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In a Gaza hospital, a Canadian surgeon tended to children whose eyes were shattered in bomb blasts

Warning: This story contains graphic descriptions and images.

The Current19:15What a Canadian doctor saw in Gaza

A Canadian eye surgeon has described removing shrapnel from children’s shattered eyeballs during a recent medical mission to Gaza, where he saw the civilian toll of Israel’s offensive against Hamas.

“I took about ten eyes out when I was there,” said Dr. Yasser Khan, an ophthalmologist based in the Greater Toronto Area who returned last week from the European Hospital in Khan Younis, in southern Gaza.

Khan said he removed eyeballs from children as young as two, and that many of the people he treated have been left “basically blind.” At one point, a six-year-old girl named Aseel was brought to him after an Israeli airstrike killed some of her family, including her father. 

She had a piece of concrete shrapnel lodged in her eye socket, about two or three inches long, he said.

“I saw this tiny soul sitting there, and … she’s done nothing at all to deserve this,” Khan told The Current, adding that the little girl reminded him of his own daughter.  

“I took the eye out … her whole life has changed, and she’s only six years old.”

A little girl sits on a hospital bed. She is injured, with a bandage covering her eye, stained with blood.
Dr. Yasser Khan treated this six-year-old girl, Aseel, during his time at the European Hospital in Gaza. Khan received permission from the hospital to share images of the patients he helped. (Submitted by Yasser Khan)

Khan’s trip to Gaza was organized by U.S.-based NGO Rahma Worldwide, in co-ordination with the World Health Organization. He worked at the hospital for seven days, putting in 13-hour shifts. He says he heard explosions every hour during his stay, some from airstrikes and artillery less than a kilometre away.

Around 1,200 Israelis were killed when Hamas attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7, prompting Israel to launch airstrikes and a ground offensive that have killed more than 24,000 Palestinians, according to the health ministry in Gaza. Hamas is believed to have taken 240 people hostage in the initial attack, some of whom have since been released in exchange for Palestinians held by Israel. 

Khan has worked with disadvantaged communities in 40 countries across Africa, Asia and South America — but he said this trip to Gaza was his first active war zone. He said he wanted to help after seeing news and social media coverage of the conflict, but nothing prepared him for the “unprecedented” suffering he encountered. 

“Children, women, boys, men … come in with limbs lost, with head trauma, with that classic shrapnel face,” he said. “Red dots all over the face … and each red dot has either steel or wood or concrete in it.”

The United Nations estimates that 1.9 million people, or 85 per cent of the population, have been displaced within the Gaza Strip. Israel’s blockade means there is little or no access to food, clean water and fuel in many areas, with the UN warning that 2.2 million people are at imminent risk of famine

WATCH | No signs of peace 100 days into Israel-Hamas war:

No signs of peace 100 days into Israel-Hamas war

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Duration 2:14

One hundred days into the Israel-Hamas war, the calls for peace are growing louder. Israel has vowed to continue its attacks ‘to total victory’ as Palestinians struggle to survive.

Israel has faced increasing international pressure to stop its military campaign in Gaza. Last week, South Africa brought an allegation of genocide against Israel at the International Court of Justice — asking the court to order an immediate suspension of the violence. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week that Canada supports the role of the ICJ in upholding international law, but that “does not mean we support the premise of the case brought forward by South Africa.” On Tuesday, the federal government clarified that Canada will abide by all ICJ rulings, when one is made.

On Saturday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue the military campaign, saying “no one will stop us.”

Hospital now a city of refugees

Khan said the area in and around the hospital has become “a city of displaced people,” where thousands of Palestinians have congregated seeking sanctuary from the violence. 

“People have set up shelters … makeshift shelters that they’ve made with blankets,” he said. 

“Families of six, seven, eight people living in this small square of an area covered by sheets for privacy.”

An injured young man lies on a bed in a hospital hallway. Several other people are walking past.
The European Hospital had a pre-war capacity of 250 beds, but is now grappling with anywhere between 1,000 and 2,000 patients at a time. (AFP via Getty Images)

Within the hospital, staff are grappling with how to care for more than a thousand patients in a facility that normally has 250 beds. 

“There’s people everywhere … everybody’s coughing. Everybody has a respiratory illness. Most likely everybody’s lost something.”

Some health-care workers have moved their entire families into the hospital, living in the small dorm rooms where doctors normally sleep while on call, Khan said. He was given someone’s office to sleep in; his new colleagues cooked for him on portable stoves. 

“They’re working 24/7. They’re exhausted,” Khan said.

A man wearing medical scrubs sits in an operating studio in a posed portrait.
Khan said he saw ‘unprecedented’ suffering in Gaza, and a health-care system in a state of collapse. (Submitted by Yasser Khan)

Only 13 of Gaza’s 36 hospitals are partially functioning, according to the WHO. Two others are minimally functioning, while 21 others have ceased operations.

Sean Casey, the WHO emergency medical teams coordinator in Gaza, told a news conference last week that there has been a “really worrying … intensification of hostilities” very close to the European Hospital and other medical facilities. 

“We cannot lose these health facilities. They absolutely must be protected,” he said.

Canadian trauma surgeon Dr. Anas Al-Kassem also recently returned from Gaza. Last week he told CBC News that at least half of the wounded he treated were children, and limited resources meant he was forced to make quick assessments about who he could try to save.

At the European Hospital, Khan said he saw 15 amputations performed in a single day. He worked on checking patients’ eyes after those more pressing injuries had been treated. He remembers two brothers, aged 15 and 17, one of whom had his entire leg amputated.

“They didn’t survive.”

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The guilt of leaving patients behind

Khan said he’d go back to Gaza in “a heartbeat.” He returned to Canada on Jan. 9, amid security concerns that Israeli forces were pushing further south, and the hospital may soon need to be evacuated.

“I was worried for the patients. I was worried for my colleagues who have become my friends now,” he said. 

“I felt guilty because I’m leaving these people that I became very close to.”

On one of the nights before he left, Khan recalled walking to his room when he came across a man who had lost both his legs, sitting in a wheelchair. The man was playing a game with a group of children. They lined up to sing for him, and he gave each child a treat. 

“They’ve lost their schools and their lives, and there’s nothing for them to do … but yet they’re still smiling,” Khan said. 

“They’re laughing, they’re smiling … for them, this is normal, right? [But] this is not normal.”

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