Sunday, December 3, 2006
with dr ghazi at al-shifa hospital
I didn’t recognize Dr Ghazi at first. He was sitting behind a desk, wearing a big, black winter hat, his rather long white hair was poking out from underneath it. He wore a brown, worn suit, with a cane resting next to him against the desk he was sitting behind; I had never seen Ghazi in anything other than his typical jalabeya, a white long robe.
Walking through the hospital corridors trying to locate my friend I passed room after room of young and old, women and men, all connected to machines with tubes pumping blood in and out of them. The world I had suddenly entered into, much like a scene from 1984 or Brave New World, was surreal and unexpected. Ghazi turned, identifying me with a smile and without so much as a thought, I entered this room that would capsulate my world for the next two hours.
The room bore in its womb five patients, attached to their lifelines and for these moments united by the common denominator of this temporary habitat. I felt I was entering a private place, which to the five patients and their caretakers was unconventionally made public. The odd silence was interrupted every so often by a private comment, heard by all, or the eerie ring of the dialysis machines dominating the big hospital room. An old Egyptian film played on a TV in one corner of the room and most of the visitors watched it, but only on and off, as they tried to kill the time. Surely those scenes were a reminder of the normal life they had left behind beyond the walls of this room. The beds varied from shabby but comfortable looking recliners to a variety of old hospital beds. The man sitting closest to the door lay on a brown reclining chair and was hidden behind a kofeya, his eyes full of fear poking out from underneath it. When he was done, he would be carted out of the room by a nurse, while most of the other patients upon finishing would pack up their blankets and sheets in a plastic bag and make their way beyond the confines of this room to their private spaces.
Dr. Ghazi had been there since 3 pm and would not get hooked up to a machine until five. It was first come, first serve; no matter that he had had an appointment, or that he was almost 60 and much frailer than most other patients. The first month of his relapse he was confused, did not utter a word and wasn’t able to walk. Today, just two months later, he was in much better condition, although I saw the weakness in his eyes still.
The man closest to Ghazi was dozing, an apple core lay next to him on his bed, he had over an hour left of his three-hour cycle. A girl in the middle of the room had just finished and was having her tubes removed from her very skinny arms. An elderly lady fully veiled took the girls place. Her companion tried to make her feel comfortable, but in a society where women when indoors were usually limited to the kitchen when men were around, it seemed a far cry from reality. Abu Hashim, the only nurse in the room constantly moved back and forth trying to serve all the patients simultaneously until he disappeared all together for 20 minutes for prayers and a break.
The floors were dirty and seemed more like a poorly kept bathroom floor than conditions of a hospital. The nurse was now hooking up the newly arrived lady for her three-hour procedure. She covered her eyes with her scarf and hid her tears as the man connected the tubes just underneath her right shoulder. Minutes later she was chipper again, nursing on a bottle of fruit juice that in conversation with Ghazi’s daughter she confessed she was not supposed to be drinking with her condition.
The man near us finished his time and covered the wound with gauze and medical tape, while the nurse was busy talking to a passing by doctor. He threw away his apple core, packed up his sheets, wished his companions in the room well and left the sanctuary. Now, it was Ghazi’s turn.
His son, Ihab helped him up and over to the bed, covered with a new sheet, and then undid his shirt and covered him with a heavy blanket. Immediately Ghazi began to shiver, it was not cold in the room. For ten minutes the nurse worked to get the machine to function correctly and then reluctantly connected Ghazi to it.
For the first half hour, with the doctor having left the room, the dialysis machine beeped every 60 seconds. The room was now down to just three patients. Sulafa, Ghazi’s daughter and closest companion in life, had placed a red rose on his chest near his face where he could smell the scent of life in the midst of his pain. At times Ihab rubbed his back. I pushed a button every 60 seconds to stop the beeping, which I was told had no purpose unless the wheel pumping the blood stopped turning. I kept my eyes on the spinning wheel until I left.
Life became so fragile in those moments. Dr Ghazi was a man of incredible humility. He was an Arabic scholar who up until three months ago had taught at Al-Azhar University in Gaza City. He also knew Syriac and ancient Hebrew and often quoted from the Torah in Hebrew. After seven years of study in Alexandria he had returned to his hometown of Beit Lehya in the Gaza Strip. He had missed working in the fields and was soon seen once again leading a donkey through the fields with his hoe.
In this room life was reduced to so little. A futuristic nightmare of sorts with young and old waiting their turn to stay alive.
And yet, Ghazi and the others in the room were fortunate. Al-Shifa is the only hospital that provides kidney dialysis in Gaza, its machines run 24 hours a day and yet supplies often run low. All hospital supplies, like anything that enters or exits Gaza is under Israel’s jurisdiction, who control the economic border in and out of Gaza. So in May, when Israel blockaded Gaza, shortly after the Hamas government took over, kidney dialyses were sharply reduced and many lost their lives. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/israel/Story/0,,1771404,00.html)
When I left Al-Shifa Ghazi had almost two hours left to go, he would be back there Monday and Wednesday and then again next Saturday night. For this man that I loved, this room with all its nightmares was a vital life support.