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Doctors are among the many dead in Gaza. These are their stories

A wounded Palestinian boy arrives to the emergency room of the Al-Shifa hospital, following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, central Gaza Strip, on Oct. 17. Israel claims Hamas uses the facility for military purposes and has built a vast underground command center below the hospital. As Israeli forces move in on the facility, hundreds of doctors and patients remain inside.
Abed Khaled
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AP
A wounded Palestinian boy arrives to the emergency room of the Al-Shifa hospital, following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, central Gaza Strip, on Oct. 17. Israel claims Hamas uses the facility for military purposes and has built a vast underground command center below the hospital. As Israeli forces move in on the facility, hundreds of doctors and patients remain inside.

Dr. Hammam Alloh hadn't left Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City for days.

Incessant bombings and the deluge of injured had kept doctors, nurses and other medical personnel working around the clock, often for a week or more at a time.

The 36-year-old nephrologist had saved countless lives since war broke out in the Palestinian territory, but on Saturday, after leaving to see his family, he lost his own.

Alloh was killed alongside his father by an Israeli missile that struck his parents' home not far from Shifa.

He is now among the more than 200 health care workers who have been killed in Gaza since the start of the war, according the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Another 130 reportedly have been wounded. To date, more than 11,000 people have been killed by Israel's military response, which was launched after Hamas militants killed an estimated 1,200 people and kidnapped another 240 in Israeli towns last month.

Several doctors have told NPR that news of colleague fatalities initially spreads by word of mouth and is followed by official lists every few days. But as Israel's military escalates its attacks across the territory, triggering communications blackouts, it has been difficult for officials to maintain an accurate count. And as the onslaught intensifies, the list gets longer.

Those who are left behind say there is little time to mourn the dead or ensure their legacies are not buried in the destruction of the violence of war. In that spirit, doctors there shared details about their lost colleagues' lives with NPR.

"These men and women should be recognized for their heroism," Tarek Loubani, a Canadian Palestinian emergency room medical doctor, told NPR.

In this image taken from a video released by the Israel Defense Forces on Tuesday, an Israeli tank drives through Gaza City.
Israel Defense Forces / AP
/
AP
In this image taken from a video released by the Israel Defense Forces on Tuesday, an Israeli tank drives through Gaza City.

He wanted to help

Loubani is a long-time friend of Alloh. The two met in 2012 when Alloh was still in medical school and a group of Canadian physicians, including Loubani, traveled to Gaza on a training mission. They had stayed in touch ever since, aided by Loubani's frequent trips back to Gaza to train doctors and bring medical supplies.

"He was a young, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed medical student who just wanted more than anything to help the people around him," Loubani recalled of those early days. "[Alloh] was always a person who could lead the charge. He was a natural born leader and such a dedicated human being."

Before his death, Alloh regularly updated the press about the ghastly conditions at Shifa, pleading with the world not to turn away.

When he recently was asked by an American journalist why he refused to heed Israel's demands to evacuate the hospital, he responded, "If I go, who will treat my patients? ... You think I went to medical school and for my post-graduate degrees for a total of 14 years so [I'd] think only about my life and not my patients?"

The last time the two men spoke was on Oct. 8 — the day after the war began. Loubani said they hadn't been in touch since his last visit to Gaza about a year ago. During their brief exchange, Loubani told him he hoped Alloh would stay safe.

"And I promised him that if anything happened that we would take care of his family," Loubani said, his voice breaking. "It's not just that I lost my friend. The Palestinians lost their future."

Alloh was spearheading a new nephrology program in Gaza, Loubani explained. Now that he is dead, and much of the territory's infrastructure has been obliterated, those plans have turned to ash.

"Most of these [medical professionals] — men and women — when they get killed, it's also the death of the programs that they lead," Loubani added. "It's also the death of all the patients they would have had. Also the death of a system. That's what it means when Hammam got killed."

Bodies of Palestinians killed by an explosion at the Ahli Arab hospital are gathered in the front yard of Al Shifa hospital, in Gaza City, central Gaza Strip, on Oct. 17. Palestinians say the devastating war between Israel and Hamas is robbing them not only of their loved ones but also of the funeral rites that long have offered mourners some dignity and closure in the midst of grief.
Abed Khaled / AP
/
AP
Bodies of Palestinians killed by an explosion at the Ahli Arab hospital are gathered in the front yard of Al Shifa hospital, in Gaza City, central Gaza Strip, on Oct. 17. Palestinians say the devastating war between Israel and Hamas is robbing them not only of their loved ones but also of the funeral rites that long have offered mourners some dignity and closure in the midst of grief.

A calm, steady surgeon

When some of the staff at Shifa first heard that Dr. Medhat Saidam's apartment building had been demolished by an airstrike on Oct. 14, they clung to the possibility that the renowned plastic surgeon had somehow escaped.

Mohamad Mattar, head of the radiology department at Shifa Hospital, told NPR that upon hearing the news about Saidam, he thought of the rare cases in which people are buried alive, beneath piles of debris, and miraculously survive.

"We had hoped, but unfortunately we received the news that he had been killed," he said.

Even more devastating to those who knew the soft-spoken man was confirmation that 30 members of Saidam's extended family were also killed by the missile strike. One of Saidam's former colleagues told NPR that the surgeon's wife and kids were pulled out of the rubble — still alive — the following morning.

It is not uncommon for a single bomb to wipe out entire families. As Mattar previously told NPR, it's tradition in Gaza for parents, children, brothers and sisters to live in the same building. As a result, one strike can extinguish multiple generations at once.

In Saidam's case, he'd come home from Shifa when his sister, who had her own children in tow, arrived seeking shelter. They were trying to escape the bombing of their own neighborhood.

Mattar, who spoke with NPR from Shifa hospital before it ceased operations, talked about his friend as a focused and steady man. Whenever he ran into Saidam in the cafeteria or the hospital's corridors, he said, they'd discuss cases and patient care plans.

"He was calm. I never saw him anxious or angry or shouting like other doctors — even during the other wars. He kept his peaceful and quiet personality at all times," Mattar said.

He added that Saidam never expressed any political views. The only manner in which he was assertive, according to Mattar, was when he was advocating for his patients, "asking for facilities or instruments from the management of the hospital."

As the war escalated and more victims with terrible burns from explosives were rushed to Shifa, Saidam's expertise became indispensable.

"He was of great value to the hospital because we have very few plastic surgeons in Gaza," Mattar explained.

Mattar said he and other physicians have noticed "that during this war, for the first time, many of the victims have high-degree burns — second- to third-degree burns, full-body burns, including kids and women."

Treating those types of extreme injuries, he said, was Saidam's specialty.

An injured Palestinian girl receives treatment at al-Shifa hospital, following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, central Gaza Strip, on Nov. 5.
Abed Khaled / AP
/
AP
An injured Palestinian girl receives treatment at al-Shifa hospital, following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, central Gaza Strip, on Nov. 5.

"It could be any of us"

Ghassan Abu-Sittah is a British Palestinian plastic surgeon who lives and works in London. He returns to Gaza each time war breaks out. Over the years, he's gotten to know several Gazan physicians, working alongside them under dangerous conditions.

This time around, he arrived two days after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in Israel that sparked the current war. He said that, more than a month in, he is at a loss for words to quantify the horror he is witnessing.

"A few days ago, we found out one of the senior nurses in the main operating room was killed. Then a pediatric resident was killed. A day before that, one of the young anesthetic residents had been killed," Abu-Sittah told NPR last week, during a 1 a.m. phone call over a tenuous connection.

In most instances, he said, he doesn't have a personal connection with the victims beyond their resolve to stay and treat those they can help. But in their deaths there is a bond, "because it could be any of us at any time."

A couple of weeks ago, word came through that an obstetrician from the hospital had been killed in a missile attack on her home, along with one of her two daughters.

Abu-Sittah had never met the woman, but she was well liked and "everybody in the hospital knew her," he said. It wasn't long before the woman's surviving daughter arrived at Shifa as Abu-Sittah's patient.

"I operated on her," he said, in a sigh of exhaustion. "The catastrophe with that case is that the girl was left basically on her own. The girl is 9, with three really horrendous facial injuries, and she is the only survivor in the family."

NPR has not been able to reach Abu-Sittah since Israeli troops entered the hospital on Wednesday. It is unclear if he has been evacuated. On the day of the interview, he was optimistic that a ceasefire would be declared. He said he hoped to continue treating as many patients as possible until that day arrived.

Abu-Sittah added: "I think people are still in shock in Gaza. I think, because it's not stopped, people aren't taking stock of the amount and the magnitude of loss that they've had in terms of family and friends and loved ones and colleagues. ... When it's over, then we'll grieve."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.