May 15, 2024 - News

"So many children:" Charlotte doctor describes despair in Gaza hospital

Doctors

Azeem Elahi (middle) performs a lung ultrasound in the ICU. Photo courtesy of Azeem Elahi

A Charlotte-area doctor who made it home from Gaza just days before the Israeli takeover of the Rafah crossing is relaying the deteriorating humanitarian condition and pleading for the safe exit of trapped medical workers.

Why it matters: Azeem Elahi's story makes a war that sometimes feels infinitely far away touch closer to home.

What they're saying: "There were just so many children and young people," says Elahi, a father of two. "Babies up to their teens, all limping, in a wheelchair, with crutches — all affected by war."

Context: Elahi says he left his home in Charlotte on April 12 on a trip with three other physicians from the Islamic Medical Association of North America Medical Relief.

  • A critical care pulmonary physician with CaroMont, Elahi says he treated a range of emergencies from patients of all ages during his time in Gaza.
  • His team carried 42 duffel bags of gauze, antibiotics, IVs, surgical trays, pulse oximeters, and other ICU equipment and medical supplies.

Behind the scenes: On April 15, Elahi says he passed through the Rafah crossing, stopping to take a group photo by the "I love Gaza" sign (below).

  • Just weeks later, Israeli forces would run over the sign with tanks and seize the crossing, one of the main delivery routes for humanitarian assistance to Gazans. International medical workers can no longer come in or out.

Elahi acknowledged he would have been trapped, too, had he not been scheduled to leave earlier in late April. It was a possibility he had considered.

  • "It was, sort of, a deep thought ... I buried it," he says. "You, kind of, have to bury it to focus on the task at hand."
Doctors in front of I heart Gaza sign
Elahi (far right) in front of the now-destroyed "I love Gaza" sign with the team. Photo courtesy of Azeem Elahi

Elahi says he and his team stayed onsite at European Gaza Hospital, where displaced civilians seek shelter in hallways and stairwells. Families hang drapes along the corridors as makeshift living rooms and set up tents around the campus.

The medical volunteers rolled out sleeping bags in an office but soon realized they spent most nights treating blast victims rather than resting.

  • "You hear the bombings, you hear shelling. That is throughout the day, but it intensifies at night," he tells Axios. "They tell us, it intensifies at night because a lot of families are sheltered together."

Families would arrive at the hospital in groups, he says. Some would be deceased by the time they got there, or they'd speak of loved ones who were buried under rubble.

  • When Elahi left the hospital grounds and drove throughout Gaza, only at night to avoid being a drone target, he says the scene was all "gray, blasted buildings."
  • "It's complete annihilation."

Elahi says he could go on and on about the patients' stories.

  • On his first day, Elahi saw a 6-year-old girl who suffered trauma from the impact of an aid drop and was pronounced brain dead. "The father wanted to keep doing everything possible," he says. "And really, we couldn't do anything."
  • Surgeons were performing daily debridements on a 4-year-old girl who had burns from her waist down. It struck Elahi how emotionless she was, unable to initiate a smile for a present or joke.
  • One boy with amputated limbs had arrangements to travel to Atlanta for pro bono treatment but now is stuck in Gaza, according to Elahi.

Zoom out: Despite the despair, Elahi says he focuses on the locals' resilience. Kids' joyful kites flew in the sky daily, and they'd still run up to Elahi for hugs or to test their English.

  • "All I saw was love and compassion," Elahi says, "and all they want in return is for us to share their story."

What's next: Since Elahi left, health care has rapidly become more scarce in Gaza. The European Hospital is operating without light, NPR reports.

  • Most resources are reserved for emergencies, Elahi explains. Patients with chronic illnesses like diabetes or high cholesterol have nowhere to turn. Those who undergo surgery will often develop infections because their post-op care and nutrition are too poor, he adds.
  • Elahi previously volunteered in Gaza in 2019 at Al-Shifa and Nasser hospitals. Both have been destroyed.

Even so, he would consider another trip.

"I want to go back. I want to be able to help," he says. "But it all certainly depends on the circumstances, and what is there left to help with."

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