I'm a doctor - here's what it means to be a health worker in Gaza
An injured person is assisted at Shifa Hospital after hundreds of Palestinians were killed in a blast at Al-Ahli hospital in Gaza that Israeli and Palestinian officials blamed on each other in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, October 17, 2023. REUTERS/Mohammed Al-Masri
Let’s teach our children some humanity and give Gazans, these children and our brave health workers a ceasefire
Dr Omar Abdel-Mannen is a British-Egyptian pediatric neurologist and co-founder of Gaza Medic Voices.
On Nov. 4, my team at Gaza Medic Voices, an advocacy group for medical workers in Gaza, received this message from a surgeon inside Al-Shifa hospital: "Every time we say ‘this is difficult and the worst thing that could ever happen, and it's impossible the world will be silent to it, and it will definitely get better, we’ve finally reached the end', the next day comes and it proves to me that there is something even worse.”
The truth of these words is frankly chilling. They echoed my very feelings as I looked back at the timeline of events since the Israel-Gaza conflict began on Oct. 7.
On Oct. 17, Al-Ahli hospital was bombed by Israel, killing 471 people, according to the Gaza health ministry, but that wasn’t even the worst day.
On Nov. 1, a direct Israeli military airstrike hit Jabaliya refugee camp, which was housing tens of thousands of people.
Again, though, worse was yet to come. Al-Shifa hospital became a war zone (and a mass grave site, according to the doctors working there) when it was stormed by Israeli forces within 10 days.
This timeline of events illustrates exactly what the surgeon said. This is a worsening situation with a constant stream of events we never thought were possible.
When I look back at this chain of events, the thing that really worries me is the speed of the degradation. I honestly fear where we could be in one day, let alone a week, without a ceasefire.
There are many things which really differentiate what we’re seeing in Gaza from other conflicts in history. Children make up about 50% of Gaza’s population. This means we are seeing a disproportionate loss of lives of innocent children.
We even have a horrible acronym now for children left with no surviving family: healthcare workers are labelling them ‘WCNSF’ - wounded child no surviving family.
I am a father first and a children’s doctor second: imagine as a father or mother burying your own children, something no parent in the world wishes to do. Imagine your children being left with no family to take care of them - that is the reality for thousands of people in Gaza.
Worse still, when your home is in Gaza, being a survivor arguably makes you the unlucky one: unlucky to survive your family alone, unlucky to live disabled, unlucky to live in a destroyed Gaza with no home, no clean water, no basic supplies and no family.
I have been in constant communication with doctors on the ground since this started and we at Gaza Medic Voices have been posting their testimonies to our 70,000 followers on social media.
These are friends and colleagues of mine that I’ve known for 10 years, a number of whom have sadly been killed. These are people that I’ve had the privilege to teach and to get to know, play football with, and eat and drink with. I personally can attest to these medics being some of the most capable and resilient professionals I’ve ever come across. It breaks my heart to see what they are going through.
So, when people ask me what it means to be a healthcare worker in Gaza now, let me tell you what I’ve been hearing: Doctors and surgeons often sleep on operating tables between patients. Doctors are working without knowing whether their families are alive or dead. As one of them said to us last month: “I am an emergency doctor at Al Shifa. I haven't left since the beginning of the escalation. I have no contact with my family. The hospital is full and there's no space anymore."
They have been telling me for weeks that they are triaging patients at the hospital door – deciding who has the best chance of survival, forced to leave the others outside. They are working without basic resources – we’re seeing medieval-style medicine. Doctors have described life threatening burns consistent with the use of white phosphorus, which is being used illegally against civilians, according to rights groups. Here’s why it’s illegal: it’s because it's so harsh it burns through the layers of skin and flesh down to the bone. It's extremely difficult to treat, it doesn’t heal well, and it's prone to infection.
Last week, I spoke to Dr Ebrahim Mattar, one of the doctors inside Gaza, who told me about two colleagues of his who died and how he received their bodies at the hospital. I asked him what we can do for him, and his answer was, “We don’t want your food, water, money or even thoughts and prayers, WE NEED A CEASEFIRE NOW! STOP BOMBING GAZA”.
Healthcare workers are exhausted, hungry and petrified. I asked Dr Ebrahim how he keeps going.
“It’s a matter of survival, I have to do my duty and I block it out. Most of the time I am numb from the pain and I just focus on the next thing I need to do. Every few days I have an emotional breakdown, I cry, I grieve. But I shake myself back into functioning,” he said.
So, you want to know what it's like to be a healthcare worker in Gaza? It is hell on earth.
I want to briefly, if I may, take you back a few years in time during the COVID pandemic – it was not so long-ago that we looked around and we saw our NHS in the UK almost collapsing.
As a population we were terrified and, as a group of people, we were indebted to healthcare workers for stepping up and showing the bravery to keep doing their work in often impossible conditions.
But, when we compare this to Gaza, we now see our plight pale in comparison. Furthermore, what we are seeing on our TVs is only a glimpse into the horrors Gazans are experiencing everyday.
As determined and resilient as they are, they cannot succeed without help, and help cannot come sufficiently and efficiently until there is a ceasefire and humanitarian corridors are opened.
I urge all stakeholders and people in power to vote for an immediate ceasefire. If we don’t push for it as civil society, history will judge us, and this will be a stain on our collective humanity. Let’s teach our children some humanity and give Gazans, these children and our brave health workers a ceasefire.
Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
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