Dr. Ahmad Ma’ali is CEO of St John Eye Hospital in Jerusalem, which calls itself “the only charitable provider of expert eye care in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, treating patients regardless of ethnicity, religion or ability to pay.”
The hospital provides eye care to Palestinian residents of Jerusalem, and sees many of the most complex eye cases referred to it from medical centers across the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It has a large outpatient department, specialist eye units, operating theaters and 24-hour eye emergency services.
Ma’ali joined SJEH in 1990 as a nursing student, completing his education at Al Quds University, Greenwich University and Moorfields Eye Hospital, as well as being awarded a doctorate from De Montfort University-Leicester. He became head of the School of Nursing in 2001 and in 2009 he became the first Palestinian nursing director. In 2017, he was appointed as the Joint CEO for Clinical Services & Director of Nursing and Allied Health Professions, and in 2019, he was named the CEO of St John Eye Hospital Group.
Dr. Ma’ali, when was the eye hospital opened here in Jerusalem?
The St John Eye Hospital started in 1882 to provide eye care for people of the Holy Land, we started our hospital on the way to Bethlehem in a place now called the Mt. Zion Hotel. We moved from there into the Old City in 1948 and we moved to this current location in 1961. Now we have become a group of hospitals so we have the mother hospital here in Jerusalem and we have a day hospital in Gaza, a day hospital in Hebron and a center in the north called Anabta. Altogether we treat close to 140,000 patients every year.
The hospital has been here for so long that it must be meeting real needs?
Absolutely, there was a real need for the eye hospital in Jerusalem. I wasn’t there but I was told that patients used to come to us from Gulf countries, from Syria, from Jordan on camels, pilgrims who came to the Holy Land. They contracted the eye disease called trachoma and it was very prevalent in this part of the world. Actually when Her Majesty Queen Victoria ordered the building of this hospital, the main aim was to eradicate this disease and we worked hard to do that. In 1961, we declared Palestine and Israel free of this disease.
So you have royal connections?
We very much have royal connections yes, the head of the order of St John is Her Majesty the Queen and our Grand Prior is the Duke of Gloucester.
Are you the oldest provider of eye care here in the Middle East?
Yes, we are indeed. We were the first eye hospital to be established in the Middle East and we remain the only charitable eye hospital to provide eye care in the Holy Land.
Do people here lose their sight because of poverty?
Among people in this part of the world, the level of visual disability and blindness is higher at least 10 times than that of the western countries. There are many reasons. Poverty is one of the reasons and also lifestyle. Almost 20% of the population have diabetes, which affects the back of the eye or the blood vessels of the eye and therefore without prompt treatment this can lead to blindness. Now poverty is another thing, because accessibility to eye care is the main problem. It can be a physical barrier; people are not able to move because of restriction of movements sometimes. Poverty is another problem of accessibility because if you don’t have the resources, the money to travel and to pay for your treatment, you are unlikely to seek eye care. There is also a problem with knowledge and education. Unfortunately, some people feel that going blind or losing their sight is part of growing older and therefore we at the eye hospital try and work with the communities. We have a mobile outreach clinic which travels to places where people have no access to eye care. We also have an ethos at the hospital that everyone that comes to the doors of the hospital will receive eye care regardless of their ability to pay, regardless of their race or religion, so everybody who knocks on our doors receives the treatment he or she deserves.
You travel to some remote communities, don’t you?
Basically we started this project in 1980, whereby we have a group of doctors and nurses and we have a van that leaves the hospital every day five days a week. It goes to the areas where there are no health services in general and ophthalmic services in particular. For example, we go to the Jordan Valley, we go to refugee camps and we treat 50, 60, 70 patients on each trip. We have a very good relationship with the community leaders and therefore we announce our visit a month before so people are waiting for us and all of this service is provided to our patients free of charge. This includes in addition to eye care, health education and health promotion as well, so it is part of the package that we deliver sessions of teaching and training to patients and sometimes even to health care workers about how to deal with visual problems and how to refer patients to the hospital. Altogether, we treat about 10,000 to 12,000 patients as part of this project.
What impact does saving someone’s sight have on their family?
Just imagine that you have a child that is two years old and he comes on time to the eye hospital. He or she has a cataract and you remove the problem and you implant a lens in their eyes. You have given this child 70-80 years of vision and you have given this child the opportunity to go to school, develop normally, physically and intellectually as well and hopefully when they reach that age of 17 or 18, they will be an effective member of the community, able to provide for themselves and to provide for their families. The alternative is that this child will be blind and a burden on the family and on the community and on the economy as well. So this is really just a simple example of a case where intervention of the eye hospital and of the eye doctors on time does enhance the life expectation of the person and enhances the family, community and economy as well.
The hospital’s roots are Christian, but do you treat people of all religions?
Our mission is to provide eye care for everybody who comes through our doors, regardless of their religion, race, creed and ability to pay. This is a Christian organization and was founded on the ethos of the order of St John, which started some 900 years ago. It has Christian origins but we employ Muslims, Christians and Jews. In this hospital, you have 30% Christians, 70% Muslims and two Jewish doctors. In many ways, I think the harmony the hospital presents is a good example of how the three religions can work together to provide humanitarian care.
How important is the hospital to the community?
The hospital is very important to the community, if you think about how many people we employ. We employ 270 staff and with the extended families, these people look after families, big families. We invest in Palestinians. I am an example of that. Before the 1990s almost every single doctor and every single senior nurse and the CEO and everybody else were expatriate staff. Then there was a decision made whereby we decided to invest in the Palestinian local people. Therefore we trained our doctors, we trained our nurses, sent them to England, to Israel, to India, to Egypt and now we have a highly specialized trained staff.
You have a picture on the wall of Prince William. Tell us about his visit.
This was a very special visit. Because of our royal connections we made a request for his royal highness to come and visit us. He agreed and he spent about 30 minutes at the hospital. He was extremely impressed with what he saw and he also inquired about the work and about our funding. For us, this was a very important prestigious visit which shows that the royal family is still very much interested in the work of the hospital and we had the pleasure of joining him at the British consulate general’s residence.
Why do you do what you do?
I have been a part of this hospital for 30 years. I worked in England, at Moorfields (Eye Hospital) and in other parts of the world, but this is a special place. It’s special because I think we are a very good employer. We have British European standards in the sense of employment law. I feel that we are a very fair, transparent organization. People come to us because of that and also if you look at the hospital and what we have achieved – we have moved from a small hospital in Jerusalem to become a group of hospitals – we are now filling the gap that the Palestinian Authority cannot do. So the impact of what we have been doing on the lives of the Palestinians and as a Palestinian, I say that is huge! We also attract people from European countries to come and work with us as volunteers and they see first-hand the impact of this hospital on the lives of the people, especially the poor Palestinian patients who come from isolated areas. This hospital is about bringing light into darkness. We adopt a very holistic approach to providing first class eye care in a very third world context. For me, this is very rewarding and I have been the CEO only for the last year or so. I think I have made a lot of positive changes and I feel that we still can do more to support our people and to support the ethos of this hospital and enhance the standards of eye care. One thing that I didn’t mention is that we were the first hospital in Jerusalem to receive the joint commission international accreditation, which is an American accreditation of quality in hospital care. It is a certificate that you receive after a massive inspection of a whole week. They go through all your standards of care and we are the first eye hospital, thank God, to receive that. We were accredited again last year and we are due for accreditation in 2021. This shows that despite the fact that we are a charitable hospital and we rely heavily on donations, we have maintained and excelled in standards of care which is something that is usually quite difficult to achieve. We have poor resources and excellence in care, but we have managed to have these two concepts married together.
What is your website for people who would like to know more or even perhaps give a donation?
Well the easiest thing to do is go to Google and write St John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital Group. There, you can see our activities, our patients, our stories and of course if you would like to donate to the eye hospital you will be able to do that online as well.■