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Suffering And Survivor's Guilt: Doctor Back From Gaza Narrates Nasser Hospital Ordeal

22.02.2024 20:12

Thaer Ahmad, a Palestinian American emergency physician, worked at Nasser Hospital for several weeks in January ‘This was, in all of my experience, nothing that I was prepared for,’ Ahmad tells Anadolu World’s silence on Nasser Hospital attack is ‘an indication of why this has gone on so long...

The Nasser Hospital in Gaza stopped functioning last week, following a siege by Israeli forces and a military raid that the UN says has turned it into "a place of death."

Thousands of displaced Palestinians who were sheltering at the hospital in Gaza's southern Khan Younis city were forced to flee under heavy Israeli bombardment.

But, according to the UN, there are still reportedly 10,000 people trapped inside, including medical staff who remain adamant on not abandoning those in their care.

Dr. Thaer Ahmad, a Palestinian-American emergency physician born and raised in Chicago, was at Nasser Hospital for several weeks in January, leaving just before Israeli forces launched their latest deadly assault on Gaza's already crippled medical infrastructure.

In an interview with Anadolu, he narrated his "overwhelming" experience in Gaza, surrounded by death, bombs and indescribable suffering.

"This was, in all of my experience, nothing that I was prepared for," he said.

"The second you walk into Nasser Hospital, it's overwhelming with how many people are there. It's not just patients who are affected by bomb strikes or by tank shells. There's also people who have been displaced from their homes, from northern Gaza from Gaza City, from Deir al-Balah, sheltering in and around the hospital. It is a lot of commotion."

Israel's deadly war on Gaza, now in its fifth month, has now killed nearly 30,000 Palestinians, with almost 70,000 more injured, and the attacks continue day in and day out.

Before the siege and raid by Israeli forces, Nasser Hospital was one of the few medical facilities that was functioning in the enclave, and Ahmad and his colleagues were dealing with hundreds of patients every single day.

"It can happen all at once. You can hear a bomb that feels like it's 50 to 100 meters away. You feel that the hospital shakes, that the window might break, and then you get a rush of people 10 minutes later who have been injured or killed by this," Ahmad said.

"There were no beds in the hospital available a lot of the time, so we were treating people on the floor … their family surrounding us. Sometimes there were not enough supplies to be able to do things that we would normally do. So, it was really a very difficult circumstance."

'A nightmare'

Ahmad went to Gaza in early January as part of an emergency medical team of the World Health Organization, along with two intensive care doctors, a general surgeon and a pediatrician.

About the current situation at Nasser Hospital, Ahmad said he has been in contact with colleagues who have stayed back, doing all they can to help their patients.

One of them is Dr. Khaled al-Serr, who has remained at the hospital despite having had "multiple opportunities to leave."

He has been giving updates on Instagram as well, which suddenly stopped at one point, sparking concerns about his well-being and speculation that he had been arrested by Israeli forces.

"For 48 hours, we did not hear an update for him. Thankfully … he did send a message and confirmed he had not been arrested, and is still with his patients," said Ahmad.

"He told us the last three days were a nightmare. It was horrible for everybody there. The Israeli military forced all the patients … more than 200 patients and 25 medical staff … into one building. They all had to take 65 bed-bound people … from one building to another building using one elevator. So, it was really a miserable process."

There was also a missile strike one one of the wards that "killed somebody instantly," said Ahmad.

"He talked about how the electricity had been cut off and two ICU patients had automatically died because they were on a breathing machine. They suffocated to death," he said.

"One of the operating room nurses was walking and was shot by a sniper, and became a patient. The nurse who was supposed to be treating the patients became a patient."

This Israeli attack on yet another hospital in Gaza is "really embarrassing for the entire world," he said.

They have watched on and allowed "another hospital in Gaza to be made dysfunctional … converted into a war zone," he stressed.

"To me, it's a failure of the international community, and definitely in the United States … that we can't even make a statement to say, 'Please protect hospitals, don't kill doctors or nurses, keep them safe.' We can't even get that out there," he said.

"I think that's an indication of why this has gone on so long, and why the people in Gaza are suffering, and they seem to be suffering alone."

'Survivor's guilt'

About his own experiences, Ahmad spoke about how the resilience of the doctors and people in Gaza has left a lasting impact on his mind.

"I think if it wasn't for the Palestinian doctors who were there, the Gaza doctors, I think it would have been much harder," he said.

"I think they were very helpful in teaching us how to respond to the situation, how to continue to try to be productive and not get caught in the tragedy and the depression that you will feel once you see kids being killed, families being ripped apart and people being injured."

These physicians and nurses had all lost something and someone themselves, but they "found a way to take care of their patients, to advocate for their patients," he said.

"When you see something like that, it inspires you, and it makes you want to be better. I think, for me, that's kind of the magic of the people of Gaza," said Ahmad.

"When you're around them, you want them to enjoy life and you want to work with them, and you want to help them, and I think that's probably why most people are able to do what they do, even though it was really hard."

He recalled a particular incident when a nurse knocked on his door at the hospital and invited him for "a family dinner."

"They bring you to a room and all they have is just bread and beans, and you know, some dates. But they create this environment that gives you that energy, they show you how to be resilient, and how to persevere," he said.

Now that he is back safe and sound in the US, the emergency physician is dealing with a case of "survivor's guilt."

"I feel terrible. I feel guilty. I wish I never left. I wish I was still with them, even though Nasser Hospital was raided and attacked and now it's not functioning anymore," he said.

"There's something called survivor's guilt, obviously, when you are able to leave so easily from a place, and you know that the people there don't have the same options."

For Ahmad, one thing that he vows to do is to "elevate their stories and humanize them."

"In the West, especially in Western media, for so long, they've been dehumanized. They've been kind of made to be less than human," he said.

"They stay there and they saved hundreds of lives. There are hundreds of people that are still alive because of these people. They have done an incredible and miraculous job. They're absolute heroes.

"I hope that one day … we can give them the appreciation that they deserve and the respect that they deserve, and understand their names as the heroes that they are." ​​​​​​​ -

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