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Gaza: US, international volunteer doctors trapped in hospital by Israeli attack

Gaza: US, international volunteer doctors trapped in hospital by Israeli attack

 


CAIRO (AP) 35 American and other international doctors came to Gaza in volunteer teams to help one of the few hospital grounds still functioning. They brought suitcases full of medical supplies and had trained for one of the worst war zones in the world. They knew the health care system was broken and overwhelmed.

The reality is even worse than they imagined, they say.

Children with horrific amputations. Patients with burns and wounds filled with maggots. Rampant infections. Palestinian doctors and nurses who are beyond exhausted after seven months of treating endless waves of wounded civilians in Israel's war with Hamas.

I didn't expect (it) to be this bad, said Dr. Ammar Ghanem, an ICU specialist from Detroit with the Syrian American Medical Society. You hear the news but you can't really understand it…too bad until you come and see it.

The Israeli incursion into the southern Gaza city of Rafah has done fueled the chaos. On May 6, Israeli troops captured the Rafah crossing in Egypt, closing the main point of entry and exit for international humanitarian workers. The teams were stranded beyond the scheduled end of their two-week mission.

On Friday, days after the teams were due to leave, talks between US and Israeli authorities yielded results and some of the doctors were able to leave Gaza. However, at least 14, including three Americans, chose to stay, according to one of the organizations, the Palestinian American Medical Association. US-based non-profit medical group FAJR Scientific, which organized a second team of volunteers, could not immediately be reached. The White House said 17 Americans left Gaza on Friday and at least three chose to stay behind.

Those who fled included Ghanem, who said the 15-mile journey from the hospital to the Kerem Shalom crossing took more than four hours after the explosions erupted around them. He described some tense moments, such as when an Israeli tank at the crossing hit the medical convoy.

The tank moved and blocked our way and they pointed their guns (at) us. So that was a scary moment, Ghanem said.

The 14 Palestinian American Medical Association doctors who stayed behind include American Adam Hamawy. U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth credits Hamawy with saving her life when, as a military helicopter pilot in Iraq in 2004, she was hit by an RPG, causing injuries that cost her legs.

Three of the US citizen doctors on our teams refused to leave without a formal replacement plan for them, said association president Mustafa Muslen.

The two international teams have been working since early May at the European General Hospital, just outside Rafah, the largest hospital still operating in southern Gaza. The volunteers are mostly American surgeons, but include medical professionals from Britain, Australia, Egypt, Jordan, Oman and other countries.

The World Health Organization said the UN, which coordinates the visits of volunteer teams, is in talks with Israel to resume the movement of aid workers in and out of Gaza. The Israeli military said it had no comment.

The doctors' mission gave them a first-hand look at a health system that has been devastated by the Israeli offensive in Gaza, caused by Hamas attack on October 7 in southern Israel. Nearly two dozen hospitals in Gaza are no longer functioning, and the remaining dozen are only partially working. The Israeli campaign has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians and injured more than 79,000, according to Gaza health officials. Almost 500 health workers are among the dead.

The army's nearly 2-week operation in Rafah has sent more than 600,000 Palestinians out of the city and scattered across southern Gaza. Most of the Palestinian staff of the European Hospitals left to help the families find new accommodation. As a result, foreign volunteers are stretched between medical emergencies and other tasks, such as finding patients inside the hospital. There is no staff to record where incoming wounded are placed. The medicine that the teams brought with them is running out.

Thousands of Palestinians have taken refuge in the hospital. Outside, sewage overflows into the streets and drinking water is brackish or contaminated, spreading disease. The road to the hospital from Rafah is now unsafe: The United Nations says an Israeli tank fired on a marked UN vehicle on the road on Monday, killing one UN security officer and wounding another.

When the attack on Rafah began, FAJR Scientifics 17 doctors were living in a hostel in the city. With no warning from the Israeli army to evacuate, the team was stunned by the bombs that fell several hundred meters from the clearly marked house, said Mosab Nasser, CEO of FAJR.

They got out, still wearing their scrubs, and moved to the European Hospital, where the other team was staying.

Dr. Mohamed Tahir, an orthopedic surgeon from London with FAJR, performs multiple surgeries a day on little sleep. He was often awakened by bombs rocking the hospital. Work is hectic. He recalled opening a chest to stop the bleeding, before there was time to get him to the operating room. The man died.

Tahir said that when the attack on Rafah began, Palestinian colleagues at the hospital nervously asked if the volunteers would leave.

It makes my heart feel very heavy, Tahiri said. Palestinian staff know that when the teams leave they have no protection; and this could mean that this hospital returns to Shifa, which is a very real possibility. Israeli forces attacked the Shifa hospital in Gaza City, the largest territories, for the second time in March, leaving it in ruins. Israel claims that Hamas uses hospitals as command centers and shelter, a charge Gaza health officials deny.

The patients that Tahiri saved continue him. Tahiri and the other surgeons operated for hours on a man with severe wounds to his skull and abdomen and shrapnel in his back. They did a second surgery on Wednesday night.

I looked at my colleagues and said: You know what? If this patient survives — just this patient — everything we've done, or everything we've been through, will be worth it, Tahir said.

Dr. Ahlia Kattan, an anesthesiologist and ICU physician from California with FAJR, said her most difficult case was a 4-year-old boy, the same age as her son, who arrived with more than 75% burns. his body. his lungs and spleen were broken. He did not survive.

He reminded me so much of my son, she said, holding back tears. Everyone has different stories here that they take home with them.

Aggravating all the volunteers, Kattan said, is the guilt we were already feeling when we left, that we could escape to safety.

___

Associated Press writer Ellen Knickmeyer contributed to this report from Washington.

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