Turkey: Home of stem cell hope for ailing refugees
By Vakkas Dogantekin and Ali Abo Rezeg
War victims, refugees, poor receive cutting-edge stem cell treatment in Turkey free of charge.
Sakhidad Abdulsattar (2nd Left), his wife (Left), his sister (Right) and his doctor Sinan Dal (2nd Right)
Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi once said: "A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members".
His words ring true for Turkey, which has been providing cutting-edge, free-of-cost stem cell treatment to otherwise dying refugees and underprivileged people at a time when most countries do not even allow them to cross their borders.
The cost of the treatment used to cure blood- and bone marrow-related diseases can run up to hundreds of thousands of dollars in the U.S. and Europe.
Bashar Qabas, a 23-year-old Syrian refugee, is getting treatment for cancer at a hospital in the Turkish capital Ankara.
He recalls being in shock for weeks after a missile hit a spot close to his house in the Syrian city of Aleppo in late 2013.
"It began as a small lump in my neck followed by deteriorating eyesight before I was informed I am suffering from cancer," he said.
Doctors in Aleppo were about to transfer him to a hospital run by the Syrian regime.
But he insisted on getting treatment in Turkey, which has been hosting 4 million Syrian refugees since 2011 when civil war broke out in Syria.
“Thank God, the doctors here in Ankara didn’t ask me to pay a single Turkish lira in exchange for medical treatment. They have conducted more than five operations on me, all of which were for free,” said Qabas.
He said he was moved by the warm welcome he received.
“The interesting thing here, which I was not predicting, is the way the Turkish doctors dealt with me while I was getting medical treatment. I did not feel like a foreigner or refugee at all.
“I am telling myself that thank God my legs brought me here to Turkey. If I stayed in Syria or went to another country, I would have died of cancer.”
We did not want to ask more questions as Qabas was debilitated from the effects of his cancer treatment, but he insisted on saying one last thing.
“Let me say thanks from my heart to the Turkish doctors here, thanks to the smiles of the nurses who were encouraging me to survive, thanks to the janitors in the hospital who stood behind me all along, thanks to the Turkish government and the country’s leadership, thanks to [President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan for this unforgettable help.”
Afghan teenager finds hope in Turkey
Sakhidad Abdulsattar, an Afghan citizen of Uzbek descent from the northern province of Jowzjan, got sick when he was 17 and found a cure to his unforgiving aplastic anemia in Ankara after a strenuous four months of stem cell treatment and years of regular treatment.
Sakhidad remembers those days with both agony and joy.
After he was diagnosed with anemia, he was first transferred to Pakistan for treatment due to the lack of advanced facilities in Afghanistan.
When the hospitals in Pakistan told him about the high cost his treatment calls for - $400,000 - the poor family had to look for other solutions for their son.
They contacted the health ministry in Afghanistan to refer his case to Turkey, a country, Sakhidad said, "associated with hope and freedom" in his war-torn country.
The whole family was ecstatic when the Turkish Health Ministry as well as the ministry in charge of family and social services accepted him as a patient 27 days after his application.
Sakhidad said his "hopeless body suddenly filled with joy and hope of recovery".
"The whole process was unbelievable. Neither the doctors nor the nurses or janitors in the Turkish hospital made me feel like I am a foreigner. I got better thanks first to Allah and then by the kindness, attention and mentorship of the hospital personnel here," he said.
"Turkish doctors are amazing. They never ever discriminate," he added.
"We learned what humanity means when we came to Turkey."
Sakhidad's doctor, Sinan Dal, an associate professor of hematology in Ankara, said his treatment process was "very painful".
After informing us about the toilsome procedures Sakhidad went through, he praised Turkey's "incredible" hospitality and service to the underprivileged from Yemen, Palestine, Afghanistan, Syria and other places.
"Turkey has evolved from a country that had difficulties in treating its own citizens properly to providing advanced medical treatment to war victims and refugees in less than two decades," Dal said.
He urged all Turks to "savor" this "pride".
"We don't need to be humble. Turkey is the greatest country on earth when you look at how we treat the poor of all colors, races and religions at our hospitals."
Dal cited another young patient of his, also from Afghanistan, with a one in a million disease, Paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria (PNH), whom Turkey treated for two years free of charge.
PNH is a life-threatening disease of the blood characterized by the destruction of red blood cells.
"The cost of Aihan's one-year medication on Eculizumab to Turkey was $500,000," Dal said.
He went on to say that when Aihan needed a stem cell procedure later, Turkey had done it as well, again at no cost.
Around 100 such patients receive stem cell treatment annually from the hospital where Dal works and many of those patients benefited from Turkok, the Turkish cord blood and bone marrow storage bank.
Cancer treatment and especially stem cell research is one of the fastest growing medical practices in Turkey in the past decade, with the number of stem cell transplants rising from the 200s two decades ago to over 4,600 annually.
Dal stressed that "no Turkish patient is ignored while non-Turks are treated".
He said doctors prioritize patients depending on their health condition only. For instance, a potential cancer patient will naturally be given priority over a patient with flu symptoms regardless of race or religion.
When we told Dal about Sakhidad and his pregnant wife Frouzan's decision to name their baby boy after him, he was on top of the world.
Frouzan and Sakhidad's sister Lailimah, who are also of Uzbek descent like Sakhidad, now imagine a life in Turkey for the Abdulsattar family if they can get citizenship or work permits.
They thanked Turkish President Erdogan numerous times during the interview for "taking care of the poor, helpless people" like themselves.
"Our President Erdogan and our Turkish brothers and sisters will be in our prayers forever."