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One lone nurse kept Gaza's Nasser Hospital going

One lone nurse kept Gaza's Nasser Hospital going
5 min read
11 April, 2024
Nurse Shehab Al-Najjar is all that is left of the medical staff at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis since 23 March.
Shehab Al-Najjar, 24, manned the fort of Nasser Medical complex single-handedly for two weeks, to look after patients who could not leave their beds [Mohamed Solaimane/The New Arab]

When Israeli troops pulled out of Khan Younis on Sunday, Shehab Al-Najjar was consumed with both relief and concern.

Since 23 March, the 24-year-old volunteer nurse has been all that is left of the medical staff in the city's Nasser Medical Complex, living the specter of death every minute as snipers and soldiers observed every movement in the hospital while he tended to the handful of remaining, bedridden patients.

For now, he's alive, but he dreads what's next.

A similar withdrawal of Israeli troops from the hospital's vicinity and premises in March was quickly followed by what Al-Najjar described to The New Arab as "gruelling hours of humiliation", and the ultimate departure of all staff members but him.

"There are no words to describe the hell we've lived through," said the soft-spoken young man.

"The suffering, fear, horror, and deprivation of everything are unimaginable. We are living a real life nightmare."

A scene of chaos at Nasser Hospital, the largest in southern Gaza [Mohamed Solaimane/The New Arab]

In a long, dark and deserted corridor of the hospital, Al-Najjar looks at the wreckage that has become of the largest medical facility in the southern part of the war-battered strip, with piling trash and medical waste in every corner, wrecked furniture and destroyed medical machines, demolished buildings, silenced generators, and overflowing sewage trodden over by stray cats and dogs.

"Is this what is meant for medical machines worth millions of dollars, and which could be saving hundreds of desperate lives out there? Is this what has become of a hospital with so much to offer?" he wondered grimly.

Aside from a displaced family living in the hospital's morgue, there are 14 people living in the complex, Al-Najjar told The New Arab.

The UN said on 6 April that Nasser's destruction and the devastation of Al-Shifa Hospital in northern Gaza "has broken the backbone of the already ailing health system".

And the graduate of 2022 had witnessed firsthand, day by day, since 8 October, the demise of the hospital where he began his medical career – how it operated well above its capacity for months amidst an endless stream of injured people, until the first Israeli siege in mid-February ushered intentional destruction to the hospital, which continued through the second siege in late March, and onwards.

"Through it all, there's been shelling, killing, humiliation, degradation and abuse to both patients and healthcare workers, in every second," recounted the young man in a quivering voice.

Surviving 'hell'

Moving between two rooms in two adjacent buildings, Al-Najjar tends to his remaining patients laying on filthy bed sheets. He helps them change their postures in between moans of pain and lack of painkillers, as their accompanying family members overlook.

He says he's got little to offer them but soothing words and basic medical care. But they say his mere presence is itself priceless.

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With the help of the torch on his mobile, Al-Najjar tended to 70-year-old Ahmed Khalel Shehda, whose right leg was amputated and his left leg sustained severe orthopaedic injuries, requiring external fixtures, following an airstrike in October that wiped out his neighbours' house.

Despite his condition, the elder man had since been transferred from Al-Shifa Hospital to three other hospitals before landing in Nasser three months ago, and had nowhere else to go.

"I'm grateful for the care Al-Najjar offers, although my condition needs much more. He's doing his best, and I'm grateful for that," the frail, senior man said affectionately.

For over two weeks, Al-Najjar single-handedly managed his daily duties amidst devastation which the World Health Organization (WHO) said in February was "indescribable", and he said had only gotten worse since.

There is "no electricity or running water, and medical waste and garbage are creating a breeding ground for disease", the organisation had said.

"I operate the small electricity generator that I'm allowed by Israeli forces to use for a few hours everyday, with the little fuel supply that's available, to run essential medical equipment the patients need, or charge phones," he says.

Phone calls are his only way to check up on his only sister and family, who themselves were displaced, and whom he had not seen for months.

As he runs his errands around the hospital, the young man constantly adjusts his stethoscope around his neck so that it's easily identifiable, and ensures his identification badge is clearly visible.

When asked about his subconscious moves, he said "because we don't know when the next raid, the next bullet, will be. Not that being a nurse makes a difference in this hell."

WHO in January said it documented 304 attacks on health facilities in the Gaza Strip since 7 October, in which more than 606 people have been killed.

Relying on the food that was provided by the ministry of health following the first Israeli withdrawal to feed his patients and himself, Al-Najjar would occasionally step outside the hospital to nearby households to fetch food for his patients, or to the nearest field hospital to get some medical supplies he needed.

What's next?

Asked if he's relieved by Israeli troops pulling out of Khan Younis, Al-Najjar recalled the details of the "gruelling hours" which came with the beginning of Israel's second siege of the hospital in March.

After a temporary pull out from the premises of Nasser and its vicinity, like now, Israeli forces raided the hospital once again, subjecting its 14-member staff at the time, the patients and their families to a humiliating investigation.

"The men were stripped fully naked and the women were forced to look at us," said the soft-spoken man, himself looking into the distance," he said in a quivering, low voice.

"Those who looked away were forced to look at us at gunpoint. We were then investigated and questioned one by one, and women were made to take off their headcovers."

Devastation and destruction is visible in every corner of Nasser Hospital [Mohamed Solaimane/The New Arab]

Later, female healthcare workers were let go, some of the volunteering staff members were apprehended, and soon after, everyone left, except him.

"I decided to stay with the patients who could not move. Who is to look after them?" he said.

And now, he's not sure what will become of him, his patients, and the hospital.

As he spoke to The New Arab on Monday, he said he was awaiting the arrival of "hospital's management to inspect the condition it is in, and see if there's any chance of restoring any functionality of the hospital soon".

"Although it withdrew from Khan Younis, it would remain up to Israel if the hospital is allowed to receive patients one again, or not," he concluded.


This piece is published in collaboration with Egab.