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A visiting ICU doctor describes what she saw in Gaza's hospitals


Hospitals have become a flashpoint in the war in Gaza. They lack basic medical supplies, and a number of hospital buildings have been destroyed by Israeli attacks. The Israeli military says Hamas operates in some of these hospitals. But doctors, including Western volunteers, say the army's actions are a violation of human rights laws. Dr. Nahreen Ahmed is a critical care doctor based in Philadelphia. She is also a medical director with the NGO MedGlobal and has just spent two weeks in Gaza. We've reached her in Turkey. Thanks so much for being with us.

NAHREEN AHMED: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What did you see? What struck you the most?

AHMED: So this is my second visit to Gaza to work there since the war had started. And I've now been to several hospitals across the entire Gaza Strip. And the situation in every hospital that I've seen, there are many common themes. One of them is the overwhelming volume of patients and the overwhelming volume of IDPs, or internally displaced persons, that are living in hospitals. Then there's the overwhelming amount of burnt-out health care workers. And then lastly, there is the lack of supplies in every hospital. Every single health care worker we speak to will tell us we don't have enough of nearly anything.

SIMON: What kind of injuries, wounds and suffering did you see?

AHMED: So the wounds that we see are anywhere from, you know, injuries from being stuck under rubble, from shrapnel, quadcopter bullets that are tearing through people's bodies. And these are mostly children, by the way. And these wounds get infected almost immediately, compounded on top of the fact that the proper antibiotics aren't available. So we're seeing injuries that are not healing well, that don't have the proper resources to get fixed. And these injuries are just - they're horrific. They span the entire length of a body, and it's usually not just one location.

SIMON: And what kind of supplies might help?

AHMED: Everything - from pain medications - I mean, many of these surgical procedures that are being done are being done with inadequate anesthesia. Antibiotics is another really big thing. People are dying of wound infections that they shouldn't be dying of - things like dialysis and dialysis machines. You know, it's not just death from traumatic wound injuries. Now it's death - and the slow death - of people with chronic medical illnesses. Now we're seeing death from malnutrition. So pretty much everything is needed.

SIMON: Let me draw you out a bit about malnutrition because I understand that was the concentration on this last visit. What can you do when people come into a hospital and they don't have any food?

AHMED: This is such a massive problem. And the first time I went, in January, patients that I would see in the clinic would have symptoms of low blood sugar because they didn't have access to food. Children were showing signs of malnutrition. Those percentages and rates of malnutrition because of inadequate access to food has nearly doubled each month over the last three months. And that is a devastating statistic to see because this means that famine is essentially imminent, if not present already, in Gaza.

And so the answer to what can we do? - right now, what's happening is MedGlobal has one nutrition stabilization center in the south of Gaza, and imminently opening another one in the north of Gaza. And these stabilization centers provide treatment for patients, mostly children under the age of 5, as they're the most vulnerable. We're providing therapeutic feedings. But again, this problem cannot stop unless food is available consistently.

SIMON: How are staff bearing up?

AHMED: The health care workers are relied upon. People come to them. They are relied upon to provide care, to provide treatment. They themselves are all IDPs, internally displaced persons, and they're living in tents outside of the hospital, or they're living in the hospital that they're working in. So as you can imagine, they're not doing well.

SIMON: Just Monday of this week, there was a raid on the al-Shifa hospital, where reportedly 20 people were killed. The Israeli military contends that there were Hamas fighters working in the hospital. Did you see any evidence, wherever you were, that Hamas is using hospitals to operate?

AHMED: All I can speak about is what I witnessed, and what I witnessed was hospitals that were in complete and utter devastation with lack of supplies, lack of resources, lack of health care workers able to staff the number of patients. And that was the overwhelming imagery that we saw on a daily basis. And that was really what - you know, that's the truth.

SIMON: Some of your medical colleagues were in Washington, D.C., to meet with U.S. lawmakers this week to talk about what they saw in Gaza. What what message would you have for those lawmakers?

AHMED: You know, the message from our side is always going to be that there needs to be increased pressure on all parties involved in the cessation of all hostilities. I mean, this is the only way to get aid. And no matter how much we talk about the pain and suffering of the people of Gaza, that doesn't seem to have made a major dent in what's happening.

And so what we really need to push for is a complete cessation of all hostilities to end the suffering, and second of all, to be able to get aid in because the devastation that's happening is absolutely outrageous and should not ever have gone on this long.

SIMON: Dr. Nahreen Ahmed is a critical care doctor from Philadelphia, just out of Gaza. Thank you very much for being with us.

AHMED: Thanks, Scott. Thank you for having me.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.