Jerusalem Diary: A Mission to Heal
A Muslim surgeon chronicles his two-week trip to the holy land, where he will work with kids and get to the heart of religion.
As I Ready to Leave
I am getting ready to leave Jerusalem now and head back home to Florida. I'm flying out today and am filled with mixed emotions--I look forward to getting back to Florida, my work, and my friends and family, but I will miss the new friends I made here. The past few days have been a whirlwind, with the last few surgeries and visits to Hebron and Bethlehem. I have so much to tell about what has happened, and so much to write about my feelings and impressions after being here for two weeks.
If anything, this experience has opened my eyes to a whole other kind of life. I will be posting a longer piece about my last days here and my final thoughts in the next two days. There's just not enough time right now to write down all that I want to say. Please stay tuned ...
Monday, Jan. 15
The Old City: Friday Prayers
Friday was a day off from the hospital, but I began my day by rounding (checking) on the children we had operated on so far. I really enjoy going to the hospital on days when I don't operate because I have more time to interact with families. Although the language barrier makes communicating difficult, the emotions and general enjoyment is not any different.
After seeing the kids, I went to Masjid Al-Aqsa an hour early to find a spot for Friday prayers. The mosque gets so overloaded with people on Friday that many pray outside in the compound between Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. The khutba (sermon) was interesting. Although it was in Arabic, I had someone translate for me, and I could understand some of it due to the occasional interjection of an English word.
The sermon’s topic was the internet and how this technology can be abused, especially towards children in the example of pornography and instant messaging. I was surprised by the choice of topic for a mosque sermon, but I guess it should be no different than any other sermon at a mosque, church, or temple. The second part of the khutba was about the conflict between the Hamas and Fatah parties.
Most Palestinians I’ve met say their frustrations of late are not only with the Israeli government but also with their own leadership. Many don't understand why their democratic elections are not being recognized internationally and feel that the internal conflict between the two parties is fueled by outside sources. I think their frustration is no different than that the lack of faith many Americans have in our politicians.
The Old City: Religious Trifecta
Following the Friday prayers, I then went to the Western Wall as well as the Holy Church of the Sepulchre. I was again astonished by how close these religious sites are to each other. I was also struck by many commonalities: The women all had their hair covered at all three locations and prayed separate from men at the Western Wall and mosque. The people who visited the three sites were all very joyous at being able to worship in these sacred spaces, and many worshippers temporarily transcended the political struggles of the outside world.
The Western Wall is an outside structure, and I saw it as the Jewish Sabbath was about to begin. It was crowded by worshipers and many children singing and dancing in unison. There is a great deal of passion and emotion for those up at the wall praying. And there was a great deal of security at this holy site like at Masjid Al Aqsa.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcre is beautiful in terms of its inner architecture. It is built around what is believed to be the site of Jesus’ (peace and blessings be upon him) crucifixion, burial and resurrection. I observed an Armenian Mass filled with candles and singing. I also saw what is thought to be the final resting place of Jesus (pbuh), and the rock that was moved as he left his grave site.
Upon leaving the church, I followed the path of the Via Dolorosa, which was the way walked by Jesus (pbuh) on the way to his crucifixion. The route is marked out by 14 "stations of the cross" linked with events that occurred on his last walk. Though Islam’s belief of the crucifixion story is very different than Christianity, it was very fascinating to follow this route.
Surgery Fatigue and Challenges
As we enter our second week at the hospital, fatigue is setting in and the number of cases still to be done seems daunting. We have completed 10 cases thus far and have nine other children who are in transit or already in the hospital needing operations. I am only scheduled to operate for three more days before heading to Hebron on Thursday and home on Friday. I am not sure how we will complete all of this work, and the emotions of the work are increasingly taxing.
The children we operate on must have financial coverage for the surgery and their families must obtain insurance from the Palestinian Authority for 1,400 shekels (approx. 350 U.S. dollars) to be allowed to travel to our hospital in the West Bank. The transportation issues are difficult, as the hospital is not cleared by the Israeli government to have an ambulance system. So private transportation must be obtained, which is neither cheap, nor in many cases, safe.
So families must work with the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government to solve financial and transportation issues. As one can imagine, these two entities often do not work well together on such issues. The complexity of getting the children to the operating room is difficult to describe and understand unless you are actually here. I still am not sure I understand it well.
The operating rooms do not have temperature control, which is crucial to pediatric heart surgery. My experience has been to cool the room to around 55 degrees fahrenheit to keep the environment cold, which allows the heart more protection while it is stopped. Here the rooms are unbearably warm and with all of the clothing and equipment we wear for surgery, I find myself drenched with sweat during every operation.
By no means do I mean to slight the people and their dedication. It truly is unmatched in my experiences as a care giver, and I am continually in amazement at their work ethic. I also am really enjoying how the system here is so similar to American teaching hospitals. Although technology, language and cultural norms are different, the interactions between physicians, residents, nurses, and other care givers are all so similar. Fighting for beds, the joking and nicknames for residents, and the general camaraderie between teachers and students is all a lot of fun.
Thanks to the Palestinians
I cannot say enough about the hospitality and kindness of the people I have met. These are not bitter and angry people as many would think. People are very generous with their time, and they go out of their way to be generous hosts. I cannot tell you how many times I have had to turn down dinner invitations and offers to tour the city due to a sheer lack of time.
I am impressed at the Palestinians’ ability to discuss their frustrations with government, politics, and occupation, yet do so with a faith that things will get better. There is no doubt that certain topics bring about a heightened level of emotion, and there is also no denying that my short time here by no means can provide a thorough and accurate picture of their personalities.
But these have been my observances. I do wish in some ways that I could also spend some time with supporters of the Israeli government to see their daily life and get their perspective on the history and politics of the region. It would only be fair to hear their opinions to get a better understanding of this complex region.