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Palestinian medics carry a wounded woman to an emergency room at Shifa hospital in Gaza City, Sunday, July 20, 2014. In the heart of Gaza City, as its citizen again find themselves under fire from Israeli airstrikes and artillery, the wounded and their wailing families stream into Shifa Hospital without end. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Amid bloodshed, frenetic Gaza hospital improvises
First Published Jul 20 2014 10:44 am • Last Updated Jul 20 2014 06:02 pm

Gaza City, Gaza Strip • In the heart of Gaza City, as its citizens again find themselves under fire from Israeli airstrikes and artillery, the wounded and their wailing families stream into Shifa Hospital without end.

Shifa, Gaza’s largest hospital, only has an 11-bed emergency room and six operating theaters. Yet amid power cuts and among the screams of the bereaved, doctors at the 600-bed facility have become masters of improvisation, forced by the seemingly unending conflict engulfing the coastal strip to care for the wounded.

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"If we are in the middle of an operation (and) lights go out, what do the Palestinians do?" said Mads Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor who has volunteered at Shifa on and off for 17 years. "They pick up their phones, and they use the light from the screen to illuminate the operation field."

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The wounded from Israeli strikes usually arrive in waves. More than 3,000 Palestinians already have been wounded in the past two weeks of fighting, health officials say. Many, including the most serious cases, end up at Shifa.

A new wave of casualties arrives after daybreak Sunday, following a night of heavy Israeli tank fire on Gaza City’s Shijaiyah neighborhood. Hospital guards shout at drivers to move to make room for the next vehicles, pushing back journalists and onlookers.

Some of the wounded get treated in a hallway near the emergency room. A medic bandages the foot of an emergency worker writhing in pain on a mattress on the floor. A little boy with shrapnel wounds arrives and the emergency worker slides off the mattress to the hard floor for the child.

Nearby, a woman cries hysterically. A man holds up a dead child, wailing. Another carries a teenage girl whose right arm is bloodied and broken.

Patients on gurneys line up outside the X-ray room. Relatives of the wounded, one in a blood-soaked white undershirt, argue over who will be examined first.

Dr. Jihad Juwaidi says his six operating rooms filled up quickly and that even the seriously wounded have to wait for surgery, including a little girl with a fractured skull.


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Choosing who gets treated first is gut-wrenching, says Dr. Allam Nayef, who works in one of Shifa’s intensive care units.

"Sometimes you have to select which one of them has the best chance to survive," Nayef says. "Easily in this rush, you can take a bad decision, that the one (patient) you thought will wait for you ... you won’t find him when you finish your surgery."

By 2 a.m. Saturday, only two of the four beds in his ICU are occupied.

One patient is a 4-year-old boy hit by a car when Gaza residents rushed into the streets to restock during a humanitarian cease-fire last week. The other, a 22-year-old, suffered serious head injuries in an Israeli strike — a direct hit on a house that killed 18 members of his extended family. The target, Gaza’s police chief, survived.

At about 3 a.m., a new patient with a serious brain injury from shrapnel is wheeled in. Neurosurgeons had patched him up downstairs, but his prognosis is bad. All that’s left for Nayef is to try to stabilize him.

Nayef and his colleagues work 24-hour shifts. A storage area crammed with boxes and an old vinyl-covered sofa doubles as a lounge where the doctors rest until the next wave.

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Even in peak hours, there is some order in Shifa’s seeming chaos.

This is the third round of major hostilities between Israel and the Islamic militant Hamas in just over five years. Everyone at Shifa — doctors, nurses and bearded Hamas policemen in blue camouflage uniforms — knows their part during a crisis.

Like in the last bout of fighting in 2012, TV crews have set up camp in the yard outside the main entrance. Shifa is seen as relatively safe, an unlikely target of Israeli airstrikes, but some correspondents still wear body armor for on-camera reports.

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