For more than thirty years, I have been living in or going to Palestine to build programs and projects based on immediate and long-term needs on the ground. This is through field visits to see what the needs are, meeting with local doctors, the Ministry of Health, our staff, beneficiaries, donors, volunteers, other NGOs, and, critically, the thousands of doctors and nurses who are international experts in their field, and bring their experience and training to help guide our programs and projects to be most effective and impactful.
Monday, Sep 5, 2022
On my first day in, I crossed over to Gaza, a place I've been going to (with great affection for the people) since 1988, and it never gets easier. I’ve had many experiences at the border with security over the years that has made my crossing time-consuming and frustrating, and I’ve even crossed during wars on Gaza when the border was being bombed. The walls surrounding Gaza make it the world’s largest “open-air prison.” (Photo) I’m waiting for the gate to open with local workers and families returning to Gaza. There we take a bus to the first of two Palestinian checkpoints.
After being interrogated briefly again at the 2nd Palestinian checkpoint by the local government interior ministry guys, I got my car rental and drove alone from Gaza City south to the European Gaza Hospital in Khan Younis, where our American pediatric cardiac surgery team was operating on sick babies with congenital heart disease. At the EGH hospital, I went to the ICU to see how the children the team was operating on were doing. There I met our team of nurses and doctors from hospitals in Texas and Utah volunteering their time away from their homes and families to save the lives of our children. Some were on their first mission with PCRF, and several of them had been on trips with us in the past. I then went to the dorm we refurbished years ago for our teams to stay in (there are no hotels near the hospital, the closest one is in Gaza City, an hour away). I met the head of our team, Dr. Adil Husain, the director of pediatric cardiac surgery in Salt Lake City, who has led eleven volunteer missions to Palestine with PCRF and saved the lives of over 120 sick children. He is also the head of our cardiac surgery committee on our medical advisory board.
Tuesday, September 6, 2022
I always stay in the Marna House hotel in Gaza near Shifa Hospital in the middle of town. It's the oldest hotel in Gaza, and is in a perfect location for walking around town at night. In the morning, I went to our new office in Gaza (our old office was bombed in an Israeli air raid in May 2021). I brought thousands of dollars worth of prosthetic supplies with me from the USA, donated by a nonprofit organization in New York called PENTA. These will go to our partners at Hamad Hospital to fit the kids who are amputees in our program with new legs.
I picked up Dr. Ben Thompson, who is in Gaza interviewing doctors for possible fellowships in Canada with his foundation. We drove back to the European Gaza Hospital to take our team some sweets and ensure they were doing well. At EGH, I met the first case I took out of Gaza in 1992 before PCRF was officially registered, Nizar El Barky. He is a triple amputee who was only ten years old when he was injured in the first Intifada by a bombing near his home. I sent him to the Shriners Hospital in Los Angeles, where he stayed with my sister Christie for several months, and it was then that I met Dr. Musa and Suhaila Nasir, who stepped up and helped him and also PCRF at a time when we were just getting started. Nizar has kids and is still walking, demonstrating what we can do to help those in need get the care over a lifetime of support.
At EGH, I thanked our volunteers again, had long discussions with them about what the needs are in the ICU that we can help provide support and improve patient care, took them food, met the parents of patients to hear how we can help them, and also did some social media work to bring attention to the team and our efforts on the ground in Gaza to save the lives of our children. One was a video on Facebook and LinkedIn that got thousands of views and support, and another on a particular Facebook page called “Mama’s Palestinian Kitchen,” which has over 100,000 followers. That post was one of the most popular posts ever on their page. Despite this page being dedicated to food and not humanitarian efforts, it continues to bring much attention to our work and volunteers.
All of the patients were safe and healthy after major surgery, the first pediatric cardiac surgery team in Gaza since the start of COVID. Dr. Adil Husain is an excellent surgeon and humanitarian whose dedication to the children he treats is beyond noble. Any organization would be honored to have a man of his caliber volunteering for them.
I drove Dr. Thompson back to Gaza City late in the evening, passing several police checkpoints during the hour-long trip without any problems.
Wednesday, September 7, 2022
I went with Abdelazeez in the morning to Azhar University to see the program by Dr. Mads Gilbert, in which he was training over 100 medical students in first aid care, setting up different stations to treat trauma patients with compound fractures, strokes, heart attacks, drowning, and many more. I shot several promotional videos for our chapter events in Charlotte, Atlanta, Team Palestine, and others. I then met with the president of the university and several Deans upon their request.
We drove down to Al Aqsa Hospital next in Deir El Balah (Central Gaza) to visit the OR project we are funding and to shoot two videos for our donors, the Humaniti organization in Canada, and our Cleveland chapter. I found that the MOH had switched the location of the OR yet again without PCRF approval, so I met with the hospital administration to ensure that this would not impact the budget.
I asked the hard-working Gaza staff to lunch after that in Gaza City, thanked them for their hard work, and indicated support for them following the recent bombings in Gaza. One of our cancer department social workers - Faten Kanon - had to leave her apartment due to bombings. Outside the restaurant, I shot a video for a solar power project for sick children, a campaign by Simi Haze, and social media influencers.
I went to Dr. Musa and Suhaila Nasir Pediatric Cancer Department next and did a Facebook live video to update our donors during “Childhood Cancer Month.”
In the evening, we had dinner in Gaza City for the pediatric cardiac surgery team and the local doctors and nurses. I also met with Sarah Zaher, the paralyzed child from the May 2021 bombings in Gaza, who is one of the kids we are helping, both as PCRF and me personally. She gave out gifts to the doctors to thank them.
Later before I went to bed, I had calls with doctors in the USA interested in volunteering with PCRF.
Thursday, September 8, 2022
That morning I crossed out of Gaza with the pediatric cardiac surgery team. It took several hours to get out because of their luggage, and I went to Ramallah with two of the team members, and the rest went to Jerusalem.
In Ramallah, I met with Dr. Samer Elbabaa, the head of our Medical Advisory Board, and Dr. Eman Al Khadra, a pediatric intensivist from Boston Children’s Hospital. Both of them were on missions for PCRF. We met with the Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammed Shtyyer, and the Minister of Health, Dr. Mai Alkaila, to discuss opening the new PICU and CCU. They were very grateful to PCRF for our work and promised to support our efforts by providing the manpower in next year’s budget to enable us to open the department and start treating children.
In the evening, we invited all of the volunteers in Palestine at the time to dinner in Ramallah. This included the pediatric cardiac surgery team finishing their trip to Gaza, as well as the neurosurgeons coming for the conference, the PICU nurses and doctors on a mission, as well as Dr. Fiore Itorio, an Italian pediatric cardiac surgeon visiting Palestine to assess long-term training and development for our new department.
Friday, September 9, 2022
We met with our neurosurgery volunteers and took them to the PMC to see the new PICU and CCU. Dr. Samer Elbabaa, Dr. Zeena Salman, and Dr. Rick Boop, the International Pediatric Neurosurgery Society President, toured the facility and gave feedback on future openings and patient care. We then toured Ramallah and took Dr. Boop, who had never been to Palestine before, to a shawarma lunch on the street.
Before opening the first neurosurgery conference ever held in Palestine, we met again with Dr. Mai Alkaila, the Minister of Health, at the hotel to discuss the opening of the department at PMC. She opened the conference by thanking PCRF and all of our volunteer doctors for their many years of service to Palestine. Present for PCRF were Dr. Samer Elbabaa, Dr. Zeena Salman, Dr. Rick Boop, Dr. Burak Ozgur, and Dr. Lissa Baird from Harvard. It was an amazingly successful event, with doctors from all over Palestine sharing in their first scientific conference in neurosurgery.
Saturday, September 10, 2022
The neurosurgery conference began at 8 am and went on all day. During that time, I had meetings with our other teams concerning the building of pediatric cardiac surgery in Palestine and through our new CCU department. Dr. Fiore Itorio from Italy toured with Dr. Asma Taha, Dr. Sharon Norman, Dr. Cathay Woodward, and Dr. Eman Al Khadra (all part of the PICU mission) the new two facilities at PCRF. Dr. Ali Abu Fara from Hebron, an Italian-trained pediatric cardiac surgeon there to meet Dr. Itorio, and Dr. Rula Awad, the head pediatric cardiologist at PMC.
We attended the talk by Dr. Burak Ozgur from Orange County, one of our main neurosurgeons and donors who supports our work in many important ways. He left with his team soon to start a mission in Nablus.
The neurosurgery conference was an enormous success and welcomed by all who attended, including the Minister of Health and our volunteers. The only negative was our inability to get the neurosurgeons out of Gaza to attend due to the Israeli siege.
We took Dr. Baird, Dr. Elbabaa, Dr. Boop, Dr. Salman, Dr. Norman, and Dr. Itoro to dinner to continue to discuss plans to build up long-term programs to improve patient care in pediatric cardiac surgery, oncology, neurosurgery, and PICU care.
Sunday, September 11, 2022
The neurosurgery team was screening patients at PMC, where we took Dr. Itoro to meet with Dr. Ahmad Bitawi, the head of PMC, and the medical director, Dr. Mouse Atari. Dr. Elbabaa joined us, as did Dr. Eman Al Khadra. There was a long discussion about opening the PICU and building up the pediatric cardiac surgery department in cooperation with Dr. Itoro.
We had sent Dr. Cathy Woodward, after she was supporting the post-op care of children with the pediatric cardiac surgery team in Gaza, to visit ICUs in the West Bank to assess their pediatric care for our future interventions. I sent my daughter Jenna with her to help translate for her. They first went to Darwish Nazzal Hospital in Qalqilya, where Jenna shot a video for our donor who built the NICU there, then to Tulkarem, and later to Rafidiah Hospital, where I met them.
I went to Nablus and dropped off Dr. Salman at the pediatric oncology department at Najah University Hospital. At Rafidiah Hospital, we visited the ICU and met with our volunteer plastic and hand surgery teams from IMANA.
Monday, September 12, 2022
I went to PMC in the morning to meet Dr. Paul Holtrop, a neonatologist from Michigan volunteering with PCRF to teach neonatology resuscitation programs to nurses and doctors in the West Bank.
Dr. Eman Al Khadra and Dr. Cathy Woodward then visited the PICU and discussed plans for opening the department. They are preparing for the MOH a clear path forward to get the department finally open and treating children.
I then drove to the Huda Al Masri Pediatric Cancer Department in Beit Jala to visit the staff and prepare videos for donors. I also met Dr. Salman there, who is volunteering as the head of our oncology committee and meeting with staff to discuss training and supporting capacity training.
In Ramallah, Dr. Baird and Dr. Elbabaa were saving the life of a 7-year-old girl with a brain tumor. They worked many long hours in the OR to remove the tumor.
Tuesday, September 13, 2022
I drove to the Hugo Chavez Ophthalmic Hospital in Thurmasaya to visit Dr. Omar Ozgur and Dr. Srini Iyengar, two volunteers from San Diego who were providing oculoplastic surgery and ophthalmic surgery for patients, as well as training local doctors.
We went back to PMC, where we invited the ICU nurses to the new department for lunch. After lunch, we toured the department and spoke about some of their future work and plans for opening the department.
Later in the afternoon, the parents of Dr. Lissa Baird from Salt Lake City came from Tel Aviv to visit Ramallah for the first time. I showed them the PICU and the patients in the neuro-ICU who their daughter operated on and took them around the city and then dinner, along with Dr. Asma Taha.
Wednesday, September 14, 2022
Dr. Eman Al Khadra and I went to meet the Minister of Finance, Mr. Shukri Bishara, at his office in Ramallah to discuss supporting the opening of the PICU.
Dr. Eman Al Khadra, Dr. Asma Taha, Dr. Sharon Norman, and I went to the Ministry of Health to meet with the Minister, Dr. Mai Al Kaila, Dr. Wael Sheikh, the Deputy Minister, Dr. Ahmad Bitawi, Dr. Mousa Atari, and the main directors at PMC to work out the details for opening the CCU and PICU. It was a two-hour meeting addressing all issues of materials, equipment, and manpower needed to start treating children. It was agreed that the MOH would first open the CCU and start the cardiac program, and put it into the budget for 2023.
To inspire the office admin staff in our Ramallah office, I invited the staff to visit the PICU and CCU so they could see the fruits of their labor. Keeping staff morale high is important, and they all were very grateful for the chance to see the work in the field for themselves.
Thursday, September 15, 2022
On my last day in Palestine, I went to the PICU to make donor videos for our Delaware chapter and the Zaman brothers in Kuwait. We cleaned the apartment we rented in Ramallah, which did not have hot water the entire two weeks we were there. We returned to PMC, inviting the ICU nurses to the new department for lunch. After lunch, we toured the department and spoke about some of their future work and plans for opening the department.