Dr. Robert Loeffler knew signing up to treat the wounded at the war-torn border of Syria and Jordan would bring the most difficult cases of his 36-year-long career as an orthopedic surgeon.
His first patients: a pair of 8-year-old boys who had been playing with their friends in Syria when a bomb struck them.
“That was the tough part for me — the kids,” Loeffler said, in a phone recent interview about his 10-week immersion with the humanitarian effort Doctors Without Borders. “They’re not doing anything.”
Three boys killed by that bomb, but two made it across the border to a hospital set up by an international staff of medical professionals whose only mission is to treat anyone who comes through the doors.
The two boys survived, but each lost part of a leg to the raging war.
Loeffler, 67, a Connecticut native, made a name for himself in sports medicine, for years running the University of Colorado’s program in Denver and working for professional football teams.
He left it behind in 2002 to move to the Florida Keys, first working at Fishermen’s Hospital in Marathon before transferring to Key West, where he was until this past March and plans to return in October with his wife Gloria.
“Dr. Loeffler is a talented and respected surgeon with deep roots in the community,” said Stephen Pennington, the hospital’s interim CEO, in a statement welcoming the surgeon’s return.
In June, Loeffler finally got to do something he’s always wanted: Take part in a Doctors Without Borders mission.
“They really needed me in the Middle East,” he said. “They called me in March and I said, I’ll go in June.”
DWB is politically neutral and treats everyone in need no matter the military affiliation.
Loeffler, the only American doctor there at the time, said he felt safe living with 10 other doctors in what he described as a compound, but he always knew what was going on outside.
“At least four times a week, there would be bombing,” he said. “The Russians were bombing the area right on the Syrian border. My compound would just shake. You could hear the bombs. Shrapnel would be coming around.”
The war there isn’t clear-cut with just two opposing sides. In addition to the Russian forces, there is ISIS, along with government forces and dozens of different rebel groups.
“They fight themselves, too,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. We have neighborhoods and families. Over there it’s all tribal, where your family is from.”
Loeffler tries to remember the wins, not the hellish images. With limited resources in Jordan, any patient surviving is considered a success, even though in America not all patients would have had to undergo amputations, he said.
There was a 20-year-old woman, hugely pregnant, who had to have above-the-knee amputations. Both legs.
She survived, though, and doctors were able to fit her with prosthetic legs before she delivered.
“Surprisingly, the baby did make it,” he said. “I was there the day we discharged her. She went back to Syria.”
Loeffler said the experience, which he wants to do again, brought the lowest of lows but also the highest of highs.
A tough-looking commander, who others at the hospital believed was ISIS but Loeffler learned wasn’t, came in after government forces burst into his home shooting his brother and one of his wives.
Loeffler did daily surgeries on the man, refusing to quit and opt for amputation. The soldier later left the hospital by walking on his own legs. He said his higher power knew the American doctor from Key West would come to Jordan.
“I saw Allah last night,” the fighter told Loeffler. “Allah said he sent you to me to fix me.”
Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen