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Doctor's Troubles training saves Brussels bomb victims

By Adrian Rutherford

A doctor who helped victims of the Brussels terror attacks has said the injuries he faced were the worst since his days in Belfast dealing with the carnage caused by IRA bombs.

Luc Van Obbergh worked at the Royal Victoria Hospital during the 1980s.

Now a senior medic in one of the Belgian capital's busiest hospitals, he described being confronted with mangled limbs and horrific burns in the wake of Tuesday's bombings.

Thirty-one people died and more than 300 were injured when explosions rocked Brussels Airport and the city's Metro.

Prof Van Obbergh said it brought back memories of the trauma he witnessed first-hand as a young doctor in Belfast.

"The patients who came to our hospital were severely injured," he said.

"A lot of people were injured like you would have seen during the bombing in Northern Ireland from years ago."

He also described how the city remains on high alert, bringing back memories of his days in Belfast at the height of the Troubles.

Prof Van Obbergh is head anaesthetist at Erasme Hospital in the Anderlecht district of Brussels.

Staff at Erasme said they encountered victims with the type of wounds normally seen in combat zones, including torn limbs and charred flesh.

Prof Van Obbergh told the Belfast Telegraph: "People had severe injuries to their legs, and burns.

"When I was in Belfast I saw a lot of people who were injured from the bombing - this was the same from what I lived through in Belfast.

"I saw people who were very seriously injured."

Prof Van Obbergh worked in Belfast from 1983 to 1984 at a time when violence was a daily way of life.

He said he still had friends at the Royal Victoria Hospital, and kept up-to-date with life in Northern Ireland.

"I came to Belfast because I wanted to get more experience," he explained

"I went to the Children's Hospital for six months and was in the RVH for the rest of the time.

"I had a very good time there, but I understood it was a time when you had problems between the two communities.

"We had people who were injured and the part of the hospital where I served had high security.

"Therefore this week I had a few experiences of the sort of things we saw - it was like the RVH when people came in severely injured."

Prof Van Obbergh also described how police were on alert, similar to his days in Northern Ireland.

"There were controls everywhere - I was living near Holywood and when I was going to the Royal Victoria during the night it was usual that we were stopped on the way for checking by the police," he added.

"So I've seen that and have lived in a place where we were checked like we are now in Brussels.

"Now, when I enter the hospital I have to open my bag just to show that I have nothing in it untoward.

"I had to do the same when I was in Belfast, so it seems for me normal."

Recalling last Tuesday's events, Prof Van Obbergh said staff had heard about an incident at the airport, some 25km away.

Soon two people with severely injured legs arrived.

Over the coming hours the hospital would treat 16 of the most seriously wounded, some fighting for their lives.

"The hospital which is near the airport - there was a lot of people coming there by car and by themselves with minor injuries, so they had to dispatch the major injuries to the other hospitals, and we were one hospital who received these people," he explained.

"Most of them needed to go to the operating room and stayed there a long time.

"They were all injured very seriously, and it is not yet finished.

"Some are coming back to theatre because the injuries have not yet healed."

Prof Van Obbergh remains in touch with some of the people he met in Northern Ireland.

He is pleased to see his former home is now at peace.

"I still follow a bit what is happening there," he added.

"I still have people who are friends there and I know very well some people who are paediatricians and anaesthetists there.

"I know things have settled down.

"Here (the terrorism threat) is very different. In Northern Ireland you had two communities fighting each other. The IRA was fighting the British Army.

"Here you don't know who is fighting. We don't really understand what is happening.

"The bombing is the same, but the causes of the bombing are not the same.

"We are not fighting (between communities), at least here in Belgium. We are trying to live peacefully."

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