How to change the world

For the Syrian patients and the Israeli physicians treating them, the interactions are touching lives and changing perspectives.

Syrian girl in Israeli hospital 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Syrian girl in Israeli hospital 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Surrounded by physicians and nurses of Ziv Medical Center in Safed, a 15-yearold Syrian patient lifted herself from a chair and, grasping a walker, took her first wobbly steps on her new, donated prosthetic leg. The entire staff accompanied the girl and her mother as she tested her new leg, breaking out in applause when she was able to make it down the hallway and back to her room.
The staff of Ziv’s Orthopedic Department considers her steps to be a medical miracle. The girl was wounded in Syria when a bomb landed on her home. She was admitted to a local Syrian hospital before being moved to a field hospital along the Israeli-Syrian border.
The Israeli military transferred her to Ziv with one leg presumably amputated in Syria, and her physicians fought hard to save her other leg through a complex limb salvage procedure. According to her doctors, the expenses for her new prosthetic leg were covered by a donation from a local Arab man in one of the nearby villages.
“The girl told me that she couldn’t imagine herself walking without a leg,” said a social worker at the medical center who declined to give his name. “When she found out that someone donated a prosthetic leg, it was the happiest day for her.”
Her story is one of nearly 150 seen by the physicians and nurses of three hospitals in northern Israel. To date, Ziv has admitted approximately 70 Syrian patients. In Nahariya, Western Galilee Hospital has also treated approximately 66 patients.
An additional 11 patients have been treated at Poriya Hospital near Tiberias.
According to UN estimates, the two-and-a-half year conflict in Syria has already taken over 100,000 lives and displaced millions of people.
Western Galilee Hospital director-general Dr.
Masad Barhoum described Israeli efforts to help wounded Syrians in a conflict of such magnitude as “a drop in the ocean.”
For the Syrian patients and the physicians treating them, these interactions are touching lives and changing perspectives. This experience may not be enough to change relations between two countries, but to those involved, it is enough to show that people want the same things and have the same dreams no matter where they are from.
AT WESTERN Galilee Hospital, Syrian patients can arrive at any time on any day of the week.
According to international liaison Sara Paperin, the hospital receives a phone call from the Israeli military announcing they are transporting a certain number of Syrian patients. The hospital isn’t told how many are men, women or children, and it can take anywhere between 20 minutes and a few hours for the patients to arrive in an ambulance.
“It’s never really certain,” Paperin explained.
“All we get is a number, and we get very little information aside from that.”
After the hospital receives the phone call, the staff begins to prep the emergency room, anticipating severe trauma injuries. Western Galilee hosts the only neurosurgery department in the Galilee and Golan, and many of the Syrians brought to the hospital arrive unconscious with severe head trauma injuries.
The process is similar at Ziv, where many of the Syrian patients arrive with extensive limb injuries and internal organ damage. It is the closest hospital to the Syrian border, and is sometimes the first step for injured Syrians destined for Western Galilee’s neurosurgery department.
“We’re not even seeing all the Syrians being treated; we’re just seeing the worst cases,” said Ziv deputy director Dr. Calin Shapira.
“The military isn’t bringing us the wounded who can be treated at the field hospital.”
Staff at Western Galilee and Ziv both cited cases where a patient arrived with a medical report hastily scribbled on a piece of paper by a physician he or she had seen in Syria; however, this isn’t typical of the cases these hospitals receive. Usually, the medical staff needs to play detective to figure out where the patient is wounded and the best options for treatment.
“Sometimes we see signs that a patient has been operated on, but we don’t know when or exactly how they were treated,” Shapira explained. “We don’t know anything about things like their vaccination history, so we give them basic vaccines like a tetanus shot.”
At Ziv, Arabic-speaking social workers meet with the conscious patients immediately after they enter the emergency room. They try to calm nervous and scared patients, telling them about the doctors and explaining the treatment that doctors recommend.
“I worked with one little boy in the trauma room who had originally thought he was in Lebanon, and he panicked when he found out he was in Israel,” a social worker said. “When I spoke to him in Arabic and when he saw what the doctors were going to do for him, he was able to relax and be in control.”
After their initial surgical procedures, patients are placed throughout the hospital depending on their injuries. Most patients sustain multiple injuries, and there is usually cross-departmental cooperation in order to provide treatment and care for a patient.
HOSPITAL STAFF closely guards the identity of the patients, and soldiers sit outside rooms of adults to protect them from anyone who might want to harm the patients for seeking treatment in an Israeli hospital, or compromise their anonymity. In one room at Ziv, a soldier sitting by a corner window watches over four Syrian men lying in hospital beds across the room.
Syrian patients brought to the hospital almost always arrive without a family member or any personal belongings. They require the very basics such as underwear and toothbrushes. Staff members will bring clothing, toiletries, books, and games and toys for the children. The hospitals also receive donations from local people in nearby communities.
“The Syrian patients are alone and they have no one except for us, so we do everything for them,” said Dr. Shokrey Kassis, a plastic surgeon at Ziv. “They’re coming here like refugees, and it really is a double trauma for these patients.”
Patients arriving at the hospitals are in critical condition often requiring multiple complex procedures. At Ziv’s Orthopedics Department, one room contains three Syrian patients undergoing extensive medical care to repair severe leg trauma. Their treatment requires numerous surgical procedures as well as months of rehabilitation.
These female patients include the 15-year-old girl who received a prosthetic leg, as well as a mother and her eight-yearold daughter.
According to Orthopedics Department head Dr. Alexander Lerner, they have all undergone the same procedure that temporarily shortens their limbs to repair damaged tissue and bone to avoid amputation. The procedure is the same one used for trauma injuries of Israeli soldiers, and the patients have external metal braces on their legs identical to one on a Golani soldier in the same ward.
“Sometimes, we start this long procedure to save the leg, and we worry the results won’t be good or that maybe it’s impossible,” Lerner said. “Watching that young girl walk on her new prosthetic – it’s really a gift to our team and other patients in the ward. It gives us the motivation to keep going.”
The Syrian patients stay at the hospital until their condition is stabilized. Sometimes, physicians are able to extend the hospitalization of a patient for basic rehabilitation and to complete most of the necessary procedures. Unlike with other patients, physicians aren’t able to see Syrian patients to follow up and continue treatment once they’re discharged, and there are still questions about what post-operation care is available once patients leave the hospital.
“I usually give patients my recommendation for the next stage, like when they can remove the external stabilizer on their leg,” Lerner said. “But once their condition is stable and we know there isn’t an infection, they’re released.”
Officials at Ziv were able to confirm that the Israeli military reassured the hospital director that patients requiring follow-up care and rehabilitation would receive it after being discharged, but no one is sure whether this care is administered by an organization like the Red Cross, the Israeli military or physicians in Syria.
“We don’t know where they’re going to, but we give them a physician’s letter without any signatures so that they can receive care without putting their lives in danger,” Shapira explained. “We don’t need to know where they’re going afterward. We take care of them here and now, not before and not after.”
ALTHOUGH BARHOUM is the director of Western Galilee Hospital, he takes over emergency room operations whenever the military drops off new Syrian patients. Barhoum also makes it a point to know the name and story of every Syrian child treated in his hospital, and when prompted, can discuss the struggles of a specific child in depth.
In Barhoum’s opinion, there are two aspects influencing Israeli medical staff while treating Syrians. There is a professional aspect, in which nurses and physicians do the job they were trained to do: help.
There is also a moral aspect, in which the hospital staff has an obligation as human beings to provide humanitarian assistance to ease suffering. Barhoum believes this aspect most impacts his staff at Western Galilee.
“I think this has influenced the staff deep in their hearts,” Barhoum explained.
“I saw a 3-year-old Syrian girl crying days and nights for her mother, and I saw my staff doing everything they could to comfort her.”
Barhoum’s point is best exemplified by the story of a 23-year-old Syrian man treated in Western Galilee’s Ear, Nose and Throat Department.
Based on the story the man told his physicians, he was injured by an explosion that caused a piece of shrapnel to go through his cheek. The piece of metal cut through his jaw on the other side and entered his chest.
His physicians at the hospital figured he had been treated by an organization in Syria, because he arrived at the hospital with a tracheostomy in an attempt to save an airway for breathing. Doctors in Syria and in the Israeli field hospital hadn’t been able to do any more to help the man because he was bleeding from a wound in the neck.
According to the head of the Ear, Nose and Throat Department, Dr. Eyal Selah, the reparation process was extensive and required multiple surgeries. To tackle an infection in the neck wound, the man received doses of powerful antibiotics. Dental surgeons were able to reconstruct his jaw, and his neck was eventually reconstructed to repair the wound.
This man touched Selah’s life and the lives of his staff. Due to the hole in his neck, the man hadn’t been able to eat for months and had to be nursed by medical staff at the hospital. The staff developed a bond with the man over the months, bringing him clothing, books and eventually small snacks – anything to make him feel more comfortable.
“I saw the nurses who were helping this poor kid, and I saw the compassion they had in their eyes,” Selah said. “Everyday someone gave him a new present so he would feel good and welcome.”
Selah explained that the man had been suspicious and confused during his first few days at Western Galilee. All he knew about Israel revolved around the Arab-Israeli conflict, and he had no idea that Arabs and Jews had formed ties of cooperation and coexistence within Israel.
“He saw that my staff included Muslims, Christians and Jews working together and treating everyone the same,” Selah said. “He couldn’t figure out what was going on, but for us it’s a way of life.”
The man opened up to the hospital staff, telling them stories about his life and his family in Syria. When he was discharged from the hospital, he cried as he said goodbye to Dr. Selah and his staff, explaining that his time in Israel had changed his perspective on the country and the conflict.
“He promised he would find a way to come back and see me one day,” Selah said. “He said he hoped there could be peace one day between our countries, and that he could someday bring his family to meet me.”
The Syrian man left the hospital staff a letter written in Arabic, which now hangs on a wall in the department as a reminder of how he was able to touch their lives.
“I think saving a life is a privilege, and I was happy to do that,” Selah said. “If there are more Syrian patients coming in that need my help, I will gladly treat them with all my heart.”
Other Syrian patients have expressed the same gratitude, including the mother with her eight-year-old daughter in Ziv’s Orthopedics Department. Both the mother and daughter were wounded when after a rocket landed on their home and caused the roof to collapse over them. The mother was able to crawl out, and she and her daughter were transferred to a local Syrian hospital before eventually ending up in Safed.
In Ziv, she lies in a hospital bed adjacent to her small daughter.
She has large, bright eyes, and her face is framed by a headscarf wrapped around her hair. In Syria, she has eight other children that she isn’t able to get any news about, and she worries about their safety constantly.
“I am so grateful, and I want to thank everyone for taking care of my daughter and me,” she said. “I want to be home and have peace, but as much as I could speak about it, I’m afraid no one can hear it.
“I’m happy to receive treatment here, because I feel secure. I want there to someday be a bridge between Syria and Israel. I want to have peace.”
Kassis has connected with this woman and her daughter, and he brings the little girl things such as her favorite food – bananas. He believes that personal interaction among individuals reveals how others react.
“You see that there isn’t conflict between people, and that people are simple,” Shokrey said. “If it depended on the people, there would have been peace years ago.”
Selah at Western Galilee expressed the same sentiment, noting that personal interaction is important because “the monster isn’t what you pictured it to be.”
“I think if you go down to the people and you see what they want, they just want to live their lives, raise their kids, have a normal life,” Selah said. “God is in the small details, not the big ones. Go down to the small details, and that’s how you change the world.”