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Just Back from Gaza, American Surgeon Dr. Irfan Galaria Describes “Crisis of an Unimaginable Scale”

Web ExclusiveFebruary 20, 2024
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In Part 2 of our interview with Dr. Irfan Galaria, an American doctor just back from Gaza, he describes operating on patients while bombs were dropping around the hospital and says he saw many orphaned children.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We continue now with Part 2 of our conversation with Dr. Irfan Galaria. He’s a plastic and reconstructive surgeon who just spent 10 days in Gaza with the humanitarian aid group MedGlobal. He wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times when he returned, headlined “I’m an American doctor who went to Gaza. What I saw wasn’t war — it was annihilation.”

Thank you so much, Doctor, for staying with us. I was wondering if you can talk about where you worked, at the European Gaza Hospital. In your piece, you write, “A hospital designed to accommodate about 300 patients was now struggling to care for more than 1,000 patients and hundreds more seeking refuge.” Set the scene for us.

DR. IRFAN GALARIA: Absolutely, Amy. I worked and lived in the European Gaza Hospital. I spent about eight or nine days there. And I slept on the operating room floor in the holding area, because there was no other place for me to sleep. To describe for you what I saw is the following. As you drive toward the hospital, you begin to start seeing tents, and they started clustering around the hospital. They’re all seeking a safe space. And they were under the impression — a false impression — that being around the hospital would provide them with some sense of security. The tents were overwhelming. They took over the sidewalks. They took over the roads.

And the humanity spilled into the hospital. What I saw when I entered was really unthinkable or unimaginable. The hallways were just lined with families. What they did was they hung blankets from the ceiling, creating little spaces of privacy for them. And they were living in every space in that hospital. On the corridors of stairwells, in the corners, there were families. In storage closets, I saw families.

As a matter of fact, the hospital was host to the medical staff. The staff not only had the burden of caring for the patients, but they also had the burden of dealing with all the challenges that all the other Palestinians are dealing with. The stories I heard from them were the same, as well. Their family members have been killed. Many medical students that I saw were orphaned. They were in the hospitals helping while their family homes were destroyed. So, they, too, were living in the hospital. So it was really an overwhelming experience to be there for that time.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Doctor, you also talk about your ears becoming numb with the constant humming of surveillance drones over Gaza. Could you talk about that and also the situation of the bombings that were taking place all around the hospital throughout the territory?

DR. IRFAN GALARIA: Sure. The humming from the drones was very eerie. And it began haunting us within a few minutes of entering, crossing over the border into Gaza. These are what we were told were surveillance or attack drones, and they’re flying 24/7. No matter where you are, what you’re doing, you hear the constant humming and buzzing. And for some of those who’ve never heard these, it sounds like as if there’s a weed wacker — someone’s using a weed wacker outside or a lawn mower. It’s constantly consuming you. As a matter of fact, to be very frank, this is how disturbing those sounds were. I returned after just 10 days of being in Gaza, and during this time back, even ’til this day, I still hear the buzzing shaking in my mind. And this is just after 10 days. Imagine the emotional trauma that the sound alone is providing that the people there have to endure.

The bombings that I saw, as I described earlier, was relentless. The bombings were sometimes as frequently as every 30 seconds to a minute. And the bombs, depending on where they were, it sounded like, in the distance, of firecrackers, or, if much closer, it sounded like a sudden clasp of thunder, if you hear a sharp blast of thunder that kind of catches you off guard. And the louder ones and the closer bombs physically shake the hospital. And that’s what we were listening to. That’s what my background noise was, so to speak, while I was operating.

You know, I remember one moment in particular where I felt particularly hopeless. I was operating on a mother of three. Her children were killed. She was, like so many of the people, sleeping in her home with her family. Her home was bombed. And while I was operating on her, the bombing was particularly loud. The bombing was particularly intense. And I remember feeling so hopeless in that moment, that here I was as a physician trying to help this one person, and I was trying not to imagine what each bomb was causing, how many lives were being taken, how many families were being destroyed, how many injuries were being created.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Irfan Galaria, another piece in your Los Angeles Times op-ed talked about what was happening. You write, “There were a limited number of local surgeons available. We were told that many had been killed or arrested, their whereabouts or even their existence unknown.” You also write, “almost everyone else working in the hospital was mourning the loss of their loved ones.” Can you talk more about this? Talk about the medical staff.

DR. IRFAN GALARIA: Sure. You know, the medical staff, first of all, are heroes. These are individuals, as I told you — they are not getting paid. And they are dealing with the same challenges that all the other Palestinians are dealing with, but they are committed to trying to help their people.

So, what was happening there is that — and these are stories after stories that I’ve heard, because many of the physicians and staff who are there were actually transplant physicians from different institutions, like, for example, from the Al-Shifa Hospital, once that was closed down. I worked with a plastic surgeon, and he was the only plastic surgeon, working 24/7. They did not have enough orthopedic surgeons to cover the hospital. They had two orthopedic surgeons. They came once every three days, each of them. So, one day a week, there was no orthopedic surgeon in a hospital in the middle of a war zone.

And one of the main challenges was because of where they lived. Either they were living in areas that were kind of occupied, or there’s a significant military presence, or the risk of just transferring and traveling to the hospital was too high, or, frankly, they were dealing with helping to care for their families, living out of tents, collecting water for them, collecting food for them. And so, their struggles were the same struggles as what everyone else was taking.

And that’s what made it even harder to care for these patients. You know, when I was in the operating room working — there are five operating rooms — there was only one operating room nurse, official operating room nurse, for five operating rooms. And this operating nurse slept in the storage closet. All he had to his name was a backpack and an extra pair of shoes. And this story is what I heard over, time and time again.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the number of orphans, you know, this new term, ”CICWF,” “critically ill children without families,” Dr. Irfan Galaria.

DR. IRFAN GALARIA: Yeah, so, the context I can provide is as a plastic surgeon and the cases that I saw in the operating room. It was just very demoralizing and horrific. As I told you earlier, I can’t really understand the extent of collateral damage and the extent of children and families that were affected. I heard stories, time and time again, from these children, that they were with their families in their homes, that were then attacked. And now that they’re orphaned — and what was really concerning to me is, I honestly had no idea who was going to care for these people or what kind of future were they going to have. These patients, after I operated on them, were rolled out of the operating room and put somewhere in this hospital, that is already overfilled to capacity, filled with people seeking refuge. So it was very traumatic and heartbreaking to be involved in those cases and seeing those children.

AMY GOODMAN: You ended your piece by writing that, quote, “I feel incredibly guilty that I was able to leave while millions are forced to endure the nightmare in Gaza. As an American, I think of our tax dollars paying for the weapons that likely injured my patients there. Already driven from their homes, these people have nowhere else to turn.” What is your final message, Dr. Irfan Galaria?

DR. IRFAN GALARIA: I think what I want people in America to know and hear is to hear their stories, to hear their suffering, know that these are people that are just like any of us. I’ve met with them. I’ve talked to them. They are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. And these people, the mothers, for example, love their children just as much as we love our children. And these kids have the same hopes and dreams that our kids do. And they deserve our respect. They deserve dignity. And I don’t want them to be thought of as a number. I don’t want them to be ignored. And what I want people to recognize here in America, that when our politicians sign bills to send money to help support this conflict, on the other end of that barrel are not terrorists and soldiers. It’s women, children and families that are bearing the brunt of our actions that we’re contributing to and supporting here.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Irfan Galaria, plastic and reconstructive surgeon who just returned from volunteering in Gaza with the humanitarian aid group MedGlobal, his new piece for the Los Angeles Times headlined “I’m an American doctor who went to Gaza. What I saw wasn’t war — it was annihilation.” To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

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