday by Dr Joe Baroud, who has been treating eight patients a day for the last two weeks, all free of charge.

“Psychologically, scars can have a huge effect on people. Lebanon already has so many problems I am happy to help fix this small thing and make people feel better about themselves and stop being reminded of the trauma,” Baroud said.

The plastic surgeon has mainly been treating two kinds of glass injuries: small glass particles and rubble embedded in patients’ faces and limbs, and bigger scars that may cause muscles to contract or atrophy later on.

“I could never have afforded this,” said Rizk. “Dr Baroud is an angel, the way he is helping people. He has restitched my face, my biceps and my hand … there will be little scars, but it’s already so much better. I don’t have words for how grateful I am.”

Many medical challenges still loom large in Lebanon’s future. A 180% rise in Covid-19 cases following the blast has led authorities to announce a new 14-day lockdown starting on Friday.

The health ministry has said it will foot the bill for all emergency treatment, but half of Beirut’s medical facilities are out of action because of the explosion and the city’s functioning hospitals – already strained by the pandemic – are in serious trouble, said Bteich.

Worried that medical student fees will go unpaid when the academic year restarts because of the country’s currency collapse, his own hospital has had to put out a fundraising appeal.

When he has fully recovered, Rizk is keen to help out. “We all have different types of scars now. Mine show I’m a survivor,” he said.