x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Healing and living with the wounds of war in Gaza

Dealing with a crisis is nothing new for physicians and nurses in Gaza hospitals, Hugh Naylor reports from the heart of one hospital emergency room

Young children are treated in the emergency room of the Al Shifa hospital in Gaza City after being wounded in an Israeli air strike
Young children are treated in the emergency room of the Al Shifa hospital in Gaza City after being wounded in an Israeli air strike

KHAN YOUNIS // At the European Gaza Hospital's emergency room, neurosurgeon Dr Mohab Musa spoke with cold precision.

"So far, we have had four cases of people who became brain-dead from the attacks," Dr Musa said as patients were wheeled in on stretchers. "One of the deceased is 16 and the other three are between the ages of 20 and 25."

Two people had legs amputated because of wounds from attacks in and around this city in the Palestinian enclave's south, he said. Dr Musa has spent much of the past workweek removing large chunks of metal and debris flung by exploding projectiles from patients' hips, backs and heads. He attributed many of the injuries to shrapnel, the bits of metal often packed into mortars. "It penetrates livers, spleens, lungs and of course it often lodges in brains," he said. "It splits open bodies."

Then he spoke of medical supplies becoming unnervingly thin.

Before the Israeli air strikes that started last Wednesday, Mahmoud Daher, the World Health Organisation representative in Gaza, said: "Things were already bad to begin with." Hospital basics such as cotton balls, gauze, surgical masks and needles were only at 60 per cent of what was needed, he noted. And, now, under these crisis conditions, almost impossible to acquire.

He attributed the shortfall to the financial crisis facing the West Bank's Palestinian Authority (PA), which still supplies Gaza with medicine even though the rival Hamas movement wrested control over the territory from it five years ago.

"The PA is even having a hard time stocking West Bank hospitals, let alone those in Gaza," Mr Daher said.

Hamas, conversely, has blamed the PA for withholding Gaza-bound medicine and supplies for political reasons, primarily because of pressure from the United States and Israel, which consider Hamas a terrorist organisation.

Health ministry officials - fearful of exactly those kind of shortfalls and overstretched facilities - were holding emergency meetings yesterday at Gaza City's Al Shifa Hospital to thrash out contingency plans should the casualty rates rise. Since the fighting flared, an estimated 500 people have been treated for wounds at public hospitals. At least 69 Palestinians have been killed.

Dealing with a crisis, though, is nothing new for physicians and nurses in Gaza hospitals.

"We always learn to adapt with what we have," said Hazem Abu Jalhouh, a 24-year-old nurse at the surgical ward in Al Shifa Hospital.

As he spoke, Yahyia Nahal, 46, was wheeled by on a stretcher covered in blood-soaked sheets. Injured in an attack at the Al Shati refugee camp, he needed surgery to remove the chunks of metal lodged in his abdomen. His condition did not look promising, but Mr Abu Jalhouh struck an upbeat note. "His prognosis is good," he said.

At the European Gaza Hospital in the southern Gaza Strip, five-year-old Iman Aaraj, with shrapnel wounds to her right leg from Israeli bombardment yesterday of a nearby neighbourhood, was wheel into the emergency room.

"She'll survive," said Hani Al Ghoul, the hospital's office manager.

So will Khaled Melahy, a 49-year-old nurse, who came to the hospital to have his wounded right eye cleaned.

Moments after an Israeli air raid pummeled his brother's home on Friday, Mr Melahy ran inside to help his brother and family. Another bombardment hit them as they left the home. Metal flecks lodged into his right eye, permanently blinding it.

But, he insists, his problems could have been much worse.

"I didn't even realise how bad it was until I took safely got them to the hospital," he said. "What's most important is that we're all alive."

Doctors removed the metal from Mr Melahy's eye later on Friday evening. He made it into a necklace.

"Just to remember," he said.

Dr Musa pledged to continue working. "We're managing like we always have, but it's going to get difficult if things continue to get worse," he said.