Monday, November 19th, 2012, was the fifth day of the war. The number of casualties took a sharp increase in the past 24 hours, reaching more than 90 martyrs and 700 injuries, nearly doubling in 24 hours. It was time for me to join the medical staff at Shifa hospital. I made a few calls and the decision was taken: Two of my colleagues and I are going there.
Apart from few pedestrians, unable to find a taxi, the streets were empty. Most of those in the street were heading to the same place, Shifa.
During my first hour at the hospital several delegations were arriving, visiting the hospital and conveying the support of their nations. This was a huge change from the previous war in 2008, in which Gaza was left alone to face its destiny. One of the delegations constituted of over than a hundred Egyptians; they were scholars, politicians, activists and journalists. In the eyes of the visitors, there was neither fear nor pity, instead a feeling of honor and gratitude for the opportunity to visit Gaza. “To the free world, Gaza has become a symbol of resistance.”, one of them said to me. “We are visiting to get a glimpse at your glory being written.”, he continued.
As the delegations were concluding their speeches and preparing to leave, we were preparing for a new wave of bombardment as the unofficial and incomplete halt of airstrikes ended with their departure. Suddenly the sirens went on, several ambulances rushed out one after another. They received information that drones had targeted a building and there were many casualties at the scene. The target was ‘Al-Shorooq Tower’, which is located at the heart of Gaza city and on one of Gaza’s main streets. It includes several media quarters in addition to residential apartments.
Despite my medical training, I was worried about what I was about to witness; this was my first hospital duty in time of war. War circumstances are nothing similar to those of regular medical practice. I didn’t know what to expect.
Minutes later, the paramedics were rushing in with the first casualty. It was a man who sustained large shrapnel, which penetrated his back and settled within the abdomen. He was taken to the intensive care unit and a team started resuscitating him. His injuries were critical. Seconds later, another casualty was rushed into the ICU, a little girl under the age of eight whose face was covered with blood and she was unconscious. Her injuries were directly to the head and she was in a critical condition, too. A second team started working on her immediately. They were racing with time to stop the bleeding as fast as possible to save her life, and fast enough to get ready to handle the other casualties coming on the way. In the corner was a man in a sweater. His face was expressionless, but his feet could barely support him. He was the girl’s father.
Suddenly there was noise coming from outside. I was heading towards the door of the ICU room when the door suddenly opened wide and a stretcher was pushed in. A couple of seconds had to pass before I could realize that what looked like a black wooden sculpture was in fact the charred body of a martyr. It was my first time to see such sights. I could have collapsed like what two of journalists did immediately on the spot, but I was holding on. I was inspecting the body as it was being taken to the morgue when the doctor besides me advised me not to look, “You’d better save your strength for later”, he said. I believe he was right.
It is noteworthy that scenes of charred corpses and major deep burns were not uncommon in this war. That raised serious debate among the medical society about the possibility of white phosphorus or other chemicals being used. Until Gaza gets advanced techniques to investigate this matter, these debates will remain unsettled; and these weapons, whatever they were, are likely to be used again.
Back to the emergency room, dressings were in shortage and some types of sutures were missing. But there were few children who needed stitches which had to be done anyway. The children’s parents used several approaches to keep them calm during the process, the youngest ones received money while the older ones were urged to be strong just like the resistance men. Neither method was perfect but the second gained more success. In such an atmosphere of resistance, even children participated in their own way. Among all that was that doctor who hid a box of chocolate bars. And whenever wounded children arrived, she would give them a bar or two. It did not cheer up the crying children a lot, but certainly soothed the worried parent! It is such simple gestures like this that actually make big differences.
Time quickly passed by. It was getting dark and taxis were starting to disappear from the streets. My two friends and I evaluated the situation fast and decided that we would go home for the night. On the way home, the streets were completely deserted except from ambulances on the major crossings. The only sounds were those of drones and the occasional explosions.
My short experience ended there, but up to date I keep thinking about the lessons I learned from it. I keep thinking about how to many people, war casualties are nothing more than numbers in a fleeting tweet or a momentary breaking news. About the families to whom loss of a member meant loss of the life as they knew it. About the children who are never going to see their fathers, the wives who are going to raise their children alone and the mothers who never thought their sons will leave this world before them. Yes, War is ugly, but its ugliness also drives out the best in people; the paramedics spending the night out in the open, the doctor with the chocolate box, the taxi driver who refused to take the fees, the minimarket owner who opened his shop despite the risk. These are all examples of how everyone can make humble but significant contributions to their society in ways they did not think were important. With these lessons and many others, my experience which lasted for a little over five hours affected me in many ways that will last forever.
A version of this article was published in The Lancet Student magazine on the 8th January 2013