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.
Thursday, Jan 11
The Domino Effect
I have been trying to go to Masjid Al-Aqsa once a day, and after another busy day yesterday at the hospital, I was able to make it there for the sunset prayer. There were a couple hundred people praying in unison, and I was near the front. After I finished, I sat there for awhile, and then felt a hand on my shoulder. I thought, “Who is that? I don’t know anyone here.” I turned around, and it was the grandfather of the baby on whom I operated on in the morning.
He didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak Arabic. But in that mosque we sort of spoke the same language. He thanked me, but here’s what is interesting. He was thanking me not as his baby’s doctor, but for a different reason: In his family, for whatever reason, he became the designated person to bring the baby in because his travel permits were approved.
The whole journey of getting all the paperwork in order and getting to the hospital with his granddaughter took about 10 days. And after the surgery, he came to Al-Aqsa to do the evening prayer. And he was thanking me for that, for the domino effect that happened from my coming to Jerusalem: I came, his granddaughter got to have surgery, he got to bring her to the hospital, and for the first time in seven years, he got to pray in Al-Aqsa. And he was so happy.
I don’t want to make it sound like all these great things happened because of my coming to Jerusalem. What I want to relate is how special this mosque is to Muslims. And those who live right here--within a visiting distance of the mosque--aren’t able to come to Al-Aqsa because of the travel restrictions. So when they get that chance, it’s very special and very meaningful.
The Domino Effect, Part II
The domino effect isn't only religious in nature. I am working with an amazing young surgical resident named Vivian, who is a Palestinian Muslim. She is originally from Hebron and is in her final year of surgical training. Vivian is planning on pursuing a career in pediatric heart surgery and thus has been my shadow the entire time.
Her skills as a physician and her care for the patients are unmatched in all of the years I have worked with surgical trainees. She reminds me of why I wanted to be in a teaching hospital environment in the U.S. She came up to me yesterday and asked me to keep Thursday of next week free from operations--the day prior to my departure date from Palestine. She said that she wanted to take me to see Hebron, to meet her family, and to visit the Abraham Mosque.
I was surprised by this. There is nothing more she likes to do than spend time in the operating room. In fact, she lives within the hospital compound and takes call on the surgical patients every night. But I quickly realized what was happening: Vivian has not been home in months. The trip will take a mere 30 minutes or so, but due to her not having a "magnetic ID" and only a hospital-issued special permit, her trip home is very challenging.
By taking an American passport holder (me) with her, the trip through the many checkpoints will be much less rigorous. She has warned me that the old part of Hebron is not always safe and to never let on that I am American, but say I am an Indian (I am an Indian-Muslim American). Vivian is an extremely calm and respectful person, but the mere topic of occupation and the geographical make-up of Palestine bring a painful quality to her voice and face. I am excited for her to see her hometown and family after so long and excited for myself. I am sure it will be the culmination to my trip
Old City Religious Experiences
It’s interesting how protective the mosque guards are of Al-Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock. I’ll bet that it’s the same story at the Wailing Wall and other important religious sites in Jerusalem. So many people come here from all over to visit. But the guards are careful who they let inside and are always a bit paranoid that someone may be trying to harm the mosque.
I’m in jeans, and it’s totally obvious that I’m a foreigner. So every time I come to the Dome of the Rock or Al-Aqsa, I get stopped and questioned. They look at my passport and say, “Oh, Syed Adil Husain. You’re Muslim. But are you a practicing Muslim? Can you pray?” And I recited the Aytul Kursi or some other passage from the Qur’an, and they say, “Okay, okay!” and usher me in.
Once you’re in, everyone is so friendly. There’s always someone to explain the landmarks to you, to show you around. There’s just an immense feeling of friendliness and history when you’re inside this huge compound. There are kids playing soccer, people walking around, others are worshipping in some private manner. It’s like a big sanctuary. There’s no protocol to follow, like when you’re on the Hajj. You do what you want, and it’s just so nice.
Friday is a holiday at the hospital, and the Palestinian equivalent of a weekend only lasts for that one day. I have planned a day of Juma (Friday) prayers at the mosque but will also go to the Holy Church of Sepulchre where Christians believe Jesus Christ (peace and blessings be upon him) is buried. I also plan on visiting the Western Wall, the last remnant of the second temple, a retaining wall thought to be the holiest place in the Jewish faith.
Visiting these two places are high priorities to my experience here, and I look forward to seeing what I get out of them in terms of emotion and history. I continue to find it amazing that these three religious structures are literally steps from one another, yet the land and the people struggle so much to live in respectful unison. Having been here only one week, I have no right to make such a statement in a judging manner, yet I cannot hide my amazement about this conflicting fact.
Surgery in a Strange Land
My daily surgeries are going well, but I’m filled with anxiety at every turn. It’s so hard--when you’re used working with certain instruments--to perform surgery in a totally unfamiliar setting without all the necessary equipment.
These are very sick children, and each surgery is a very nerve-wracking procedure. The doctors, nurses, and other support staff are terrific. I’m the one who is so anxious. Of course I don’t want there to be any complications. And more so, I don’t want there to be any problems that come up after I’m gone.
We have now performed five open heart operations in three days, and I am so relieved that they have all gone well and the little patients are off the ventilator. We must move them through the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) setting to the pediatric ward quickly, as there are only three beds in the ICU and we have to continue to do cases daily.
Although the equipment, ordering of tests and other "routine" care protocols that I am used to following are lacking here, the care and devotion of the nurses and other care givers gives me such comfort that the children are receiving the best post-operative care possible. I have been here only a short time but already know that I have made life-long friends. I will miss so many people in this hospital when it is time to leave.