Page last updated at 10:49 GMT, Thursday, 15 January 2009

Eyewitness: Gaza's medical crisis

Patient arrives at Shifa hospital
Shifa hospital is the main emergency centre in Gaza City

Two medics working for programmes supported by a UK-based charity give accounts of the difficulties they face because of the conflict in the Gaza Strip. Dr Abu Shaaban is director of the Burns Unit at Gaza's Shifa hospital and Dr Miri Weingarten is director of the Israeli charity Physicians for Human Rights.

The testimonies were obtained by the charity, Christian Aid.


I have been working here for 25 years and I have never seen anything like this before. I have never seen this number of injuries or such severe injuries among civilians, children two and three years old.

We absolutely do not have the capacity to treat the numbers of patients we are receiving. That is why the minute the border opens with Egypt, we try to send the most difficult cases through for treatment and keep the less difficult cases here.

We are asking for the help of all physicians across the world - what type of weapons cause these injuries and how do you deal with them?
It is a disaster here. Entire families are suffering having had their houses collapse on top of them, some of them have been shelled, others are burned, it really is a disaster.

We have been receiving a very high number of patients with a strange burn, completely different to the burns we are used to managing, very deep burns with a very offensive, chemical odour coming from the wound site.

The wound keeps smoking for a long time. When we try to wash it with saline and water, some reaction happens, the skin bubbles and the patient complains of extreme pain.

In some cases there is then severe destruction of the tissue and we have had to amputate whole limbs.

We don't know what type of treatment should be used. The major problem is we don't know the kind of weapon that has been used.

We have a visiting doctor from Norway who thinks it might be white phosphorus but we are not sure. Even if it is, we have no experience of it and do not know how to deal with wounds it has caused.

We are asking for the help of all physicians across the world - what type of weapons cause these injuries and how do you deal with them? Is the chemical odour coming from the wound harmful to the medics?

What are the long term repercussions? We have no idea. What can we say? We try to reassure patients but we do not know.

I haven't slept a minute for the past 36 hours. I am not an administrator, I do not know how long we can continue to treat people in these conditions.

I would work forever with even the bare minimum of supplies. I will work as long as the shelling continues because I have to.


It's hard for me to tell one day from another. From the early hours until night we receive a stream of calls from injured people trapped in Gaza who we aren't able to help.

We are an Israeli organisation working to tackle medical rights violations. We haven't been allowed to enter Gaza at all so are constantly calling the Israeli army authorities to let them know about injured civilians, to try to coordinate rescues.

We have managed to get five people with head injuries out of Gaza to Israel for medical care, but that was before the ground offensive began.

Since then, we have been limited to organising for ambulances to reach injured people and trapped families - we have many appeals for help but few successes.

Miri Weingarten (Photo: Tabitha Ross)
This is by far the worst I have seen it. I could never have thought such a thing could happen so quickly, such a steep descent in such a short time
Dr Miri Weingarten

The few hospitals still functioning in the Gaza Strip are stretched to breaking point. There is no room in the intensive care units and there are not enough expert surgical teams able to treat complex injuries.

There is an overflow of wounded people, not being treated in time. Palliative cases have simply been sent home.

So for people with kidney disease who need dialysis twice a week, while most aren't able to reach a hospital for treatment, those that can are sent straight home again.

I heard from the father of one of our patients, a 10-year-old boy with cancer who had been going to Israel for chemotherapy. Of course, there is no chance of that now. His child was in pain, so he wanted to go to the nearest hospital in Gaza, which was the European hospital in Khan Younis.

The ambulance couldn't reach them because the road was blocked so this man carried his son for 8km (five miles) on his back to the hospital.

When they got there, there wasn't any medication available, there weren't even any painkillers so he just carried him back home.

The crisis is not only for hospitals or those who are injured but ordinary civilians trapped in their homes. They may have had some containers of food and water put by and so managed to survive, more or less, for the past few weeks.

But now the food has run out, the water has run out, the batteries of the mobile phones have run out and there is no way of recharging them. There is a growing sense of panic within the civilian population.

This is by far the worst I have seen it. I could never have thought such a thing could happen so quickly, such a steep descent in such a short time. We are doing our best to help the people we speak to even though we know it's really not possible.

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