Unable to remain on the sidelines as the humanitarian crisis in Palestine worsens, a medical team from Qatar has been traveling to the West Bank to treat patients.
There, they have extended their services to hundreds of people in need of urgent care. Many had been unable to receive the proper treatment due to severe shortages of both medical equipment and specialists.
Additionally, some have been unable to travel for care due to strict Israeli military blockades.
The Qatar doctors, nurses and medics all work for Sidra Medical and Research Center, and recently sat down with Doha News to share the details of a particularly fraught trip.
In September 2015, the team went to work at the Rafidia Surgical Hospital in Nablus.
The city, which is about 50km north of Jerusalem, is home to three refugee camps.
It has been struggling in recent years with high unemployment, an inadequate water supply and crumbling schools and hospitals, according to rights groups.
So when the Sidra team arrived, patients were desperate for their help, they recalled. Dr. Jason Howard, Sidra’s Chief of Orthopedic Surgery, said:
“The police had to come in and take control, not because the people were unruly, but because they were so desperate to receive help and care, especially (those who traveled) from far other cities like Gaza, just to get treated.”
During this mission, the team carried out several complex surgeries pro bono, and also helped to train the clinic’s permanent medical staff in those procedures.
Howard told Doha News that there were only two consultants working in the hospital, and only one pediatric orthopedic surgeon available in the entire territory.
He recalled back in 2014 finding an anesthesiologist only at the very last minute. “It really was the barakah (blessing) factor as they say,” he said.
The mission was organized and funded by a US-based NGO, but the team used their own annual leave to carry out the work.
‘It’s the only way I can help’
While Howard has been making annual trips to Nablus and Ramallah since 2014, this was Tracy Glenn’s second visit to the territory.
The Clinical Nurse Leader cried as she recounted her week-long experience at the hospital, saying that for many patients, treatment was a matter of life and death.
“When you think about how much money this would normally cost them (to have the surgery), and how desperately they need it, and how they’re thankful that we’re just there,” she said.
Another Sidra employee, Chief of Fetal Surgery Dr. Abdalla Zarroug, began volunteering in Palestine back in 2008.
“It was at that time that the Gaza War had begun, and I was chitchatting with a (doctor) friend of mine about how bad things are happening in this world, and that someone should do something about it,” he recalled.
“I’m not a politician to interfere, or a businessman able to donate money and rebuild. I’m only a physician and it’s the only way I can help.”
Hundreds of surgeries
The Sidra’s team’s operations included laparoscopic (keyhole) and spinal surgeries.
An “allied health team” that includes Occupational Therapist Scott Burns helped patients with their post-operative recovery, pain management and daily activities.
Their duties included assisting with rehabilitation, helping patients use the toilet, dressing wounds, feeding and stretching.
Without this kind of care, recovery can be extremely traumatizing for the patients, Burns told Doha News.
Howard said that as well as lacking well-trained staff, the hospital also did not have the money to buy the equipment needed for surgery.
He told Doha News that spinal implants usually cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and are unavailable across most of Palestine.
Although his team traveled with all of the equipment they needed, the experience made him grateful to never have to worry about working without the basic tools of his trade:
“It is unfortunate how sometimes as doctors, we take for granted the little things that are not there – the medical plates, screws, pins, and spinal implants,” he said.
The team’s trip was organized by the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF), a 25-year-old non-partisan organization that sends teams of volunteer surgeons and physicians on missions to the territory.
The NGO also send missions to help Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan.
Before sending a team of volunteers to an area, the organization first identifies patients who are in critical need of medical support.
If there is a specific procedure required, PCRF will contact doctors who could fulfill a specific purpose.
When these individuals have confirmed, the charity starts arranging for permissions from the Ministry of Health in Palestine.
Once this is finalized, arrangements for the visas, hotel accommodation, plane tickets and transportation are then carried out.
Getting to Nablus is a difficult process, even for an international team working with a US NGO.
Most commonly, doctors will fly into Jordan and cross the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge to Tel Aviv.
Because Israel controls the borders, doctors can’t get to Palestinian territories without that government’s approval.
The Sidra team travelled to Nablus separately. Glenn, who is Canadian, flew on her own to the city of Amman.
She then took a taxi to reach Nablus, after being detained at the King Hussein bridge for over four hours.
Despite the trouble, Howard said Western doctors have a much easier time passing through the border.
“As a Canadian, I can breeze my way through check points, but it is much more difficult for doctors who come from the Middle East for example, and of course (for) the patients who travel long hours just to see us,” he said.
The Sidra team’s visit was not just about performing surgeries.
The mission also entailed teaching Palestinian doctors how to perform new operations independently, once the volunteer team had gone home.
“Palestine is the biggest jail in the world; the doctors there cannot go to conferences, cannot meet other surgeons or travel, and can only resort to Youtube to know how to do the surgeries,” Zarroug said.
And after leaving the territory, PCRF doctors regularly keep in touch with staff on the ground to follow up on patients.
They often view pictures of the patients’ wounds and receive updates on their recovery and well-being.
The feedback usually received from the patients and medical team in Palestine often reflects how thrilled they are with the results.
“It is all worth it when we see how happy they are,” Sidra Neurodiagnostic Manager Dr. Tara Stewart told Doha News.
For many on the Sidra team, the most memorable part of their trip involved the hospitality and generosity of the Palestinian people.
According to Burns, taxi drivers, kunafa makers and others refused to charge him and his colleagues for their services, as a token of appreciation for the work they did at the hospital.
Zarroug meanwhile paid tribute to Palestinians’ “unique dignity:”
“Palestinians have a true, unique dignity you can’t find anywhere in the world, and you’d be surprised to see how they went through war, and are still happy, hard working people who do not beg.”
Zarroug and Howard volunteer in the country on average twice a year, and their next trip is scheduled in January 2017.
“They feel like Arabs have forgotten about them, but they tell us that (us doctors) haven’t, and it’s what keeps them connected to the world,” Zarroug added.