Sunday, February 25, 2024

‘A moral imperative’: Team of Chicago doctors travels to Gaza for medical relief efforts

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The scene before the newcomers was jarring: The dim glow of campfires in the pitch black illuminated a sea of tarp tents and refugees huddled around the flames in the bitter cold. Shadows of rubble and jagged buildings battered by airstrikes cut through the horizon, which was thick with dust and smoke.

“It was literally like a post-apocalyptic movie,” said Palos Park-based pediatrician John Kahler. “Any picture you’ve seen of post-World War II Europe is exactly what this looked like.”

Kahler was part of a team of five doctors volunteering in the Gaza Strip through MedGlobal, an Illinois-based medical relief nonprofit. For 16 days last month, they worked in clinics and hospitals in Rafah, a southern city near the Egyptian border where Israeli forces rescued two hostages in a raid early Monday that killed more than 60 Palestinians, The Associated Press reported.

Monday’s rescue in Rafah briefly lifted the spirits of Israelis shaken by the plight of the dozens of hostages held by Hamas. The nation is still reeling from Hamas’ cross-border raid last year that started the war. The overnight bombardment brought devastation in Rafah, which is packed with some 1.4 million people, most of whom fled their homes elsewhere in Gaza to escape fighting, the AP reported.

Kahler, along with Dr. Zaher Sahloul, in 2017 founded MedGlobal, a nongovernmental organization that provides emergency relief and health programs to vulnerable communities around the world. While they’ve served missions at refugee camps in Greece and in war-torn hospitals in Ukraine, nothing prepared them for the sheer magnitude of destruction on their most recent journey to Gaza, they said.

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The death toll since the start of the war in Gaza has surpassed 27,000. Israel began to bombard the territory after Hamas’ invasion Oct. 7, when approximately 1,200 Israelis were killed and another 250 were taken hostage.

In the five months since, Israel has almost completely sealed off the Gaza Strip, home to over 2 million Palestinians. Residents are now dependent on the slow trickle of resources able to pass through. Many face extreme food insecurity, famine and lack access to potable water.

It took the team of doctors months of careful planning to make the three-hour crossing through border checkpoints on Jan. 8. Israeli airstrikes in population-dense areas – which the country blames on the positioning of Hamas’ forces – have created an immediate threat to medical personnel. Only 16 of the territory’s 36 hospitals are still “partially functioning,” according to the United Nations.

“When you go there, and you hear the bombs, and you see the smoke, and you feel the house shaking, you feel that this is the worst situation,” said Sahloul, a Burr Ridge resident. “Especially when it’s not easy to leave.”

A Palestinian woman holds her injured daughter as they ride on a donkey-drawn cart toward a clinic in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Feb. 12, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (Mohammed Abed/Getty-AFP)

Before arriving, MedGlobal shared the coordinates of its guest house with Israeli troops to prevent bombings, a process called deconfliction. Still, safety threats always loomed. That seemed to only reinforce their mission.

“It was a moral imperative for me,” Kahler said. “There’s very little question that this is the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. This is what we do.”

Kahler spent his days tending to injured children at an urgent care center in Rafah. Some had deep gashes from shrapnel. Others looked like they were asleep, knocked unconscious from explosive blasts. More than 12,300 Palestinian children and young teens have been killed in the conflict, Gaza’s Health Ministry said Monday, according to the AP.

Meanwhile, the shortage of resources was all too clear. Each day, medical personnel would scrub patients’ wounds, a deep, aggressive and painful cleansing process to remove infected or damaged tissue. Normally, the victim would be under anesthesia, but in Gaza anesthetics are scarce. The result is the piercing sounds of children’s screams echoing through health care facilities.

“You have continuous screaming, from the beginning of the day to the end of the day,” Kahler said. “We’re talking 200 to 250 different patients every day.”

The thrumming of airstrikes, which only paused for two to three hours a day, soon became like background noise for Dr. Chandra Hassan, who worked as a trauma surgeon. In the past, he’s volunteered for medical facilities in Ukraine and Syria. But Gaza was different.

Every day, Hassan would operate on people with limbs ripped off, multiple long bone fractures, multiple gunshot wounds and injuries from crushing rubble.

“It’s an active war zone, without any pause,” said Hassan, who lives in Chicago. “It’s a lot of dead on arrival. It’s really heartbreaking to see so many people die in clusters, multiple times a day.”

Sahloul, a critical care specialist, worked alongside Palestinian doctors in MedGlobal’s clinic. He currently serves as the president of the organization, and in 2020 was named as a recipient of the Gandhi Peace Award for his humanitarian work in his native Syria.

Dr. Zaher Sahloul is the president and co-founder of MedGlobal, an NGO that provides healthcare in humanitarian crises around the world. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)
Dr. Zaher Sahloul is president and co-founder of MedGlobal, an NGO that provides health care in humanitarian crises around the world. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune)

Sahloul commonly treated respiratory infections, which refugees contracted after burning kindling for warmth. Others had hepatitis A from the lack of clean water. And countless suffered emotional trauma from the horrors of the war – depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress – that manifested in headaches or abdominal pain.

“This is a scale of disaster that we have not witnessed for a long, long time,” Sahloul said.

Perhaps most striking to the doctors was the way Gazan children maintained their childlike wonder despite their surroundings. After waiting in line for hours for food and water, they would still approach the group with wide-eyed curiosity when they saw their scrubs.

“The children found us to be interesting. They always come talk to you, they give you a high-five,” Hassan said. “It’s really unbelievable, the way they carry themselves with dignity and hospitality.”

When the team left Jan. 24, it was with the grim understanding that the violence would not let up. The health care system remains teetering on the brink of collapse. A cease-fire is imperative, they said, and the only lingering hope for millions of Gazans.

“This is a full attack on a community’s integrity, their dignity, their agency,” Kahler said.

U.N. officials have stressed that Gaza’s borders need to be more open for humanitarian relief to pass through. The shortage of medical supplies and other basic resources has exacerbated already dire conditions, the doctors added.

“They need 1,000 trucks of food, fuel and water, every day,” Sahloul said.

And yet, after 16 days fraught with death, all three doctors were eager to return. MedGlobal is set to send another team to the Gaza Strip in June.

“I think the question should be, ‘Why wouldn’t you go?” Sahloul said. “It’s imperative for people able to go there to be there.”

karmanini@chicagotribune.com

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