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Saving Gazans under fire: MEMO in Conversation with Dr Amgad Elsherif

Dr Amgad Elsherif left Canada to volunteer as a surgeon in Gaza, but none of the social media posts he’d seen could have prepared him for what was happening on the ground. ‘It’s 10 to 20 times worse’ than what you see online, he tells Anjuman Rahman.

February 28, 2024 at 4:00 pm



Ground and air assaults by the Israeli forces against hospitals in Gaza, causing damage deemed “beyond words” by the World Health Organisation (WHO), have placed immense pressure on doctors who are working under constant threat with limited resources.

As a result, the second-largest hospital in Gaza is now unable to operate.

The Ministry of Health in the besieged enclave, along with the WHO, announced last week that Nasser Hospital in southern Gaza’s Khan Yunis had ceased functioning due to a weeks-long siege exacerbated by intensified attacks and deadly raids.

“The bombings are fired very close to the hospital from just 100 or 50 metres from the hospital and you hear it constantly as it starts at 5pm in the evening till 7:30 in the morning. All day the Israeli tanks throw bombs all around,” says Dr Amgad Elsherif, a thoracic Surgeon in Toronto, Canada.

Dr Elsherif accompanied a team of physicians from Canada and the United States heading to Gaza through Egypt as part of non-profit organisation Rahma Worldwide’s aid efforts in Gaza. The team provided medical assistance at the Nasser and European Hospitals.

Reflecting on the decision to go, he explains: “As physicians, we are trained that our passion is to save lives and make a difference. Having been following the news for weeks, we’ve been trying to find any way possible in this humanitarian crisis.”

The approval from WHO and the UN marked a turning point, allowing Dr Elsherif and his team to enter Gaza and witness the dire conditions firsthand.

“The approval was very rewarding,” he says. “Of course, the discussion with the family was a bit difficult because we all understood the risks and threats since the war was still active but we were also hoping there’d be a ceasefire and the bombing would stop soon. We just knew it’d be a good chance for us to make a little difference and give the healthcare workers some assistance.”

As he and his colleagues set foot in the besieged war-ravaged Palestinian enclave, they encountered exhausted healthcare workers who had been tirelessly operating for 83 days without pay. The situation was far worse than what had been portrayed in the media, he explains.

READ: Russia Foreign Minister says scale of tragedy in Gaza ‘deliberately’ downplayed

“Whatever comes on the news and whatever you see on social media is 10-20 per cent of reality. The reality is much worse. I’ve seen things that I couldn’t even imagine,” said Dr Elsherif.

“Everytime I look at the pictures I took I can’t imagine that this is real in the 21st century, it is inhumane.”

As soon as you walk out of the border, you see people in tents and with no food, as soon as a car that crosses, a truck that has some water or food, the kids run to it and the people run to grab a bottle of water or grab something they can eat.

The endless waves of bombing have destroyed Gaza’s infrastructure, razing or shuttering the factories producing and processing food. Some residents have resorted to grinding animal feed into flour to survive, but even stocks of those grains are now dwindling.

Amid the destruction, the stench of decomposing bodies and body fluids of both humans and animals, pollutes the air, heightening the risk of disease. Highlighting the challenging medical scenarios, Elsherif describes the complexity of injuries as “unimaginable.”

The lack of resources, combined with the continuous air strikes and bombings make every medical decision a critical one. They team faced heart-wrenching moments of having to prioritise patients due to limited resources.

“The injuries were stuff that, as physicians and surgeons, we had never seen before, keeping in mind, most of our patients were children,” he says.

Since the injuries are highly complicated, affecting not just a singular body part, Elsherif explains that addressing a single patient’s needs demands the expertise of a chest surgeon, a brain surgeon, a plastic surgeon, a bone surgeon, and a general surgeon, underscoring the overwhelming challenges faced by doctors and healthcare professionals in Gaza.

One particularly distressing incident involved the targeted air strike that claimed the life of the hospital director’s brother, who was also a physician, while he was running to aid victims of an Israeli army bombing outside the hospital.

“The bombing from the Israeli military tanks was very, very close to the Nasser Hospital, maybe just 50 metres away, and he went down to help the people but an air strike came and immediately killed him along with all the people he tried to save,” Elsherif says.

Even collecting patients wasn’t straightforward, Elsherif says. “It’s very difficult for us to convince an ambulance driver to go at 10 or 11pm to pick up bodies and the injured. Most of the rescue drivers arrive in the morning after 9 or 10am because anything that moves after 5 or 6pm is a target. It’s dangerous,” he explains.

READ: Only long-term solution for Gaza is political: UN envoy

The constant sound of drones, bombs and the large number of casualties in Gaza makes sleeping difficult. With little food on offer, he kept his energy levels up by remembering why he was there and what he could do to help.

“The food we ate was barely half a meal and we were also getting no more than two hours of sleep a day but we believe in blessings for doing good in our culture and religion so two plus two can equal ten, not four. The neurosurgeon we were working with, he was working nonstop and constantly operating on patients after patients but it was the making the difference that kept us going,” he says.

In spite of the difficulties of life in Gaza, leaving the Strip was no easy decision. Elsherif says he grappled with a sense of guilt, recognising the privilege of having a choice to leave when the people of Gaza were enduring the ongoing crisis without a means of escape.

But his work wasn’t done, he now had to raise awareness abroad of what he had experienced first hand.

Back in Canada, Elsherif remembers the children’s remarkable resilience, ambition and determination. Despite the trauma surrounding them, Palestinian children in Gaza displayed wisdom beyond their years, expressing a deep sense of responsibility for their families and their land, Elsherif explains.

“The children of Gaza are special. Little ones no more than 11 years of age were telling me they will be famous surgeons, journalists and doctors. One child told me: ‘Dr Elsherif, we are either going to live with dignity or die. There is no third option.”

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