Before I started studying medicine, I had in mind that when everything else falls in a country, doctors would be amongst the last ones standing. More than a decade down the line, I managed to see the proof, through the eyes of Dr Mads Gilbert, who has worked in a Palestinian hospital a few times during attacks by the Israeli governmental army.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a talk given by Dr Gilbert, who is an anaesthesiologist, as well as a Professor in Emergency Medicine in a university hospital in Norway. This article is not a verbatim of his inspiring talk, it is rather what I gathered from listening to him. I hope this would deliver some of his message to those who read this article.
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“Imagine, you are a doctor. You are staying at home with your four children, your parents, and your grandparents. Then you received a call from the hospital, asking you to come to work because your city has been bombed.
What would you do?”
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Dr Gilbert spoke at first about Tromso, the city in Norway he came from. Then he spoke about Norway being one of the best places in this world to live in, with its safety, economical and political stability, good education system and a great healthcare. He worked in a hospital of which every specialty is available, the system is good, and they could get any medicine that they needed.
“But of course, with prosperity, we have a duty to share,” he said. “I had to think about the less fortunate.”
While helping out in Shifa Hospital in Palestine, he learnt a lot more about the people, their faith, and their strength.
“I am not the hero of this story,” he told us. “The real heroes are the Palestinian doctors, nurses and paramedics. They never left their patients, and never left their people.”
As a doctor myself, his words touched me deep inside.
“Yes, I will come to work,” was the attitude of these heroes.
They are such a dedicated group of people that all healthcare workers around the world could learn from, especially us from privileged backgrounds. Not only that, the hospital staff were probably the best in the world to manage mass disasters, and the world could learn from them too.
Photos of their hospital might have captured total chaos, but according to Dr Gilbert, there is a good triage system in place of which patients are categorised according to the urgency of treatment needed.
During the 51-day siege of Gaza in 2014, 8592 patients came through the doors of their emergency department. 1802 of them were admitted, and among them, 842 people (including children) needed emergency surgery.
How did they cope with the amount of casualties and the limited resources?
“The Palestinians are masters of improvisation,” said Dr Gilbert.
In a normal hospital, one operating theatre would have one operating table. However, at times of dire need, they would at times fit in two operating tables in one room, so that two surgeries could run at the same time. In fact, the hospital could have up to 15 surgeries running together at the same time.
“How much resources and energy are we willing to spend to save just ONE life, in our daily work?”
The cases were, most of the time, complex. One patient would need expertise from at least two to three specialties, for example, neurosurgery (brain surgery), orthopaedics, and ENT (ear, nose and throat). In first world countries, these kinds of surgery would need a lot of planning and mobilisation of various resources, but Palestinians would immediately jump to their feet and try to save these lives.
Electricity cuts happened very often, and the hospital could not always use their generator. So when it gets dark during surgeries, Dr Gilbert would use his torchlight for the surgeons to be able to see what they were doing. Sadly, he was the only one with a torchlight because as a white man, he was able to bring it in. The Arabs of Palestine were not allowed by the Israeli government to bring in torchlight. So the doctors would use the lights from their handphones to continue with their surgery.
“They do exactly what is needed, and they save lives.”
Even the hospital cleaner worked very hard in this setting. He showed a photo of the hospital cleaner with his mop, smiling to the camera, in a room filled with blood, linen strewn all over in the hurried attempts to perform life-saving surgeries. This cleaner would clean the operating theatre within FOUR minutes, so that the next surgery could be done as soon as possible!
The ambulance paramedics risked their lives to save their people. Despite international laws prohibiting the attack of ambulances and hospitals, the Zionist army had damaged 47 Palestinian ambulances in Gaza in 2014 alone. 17 of Gaza’s 32 hospitals were damaged, and six closed down as a result of their attacks in 2014. 104 medical staff were injured or killed during that 51-day period.
There were paramedics who rushed out to fetch patients from disaster sites, but came back as martyrs themselves, brought in by other paramedics, because one of the bombs hit his ambulance. There was a staff who was brought in without any visible injuries – it seemed that he was too exhausted to go on. But after a few hours of rest in the hospital, he got up and started working again.
Dr Gilbert showed us a photo of a doctor attending to a patient. He pointed to a thin black wire hanging on the doctor’s white coat. “You know what that is?” he asked. “That is an earphone, attached to the doctor’s mobile phone. And he’s not listening to music.”
While he paused, the image of Ron Weasley in the movie Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came into my mind.
“This doctor, and the rest of the staff, were listening to radio reports on the areas attacked by Israel. They would want to know whether the area of their homes were being bombed.”
Let me elaborate. In that Harry Potter movie, Ron Weasley was traveling with Harry and Hermione to search for ways to destroy Lord Voldemort. It was war time for the magical community, and people got abducted and killed all the time. He was listening intently to the radio just to make sure that none of his parents or his six other siblings were killed in the war.
I did not know that this kind of thing happens in real world. Until yesterday.
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It was Ramadhan when Israeli army decided to bomb Gaza. In total, there were 6000 airstrikes within 51 days, which means there were more than 100 attacks per day. There were sounds of war planes and drones and bombs all over.
The Muslim doctors continued to fast. So Dr Gilbert himself fasted together with the Muslims as a sign of respect and solidarity. He said, during surgery, when iftar (breaking fast, and yes, he said iftar) time comes, they could not stop their operation. Someone would come and open their masks to feed them some sustenance so that they could go on.
“What keeps me going?” he asked. It was the resilience of the Palestinians.
Gaza, for him, is about humans, humanity, dream of freedom, children and youth, the air and the sea. He is amazed by the strength of the people there.
“Because of their Islamic faith, they still smile, stand tall, and not surrender,” he told us.
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“How can we contribute to their freedom?” he asked.
(1) Some doctors may be tempted to volunteer in Palestinian hospitals. Dr Gilbert’s advice was to only go if you were invited by the Palestinians.
He then elaborated. Many people only went there for a few days, take photos just to show off to the world “that we volunteered in Palestine”, and go back to their own countries.
Palestinians are very generous people. When someone comes over, they will need to arrange for transport, lodging and food. They will need to risk so much, and as it is, they have so little. Hence we should only go there if we think we could contribute. Otherwise, our presence would only be a burden to them.
“I mostly stayed in the hospital and fast together with them,” he said.
(2) Help spread the awareness to the people and the government. The occupation of Palestinian land is an oppression to a nation. It is a failure for humanity if we let this monstrosity continue.
Our leaders need to be alerted so that they could give pressure to the international community, so that justice would be served.
“Malaysia is a chair of OIC,” he reminded us. “There is so much that you could do if your leader could push the rest of the Islamic world to help.”
With that I felt sad. It seems like we’re stuck in this matter.
(3) Boycott, divestment and sanction movement was initiated in Palestine as a measure to bring pressure against Israel so that they would comply to international law and give Palestine its rights. Similar movement has succeeded in banishing apartheid from South Africa, it is hoped that this would bring an end to the Zionist oppressive regime.
This is the link to their website:
Boycott, Divestment and Sanction – for freedom, justice and equality
“Be a change maker yourself,” he adviced.
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Messages of Hope
Dr Gilbert showed us a heart-wrenching video made by a journalist, Ashraf Masharawi. The video was showed during a charity dinner to enlighten the crowd about the plights of the Palestinians. There were visuals of the intact Gaza city, its people, its children; and then there were videos of the bombings.
The inter-war montage showed rubbles upon rubbles around the city of Gaza. Then there were short interviews – Palestinians spoke about their fallen houses, their burnt factories, and their plans for the future.
I could hear sobs from where I sat, and it seems that the video provoked tears among the men too.
It amazed me the most when a young boy said, “When the war has stopped, and supplies could come in, we will build Gaza again, and it will be more beautiful than ever.”
It is such a wonder that despite all the destruction, all the catastrophe, they could still see the light at the end of the tunnel. They still have hopes and dreams and have yet to give up on life.
Dr Gilbert did say, “They (the Israelis) will fall one day. There were no empires that have lasted forever. This occupation will definitely end one day.”
He closed his talk with these words:
“There is a good time coming, being it ever so far away.”