The US doctor who cannot forget what he saw in Gaza

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Sam Attar, a surgeon from Chicago, has been deeply affected by his experiences working in Gaza’s hospitals during the ongoing conflict. He recounts the harrowing scenes he witnessed, the suffering of the patients, and the overwhelming need for aid and medical support in the region.

Attar, a sensitive and thoughtful man in his 40s, has worked in war zones around the world, including Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq. But nothing could have prepared him for the devastation he encountered in Gaza. “I still think of all the patients I took care of,” he says, “all the doctors that are still there. There’s a little bit of guilt and shame at leaving because there’s so much that needs to be done. The needs are overwhelming. And you walk away from people that are still there and still suffering.”

Attar’s most recent trip to Gaza, his third since the war began, saw him join the first team of international medics to be embedded in a hospital in northern Gaza, where malnutrition is at its most acute. The mission was organized by the World Health Organization (WHO), which has warned of looming famine in the region. Some 30% of children under the age of two are reported to be acutely malnourished, and 70% of the population in northern Gaza is facing what the UN calls “catastrophic hunger.”

Attar recounts the heartbreaking scenes he witnessed, from a 32-year-old woman who succumbed to severe malnutrition, to the traumatized 7-year-old girl, Jenna Ayyad, who was “just skeleton and bone.” Jenna’s mother, Nisma, desperately hoped to get her daughter to the south, where better medical facilities were available, but the convoy was only approved for the delivery of fuel and food, not for carrying patients.

Seven-year-old Jenna Ayyad was severely traumatised – she has since been transferred to southern Gaza where she is receiving treatment

The UN has estimated that the majority of those killed in the war have been women and children: 13,000 children and 9,000 women. Attar describes the relentless pressure of triage, deciding who could be saved and who was beyond hope, as patients lay on hospital floors surrounded by blood and discarded bandages, the air filled with cries of pain and grieving.

Attar is haunted by the faces of those he treated, the doctors and paramedics he befriended, and the patients and their families who saw in the medical staff a glimmer of hope in a place of terror and degradation. He is determined to return to Gaza soon, driven by the bonds of friendship and the overwhelming need for aid and medical support.

The needs are overwhelming. And you walk away from people that are still there and still suffering

The situation in Gaza is dire, with only 10 of the region’s 36 hospitals still functioning. Attar calls for a concerted push to get more aid, food, fuel, and water to the north, where the need is greatest. He also advocates for the evacuation of patients from the north to the south, where the hospitals are also struggling to cope.

Attar’s experiences in Gaza have left an indelible mark on him, a part of his soul that he cannot forget. He is driven by a desire to help, to bear witness to the suffering, and to advocate for the people of Gaza, who he now considers his own.

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