Medicine without borders - healing the enemy

Medical staffers at Ashkelon's Barzilai Hospital don't let Katyusha rockets get in the way of treating Palestinian patients.

recovering 88 224 (photo credit: Maxine Liptzen-Dorot)
recovering 88 224
(photo credit: Maxine Liptzen-Dorot)
The journey from the Gaza Strip to Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon is a long one, but eventually, most patients make it there for treatment. When I get to Barzilai to meet some Palestinian patients, I didn't know what to expect. "Not everyone wants to meet with you," I'm told, "but there's one father and his son who don't mind talking to you." I'm escorted to the Pediatric Ward and on the short walk there am given a very brief background of one of the cases: Naji Naji is a boy of 15 who, for lack of hospital space, had been put in the Pediatric Ward of the hospital. Before I have time to ask why he's been hospitalized, we're there. Naji's "room" is the ward's solarium. His bed is the only one of the four there that's in use. It's placed against a window so the sun streams in. The solarium is a very busy spot, being the staff entrance to the ward. Next to his bed is a leather recliner and it's there that I meet Mahmoud Naji, who stands to greet me, offering his hand and introducing me to his son. I turn to Naji and immediately notice his left pajama leg, bunched up and pinned together a bit above his knee, resting on the stump. Trying to hide my surprise, I reach out to shake Naji's hand. He jumps off the bed, leaning on his crutches, and shyly takes my hand. He's easily six feet tall, with a beautiful smile and a strong handshake. The Naji family lives in Dir el-Balah in the Gaza Strip. Two of the family's children are graduates of the University of Cairo. One lives and works in Abu Dhabi. He can't come home to visit, since he won't be allowed to leave Gaza again. There are four more children at home. Naji is the next-to-youngest. Mahmoud Naji is a walking calendar. He'll tell you the date his son's leg was blown off (July 17, 2007). As he tells it, Naji and his cousin were walking near the family's home when some burning refuse suddenly exploded. The explosion took Naji's leg and his cousin's hand. Mahmoud will tell you that on July 23, Naji lost another two inches of his leg after an infection set in. Because of a lack of equipment in Gaza's Shifa Hospital and the fear that Naji would lose the rest of his leg, Mahmoud applied for permission to come to Israel for his son's treatment. In a relatively short time they got the go-ahead, and after passing through the Erez crossing they arrived at Barzilai for further care. That was on August 7. Two days later, they were discharged and returned to Gaza. Since May 1 of this year, Naji and his father have been back at Barzilai, waiting for Naji to be fitted with a prosthesis. This will be followed by intensive physiotherapy - then it's back home to Gaza. "The staff at Barzilai have been wonderful and very kind. Since Naji doesn't speak much Hebrew, for example, they make sure an Arabic-speaking doctor is available to answer any of his questions and explain what's going on. Fortunately, I speak Hebrew and some English, so I manage easily. I also act as an interpreter for some family members of other patients who speak only Arabic." Family members accompanying patients have the option of being put up in a local hotel at the hospital's expense, but Mahmoud prefers to remain at his son's side. "I sleep next to Naji on this chair and it's fine. I have access to a shower and we take walks around the hospital gardens. But I worry about my son constantly, and it hurts me to see him like this. We're both so anxious to get his new leg, but because of the holidays, it's taking longer than expected. It's frustrating, but I'm not complaining. It's just been a long, hard journey." Naji is adept with his crutches and although he understood little of the conversation between his father and me, he listened intently, eyes darting back and forth between the two of us. Frequently, Mahmoud would pause in order to translate for his son, who joined in every so often with some English. The boy's laughter comes easily and he is in no physical pain. He said he was "okay," but his father told me several times how sad the family were that Naji had lost his leg. However, he said, they were hopeful that the prosthesis would change his life. Naji agreed, and implied that he had accepted his fate. Although he seemed calm, he kept cracking his knuckles. I asked Mahmoud whether during their stay in Ashkelon they'd experienced a warning siren of an incoming rocket attack on the city. "No, we haven't, and I hope we never do. It's scary enough in Gaza when we hear planes flying overhead and don't know what will happen." Close to Naji's bed is a bag filled with the certificates, papers and letters that were necessary to get him back to Barzilai. The paperwork includes a letter in good English, penned by a family member, asking the Barzilai staff to get Naji the "best quality prosthesis that is available." Naji shows me the hospital's reply, which states that the prosthesis would cost NIS 50,000. "Where do you get that kind of money?" I asked, and was proudly shown another letter. This one bore the official seal of the Palestinian Authority and a handwritten promise that the PA would cover the entire cost. Not every Palestinian who needs medical care in Israel is as "lucky" as Naji. Dr. Ron Lobel, Deputy CEO and Barzilai's Assistant Medical Director, okays each admission after a request has gone through a long line of checks and balances. Lobel, an internist who also holds a Master's Degree in Public Health from Harvard, has the massive job of making sure the hospital is ready for any kind of emergency. His news beeper goes off all the time. In the middle of our conversation, he got word that several Kassam rockets had hit Sderot and that residents were on their way to the hospital for treatment, though none for serious wounds. This happened at least twice more during our interview on a morning in which nine Kassams landed in the area. Ashkelon, too, has been the target of both Kassams and the more deadly Grad-type Katyusha rockets. Most parts of the hospital are not protected. "What happens if the warning siren goes off?" I asked Lobel. "We either run under the steps or just stop a minute and wait." The road from Gaza to Barzilai is expensive as well as long, with hundreds of Palestinian patients treated here yearly, anywhere between five to 10 daily. The more well-connected one is, the easier (and less expensive) the process, but any way you look at it, the trip is often frustrating. It begins with a patient referral from a Gazan physician. This must be followed by security clearance from the Palestinians, who then send the request for treatment in Israel to Israeli security forces for their approval. Once both sides agree, the Palestinian Authority gives Israel a guarantee that it will pay for all medical services. That guarantee goes to Lobel, who ascertains whether the treatment needed is offered at Barzilai. If it is, he informs the Palestinian Security Service that the hospital has agreed to accept the patient in question. The Palestinians return the application to the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) for a final okay. That's faxed back to the Palestinians, who then hold a meeting to discuss why the Israelis have agreed to accept the patient. At this point, the PA can still decide to deny the request. If and when the final approval is given, the patient is driven by a local ambulance to the Erez crossing to enter Israel. On the other side, a Magen David Adom ambulance awaits to take him or her to the hospital - that is, if the crossing is open. Eventually, the patient and usually one accompanying family member cross into Israel. Barzilai Hospital is located only 10 kilometers from Gaza, so the ambulance arrives within minutes. The Palestinians share rooms with Israelis, and no one seems to mind. The general feeling regarding patients from Gaza is that "if he's a good guy, treat him, but if he's a bad guy, send him back." The hospital doesn't ask questions about the cause of a patient's wounds and if the services are available, no one is turned away. Most of the patients seem too involved with their own problems to pay much attention to their roommates, anyway. Barzilai Hospital opened its doors in 1961 and is currently the only hospital in the area, although ground was recently broken for a new hospital complex in Ashdod. It has strong ties in the community and provides most medical services for residents of the area. "We are truly unique in that we not only treat the sick, but offer preventive medicine programs and supervise all licensing of area businesses, including nursing homes. Plus, our high level outpatient and inpatient medical services compete handily with other medical centers in the country," Lobel says proudly. Dr. Shimon Scharf is the hospital's CEO and Medical Director. He oversees the Barzilai complex (which totals 490 beds, 250 doctors, 700 nurses, plus additional staff). He is also the director of the Health Ministry's Ashkelon District and as such, ensures that all patients' basic health needs are available at Barzilai. The hospital is a Ben-Gurion University teaching hospital and there is a nursing school on the complex. A helipad is on the grounds for medical, military and police use, and it was here that a Kassam rocket landed in late February, fortunately causing no one to be wounded or damage to property. On May 14, when a Grad missile landed in the city's Hutzot Shopping Mall, two of the most seriously wounded were airlifted from here to Tel Hashomer Hospital in Tel Aviv after receiving life-saving emergency treatment from Barzilai. Because of Ashkelon's proximity to Gaza and the increasing hostilities in the region, and with a growing population in the area, the hospital is in the midst of a fundraising campaign to erect a new building for surgeries. It will have one underground floor to be used in case of attack, and a 50-bed protected ER on the ground floor. Speaking of emergency rooms, a recent survey by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem ranked Barzilai's emergency room the most efficient in the country, an accomplishment that the hospital is justifiably proud of, especially since its ER is also the smallest in the country. The Palestinian patients go straight to a bed in the hospital, bypassing ER treatment, but you know that if they did need emergency care there, Barzilai Medical Center would provide it to the best of their medical staff's ability, no questions asked. * Two weeks after Metro interviewed Naji, he received his prosthesis and was making good progress learning how to use it. He was due to be released from Barzilai on May 22.