BEIRUT

Middle East

Amid bloodshed, frenetic Gaza hospital improvises

A man carries the lifeless body of a child to an emergency room at Shifa Hospital. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

GAZA CITY: In the heart of Gaza City, as its citizens again find themselves under fire from Israeli airstrikes and artillery, the wounded and their wailing families stream into Shifa Hospital without end. Shifa, Gaza’s largest hospital, only has an 11-bed emergency room and six operating theaters.

Yet amid power cuts and among the screams of the bereaved, doctors at the 600-bed facility have become masters of improvisation, forced by the seemingly unending conflict engulfing the coastal strip to care for the wounded.

“If we are in the middle of an operation [and] lights go out, what do the Palestinians do?” said Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor who has volunteered at Shifa on and off for 17 years.

“They pick up their phones, and they use the light from the screen to illuminate the operation field.”

The wounded from Israeli strikes usually arrive in waves. More than 3,000 Palestinians already have been wounded in the past two weeks of fighting, health officials say.

Many, including the most serious cases, end up at Shifa.

A new wave of casualties arrives after daybreak Sunday, following a night of heavy Israeli tank fire on Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood. Hospital guards shout at drivers to move to make room for the next vehicles, pushing back journalists and onlookers.

Some of the wounded get treated in a hallway near the emergency room. A medic bandages the foot of an emergency worker writhing in pain on a mattress on the floor.

A little boy with shrapnel wounds arrives and the emergency worker slides off the mattress to the hard floor for the child.

Nearby, a woman cries hysterically. A man holds up a dead child, wailing. Another man carries a teenage girl whose right arm is bloodied and broken.

Patients on gurneys line up outside the X-ray room. Relatives of the wounded, one in a blood-soaked white undershirt, argue over who will be examined first.

Dr. Jihad Juwaidi says his six operating rooms filled up quickly and that even the seriously wounded have to wait for surgery, including a little girl with a fractured skull.

Choosing who gets treated first is gut-wrenching, says Dr. Allam Nayef, who works in one of Shifa’s intensive care units.

“Sometimes you have to select which one of them has the best chance to survive,” Nayef says.

“Easily in this rush, you can take a bad decision, that the one [patient] you thought will wait for you ... you won’t find him when you finish your surgery,” Nayef said.

Nayef and his colleagues work 24-hour shifts. A storage area crammed with boxes and an old vinyl-covered sofa doubles as a lounge where the doctors rest until the next wave.

Working at Shifa Hospital requires ingenuity.

The power goes off repeatedly as aging hospital generators buckle under daily rolling blackouts Gaza residents have lived with for years. Many items are in short supply, from gauze to adrenaline.

They also lack spare parts for worn equipment, with bedside trolleys clattering down hallways on rusted wheels.

Only three of Nayef’s four ICU beds have ventilators. One broke down long ago and can’t be repaired. He says he once made a special wire for cardiac pacing from a spliced Ethernet cable.

Gilbert, the Norwegian volunteer helps out at Shifa several times a year. This time, he brought headlamps, useful for surgeons, but says they are on Israel’s list of banned items.

He feels a strong personal bond with his Palestinian colleagues, saying they provide good care under challenging circumstances, but feel hurt by the world’s seeming apathy toward Gaza.

Gilbert, 67, is currently the only foreign doctor at Shifa.

“I am not the hero,” he says. “These people are the heroes. When we leave, they stay behind.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 21, 2014, on page 9.

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