'Smell of burning flesh and screams': US Palestinian doctor shares experience of working in Gaza

'Smell of burning flesh and screams': US Palestinian doctor shares experience of working in Gaza
The field hospital was expected to serve around 30 to 40 patients daily, but it ended up treating around a thousand patients a day.
4 min read
Washington, DC
20 March, 2024
Dr Mohammad Subeh poses with a young patient in Gaza. [Photo courtesy of Mohammad Subeh]

When California-based emergency physician Mohammad Subeh went to Gaza on a five-week medical mission, he had seen images of suffering on social media. But that didn't prepare him for the sounds and smells of destruction and anguish up close.

"It's very different when you're there on the ground," Subeh told The New Arab, days after returning from working at a field hospital on the border of Khan Younes and Rafah

"First of all, you don't get a lot of the other sensory inputs," he said. "Having patients come in with charred bodies and the smell of burning flesh and screams, and balancing all of that with your focus and seeing how you can best help that patient. Or managing mass casualty incidents where 60, 70 patients come in all at once. Having to colour-code people and saying: this person is dead, this person is going to die."

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Subeh, who did his medical training treating trauma patients on the south side of Chicago, said, "Nothing can prepare you for what's happening in Gaza right now. The influx of critically ill patients constantly, and the inability to help them to the best of your ability because you don't have the resources you need, is not only frustrating but at times it's defeating." 

The NGO field hospital, which is still in operation, was expected to serve around 30 to 40 patients daily but ended up treating around a thousand a day. Two shipping containers served as operating rooms, and two large tents functioned as the emergency department. Like many other doctors at the field hospital, Subeh slept on site and often put in more than 16-hour days. 

Despite the difficult environment and also because of the difficulties he experienced and witnessed, he hopes to return as soon as possible. Meanwhile, he's doing what he can to raise awareness among US elected officials of the dire healthcare situation in Gaza.

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Gaza's healthcare infrastructure has largely collapsed, with many of its main hospitals out of service or only partially functioning. In their limited capacity, they serve a population under continuous bombardment while facing a lack of nutrition, water and sanitation. 

Since the 7 October surprise attack led by Hamas on Israeli military bases and civilian settlements within and around the Gaza envelope, more than 32,000 Palestinians, mainly civilians, have been killed by Israel in Gaza and the occupied West Bank. In addition, more than 73,000 have been wounded from Israeli airstrikes. Recent weeks have seen increased reports of Palestinians in Gaza dying from malnutrition and dehydration.

Subeh, who has family in Gaza, had long wanted to take part in a medical mission there, where he could use his skills and raise awareness of the humanitarian situation in the densely populated and impoverished enclave, where the majority of the population has fled to the Rafah area to shelter from Israeli airstrikes.

"For me, it was an easy decision because I could see the huge need on the ground," he said.

Subeh, descended from 1948 Palestinian refugees, was born and raised until the age of six in Kuwait, where the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait forced him and his family to flee the country. 

"That was my first exposure to war, people dying at a young age. I remember sitting and thinking about my existence at a young age," he recalled.

After an arduous journey out of the region, they were able to relocate to the US and settle in southern California. 

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"As a child going through war, it gives you a different glimpse into the world that you never could have if you don't go through that war experience, of seeing loss of life, loss of family, dispersed family. All of our aunts and uncles having to live somewhere. It's a constant displacement," he said.

"One thing I realised at a young age: things can come and go very fast. Your wealth, your health. You can have it one day. The next day, it's completely gone. Right now, as an emergency physician, I'm able to witness that," he said.

Something that gave Subeh strength during his time in Gaza was the Palestinian healthcare workers, the patients and other people he came into contact with, who remained focused amid the sounds of warplanes, who were able to use scarce resources, and who were often generous with what little they had. Some of his Instagram posts show him dancing with locals and playing with children.

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Despite these moments of resilience and inspiration, Subeh remains concerned about the long-term impacts of the war on those with complex wounds, chronic health conditions, months of malnourishment, and prolonged gaps in education, all while living in a tiny, unsanitary enclave.

"The public health impact on the Gazan population in the coming decades is going to be huge," he said. "We don't see it right now, but shortly, it's going to decrease life expectancy." 

He said, "I don't know what it's going to look like. I think the saving grace is the Palestinians have endured so much for decades, and they know how to get back up. This is going to be a harder one to get back up from."