Badriya Sultan is a radiography technician who risked her own life to treat the victims of the Syrian conflict. She later set up her town’s first mammography machine, offering life-saving diagnoses to breast cancer patients. This is her story.
“I graduated in 1994 from the Health Institution in Aleppo with a specialism in radiography. I worked first at the national hospital in Aleppo, then I moved back to work at a private clinic in my village, Maarat al-Numan in Idlib.
“The doctor I worked for had many advanced radiography machines and he trained me how to use them. Over 17 years, I learned a lot from him and observed every medical case he worked on. Then, the revolution started.
“There were armed clashes in our village between the moderate rebels and the Syrian army. We started receiving the injured who needed echo or X-ray imaging but, as there was a regime checkpoint next to us, we had to smuggle the injured through a back door to avoid being caught. It was a big risk but we felt that it was our duty to do so.
“Later, when Maarat al-Numan was being bombed by the regime’s warplanes, people started to flee. Those who decided to stay and help the victims set up an underground hospital, where I volunteered. We were short-staffed with only a few physicians. We all learned how to perform basic surgeries to save the injured.
“A lot of people fled the bombings but I couldn’t leave, I wanted to stay and help save the lives of the victims lying on the hospital’s floors. I stayed at the hospital for two years and also taught biology at the local high school because the teacher had left.
“When Maarat al-Numan was liberated from the regime’s control in 2014, people started to come back to their homes, and Orient, a Syrian medical organisation, provided the funds for a well-equipped hospital. They hired doctors and nurses so I went back to my original job as a radiography technician where I’d monitor pregnant women using echo machines.
“As more people returned, we started receiving breast cancer patients, some of them at the early stages of the disease. We could detect the tumours on our echo machines, but it was impossible to perform surgeries or any other treatment without mammogram images. At that time, there was only one mammogram machine in Maarat al-Numan, but it was broken and Syria Relief, the organisation who funded that centre, couldn’t cover the costs of fixing it.
“In order for a patient to get a mammography image for early breast cancer detection, she had two choices, either risk going to the regime-controlled areas or go to Turkey which was prohibitively expensive.
“Thanks to my first job, I knew how to work a mammography machine and I told my manager that if he could bring me an engineer, I could tell him how to fix the machine – I knew it that well. He agreed and we managed to get the machine and up and running.
“We posted ads in the streets that we were ready to receive women with breast cancer or who wanted preventive screenings for free. A general surgeon would follow up on any cancer cases I detected. We couldn’t provide treatment other than drugs or surgery, so we would have to send the critical cases to Turkey or to the regime’s areas for chemotherapy or radiotherapy. There was a local organisation who’d cover the costs of sending some of the women to do a biopsy test.
“Until nine months ago, our mammogram machine was the only one operating in the opposition-held areas. Today, we have three machines in the province including one in Idlib city where I now work. In total, I’ve provided mammogram screenings for close to 1,000 women.
“We’re still limited in what we can do. We can surgically remove tumours but we have to send or smuggle biopsies to regime-held areas for testing and cases that require chemo or radiotherapy must be referred to Turkey, which will now only admit the most critical cases. My heart breaks for the patients with early-stage cancer who aren’t permitted to travel.
“One of the cases that affected me most involved a child, a 16-year-old girl who had late-stage breast cancer. The doctors removed her breasts but it was too late as the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. Her arms were swollen and she was suffering a lot. I carry that girl in my heart and think about her even today. Maybe we could have saved her if she’d had access to better healthcare.
“Whether there’s international funding or not, and whether the regime wants to keep bombing us or not, I will carry on and I will never stop helping people in need with love and care. I want everyone here to feel the same way, to have compassion for cancer patients and support them by not giving up on them, to help them live their final days surrounded with hope and love, not with pain. I call all organisations to take care of cancer patients wherever they are.”