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Working Side by Side, Israeli, Palestinian Doctors Save Lives

March 28, 2005
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The pair of surgeons — one Israeli, one Palestinian — examine the maze of tubes taped to 10-year-old Mohammed Salemeh’s chest. They methodically check his heart rate, oxygen levels and breathing. The young patient’s mother, Mariam, stands behind them, next to the heart monitor. Her eyes grow wide as she watches her son’s chest slowly rise and fall.

Mohammed is unconscious after some six hours of surgery at Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem, but he is in “excellent condition,” the doctors assure Mariam.

The doctors operated together on Mohammed, fixing the damaged aortic valve with which he was born. A narrowing of the aortic valve opening made it difficult for blood to flow from the left ventricle to the aorta, which supplies the body with oxygenated blood.

On a piece of notebook paper, Dr. Bisher Marzouqa sketches out a diagram of the procedure for Mariam, a Palestinian Muslim who has brought her son for treatment from the West Bank city of Bethlehem. For her, the surgeons’ nationalities don’t matter.

“It makes no difference to me if they are Israeli or Palestinian. I’m just thankful to them for all their help,” she said, wearing a long embroidered gown, her head covered in a beige headscarf.

Marzouqa, a Palestinian from Bethlehem, and Dr. Eli Milgalter, an Israeli from Jerusalem, have operated on 110 Palestinian children from the West Bank and Gaza Strip who need heart surgery. Their work is funded by a Peres Center for Peace program that is supported by Italian donors.

During surgery, the pair work together in studied concentration and partnership. Outside the operating room, they joke and tease each other like old friends.

Hadassah recently was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, in part because of the cooperation and coexistence demonstrated by a staff that is both Jewish and Arab.

“Once you enter the borders of the hospital you feel you have entered a different world, far from the struggles and contradictions of the outside. Everyone here works for human life independent of anything else,” said Marzouqa, still wearing blue hospital scrubs after Mohammed’s surgery.

Marzouqa has to drive through an Israeli checkpoint every day to reach his job at the hospital. Most days he can pass through within minutes, but there are times, especially when tensions run high because of Israeli military activity in Bethlehem or because of warnings of a terrorist attack, when it can take up to two hours.

Hadassah’s two hospital campuses have treated more terror victims than any other medical center in the world in the four and a half years since the Palestinian intifada began, even when it has meant treating terrorists and their victims in the same room.

Hadassah also has reached out to the Palestinian community by training Palestinian doctors to open their own pediatric oncology ward in a hospital in eastern Jerusalem, training another doctor with an eye toward creating the first pediatric intensive care unit in the West Bank city of Hebron and hosting a support group for Palestinian and Israeli parents whose children have diabetes.

On March 24, Hadassah dedicated a state-of-the-art center for emergency medicine. The staff drew on its experience to create what is considered one of the world’s most advanced centers for treating victims of terror attacks.

On another side of the hospital, in the pediatric intensive care unit, stuffed animals dangle from the ceiling and Mariam Salemeh sits next to her son, a few beds away from a fervently Orthodox couple hovering over the bed of their child.

Abdel Razzaq Abu Mayaleh is one of the recent additions to the pediatric ICU. He has taken a one-year leave of absence from his position as head of pediatrics at a Hebron hospital to train with Ido Yatziv, head of Hadassah’s pediatric ICU.

When he began working at Hadassah, Abu Mayaleh sometimes had to switch taxis several times and climb over hills outside Hebron because of security closures imposed on the West Bank. He persevered because he was determined to learn how to set up a pediatric ICU in his hometown.

Hebron is one of the main flashpoints of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. About 500 Jewish settlers live in the middle of the town in uneasy proximity to their Palestinian neighbors. It is the only West Bank city with both Israeli- and Palestinian-controlled zones.

Mohtaseb Hospital, where Abu Mayaleh works in Hebron, often is flooded with pediatric patients, but he felt he lacked the knowledge to deal with the most critical cases. He plans to take what he learns at Hadassah to the pediatric hospital the Red Crescent Society is building in Hebron.

Hadassah has shown Abu Mayalah an entirely different side of Israelis from the one he knew from interactions with soldiers and settlers in Hebron, he said.

“All of us really feel that we are like brothers, like one family, in saving the children without feeling any difference between any race or religion,” he said.

Marzouqa said Palestinian patients and their families often approach him to say they have been taken aback by the kindness and professionalism of Hadassah’s Israeli medical staff. When they return home, those families bear the message that there is hope for cooperation between the two sides, doctors say.

Late one Thursday afternoon in the pediatric ICU, Milgalter is again by Mohammed Salemeh’s bedside, telling a nurse to increase Mohammed’s morphine intake. As the boy’s eyelids begin to flutter, Milgalter tells him in basic Arabic, “Everything will be fine.”

Milgalter wears rimless glasses, his silver hair is receding and he has a reassuring presence. He studied, trained and has spent his entire 25-year career at Hadassah.

Before the intifada broke out in September 2000 he had begun consulting on some cases with Marzouqa, who then worked at Mukassa Hospital in eastern Jerusalem.

In 2003 Marzouqa started working as a member of Hadassah’s general surgical team while also performing as many as three or four pediatric cardiac surgeries a week with Milgalter.

Instead of despairing at the political situation, the two doctors laugh about the absurdity of it all.

“Here we are about everything connected to doctors, humanity and, most importantly, patient care,” Marzouqa said. “In this way, everything else falls into place. If politics came into the picture everything would be ruined. We are apolitical, and because of this the hospital is an island of sanity.”

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