Tim Goodacre is a vastly experienced plastic surgeon who recently spent two weeks in a hospital in Khan Younis treating the extensive injuries of the people of Gaza. I caught up with him to ask about his experience there.
Graham: Let me start by asking what was it like getting into Gaza? What was the process and how difficult was it to actually get in in the first place?
Tim: We went in as an emergency medical team under the under the auspices of the World Health Organisation, which is coordinated with UN OCHR. It was easy obviously to get to Cairo. Then we joined a convoy, a group of cars convening in the small hours of the morning in Cairo and then being escorted across the Sinai desert. We got to the border in time for dusk. What was staggering at that stage was seeing the number of lorries lined up, waiting on the Egyptian side to get in. They were two deep on one side, one deep on the other with a thin passageway through which we could drive through for mile after mile after mile of these lorries.
Was this humanitarian aid sent from other nations?
Absolutely. It was aid labelled from different countries or agencies. Crossing Rafah the next morning was all pretty haphazard and chaotic, but we met our driver on the other side. We then had to travel to Khan Yunis on the coast road because it was the safest part of the south Gaza strip. We went through a route called the Philadelphia Road, which is a gap between the two borders. As we drove along, we immediately were jumped on by some young lads who had put razor wire across the road. We picked up two of them who hung onto the car each side, with our window s firmly shut. As we sped along, they were our ‘protectors’, taking a pitiful sum to ensure that we would not be stopped at further razor wire and our vehicle plundered. It was our first experience of the lawlessness that's inherent at the moment in Gaza.
All along that side of the road there were people putting up new tents after a recent further mass displacement, as far as the eye could see. It made a huge impact on me - the devastating plight of the people who were there. It looked like those pictures of Glastonbury or Woodstock, where as far as you could see, the rolling fields or sand dunes or whatever were totally covered in makeshift dwellings. It was pretty cold and windy. And subsequently, while we were there, it rained an awful lot and your heart just went out to these people.
So these were people living in tents and temporary shelters?
Well, not really. They're barely tents. They're just finding flimsy bits of wood, putting them up and nailing them together. And these are not just the very poorest of the poor. This is everybody. Many of them were people from very well-to-do houses whose families have been displaced. I've worked in many parts of the world where there's poverty, but I’ve never seen so many people displaced.
One of the things that's remarkable however is the relative cleanliness, the desire to maintain dignity in the most appalling circumstances. But a young lad who’s now a young doctor (who I have worked with for a decade now) came to see me and he was the most dejected person I've ever met. He said to me ‘they've taken away my dignity’. The abject pain in his face was something that I won't forget.
You’ve been to Gaza many times before. What was different about this time? And you've seen it in the aftermath of previous wars and conflicts. What was what was particularly different this time?
It's utterly different – it’s the displaced population with nowhere to go and seeking shelter. When I first went in 2014 after Operation Protective Edge, I was taken to a huge neighbourhood of northeast Gaza, which had been flattened and at the time the impact on me was extraordinary. When I’ve visited subsequently over the last decade, they will show you this bombed out building and that flattened area, but I've never seen such vast numbers of displaced people. On the second day we moved into the European Gaza Hospital (EGH), which is where we were going to stay for the two weeks we were there. Inching slowly along amidst endless hordes of people walking around, seeing the dejection, despair, the hopelessness with nowhere to go - this for me is what defines this whole episode and makes it very different from others. This is in no way a diminution of other conflicts and human tragedies, but when there was bombing in Baghdad or in Kiev and Ukraine, people might go into underground shelters - there are places they can perhaps go to escape. Even in massacres such as in Darfur or Congo, there are places to run to. There is nothing like that in Gaza.
Was there a pattern to the kind of medical emergencies and wounds that you were having to deal with?
The vast majority of injuries were the impact of high explosives, so we naturally saw quite a lot of burns, although the majority of severe burns alone were being managed by the Red Cross team also at EGH. Some of them were people who had been crushed and pulled out of buildings which had collapsed. But that was that was the minority. The majority of our cases were direct results of bomb blasts. Every time you hear a bomb, somebody is being killed, yet many others are caught on the fringe of that. Shrapnel travels at astronomical speeds and hits people in in a completely random way. These injuries are devastating. There were scores of people coming in with limbs missing. Seeing somebody with a leg off at the thigh, a leg off below the knee, an arm ripped off was all too common. It was hard to take in - you have to become somewhat immune to the backstory behind each dreadful injury, and concentrate on the carnage in front of you, to be able to deal with the constant onslaught of cases.
How were the medics coping with it? You were there for two weeks. They are there for months, presumably on end?
I think it's incredibly important that we don't focus on the visiting medics. I usually peeled off at about 9pm or so in the evening - I had to go to bed and had to have a rest, but there were people trying to work through the night. What I want to focus on is the local people, particularly a young colleague, Ahmed, who was 36 years-old. He was statesmanlike in his ability to pull things together. His family are actually mostly in Dublin as they've got Irish passports. I cannot tell you how much admiration I have for that young Gazan man who shared his room with me.
He has been managing to create a team who work alongside him, since many of the staff who had worked at the hospital before (some of whom we had trained over several years in limb reconstruction) were not there. That is because they might not be alive, or having to support their displaced families, or simply are afraid to travel in daily to the hospital, or whatever. It is a huge demand on individual doctors to leave a family group (who invariably try to stay together, so that if they are bombed, they all die together and do not have to be a sole survivor.) to then work away from such possible loss of all their family members. It's an incredible sacrifice to be working in medical care when your family are all huddled together in a place where they may all lose their life, and that gets to them in the end.
The orthopaedic side is almost on its knees. Most of the system in the hospital is utterly on its knees. There were early years medical students who had been taught quickly how to manage wounds and to skin graft. They haven't got any pay, but some people have given a little money to my colleague’s account to try and give them some support. There were IT students and all sorts of others pulling together. How people can work in in such adversity and make things happen is quite a testament to the to the strength of humanity.