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Ontario surgeon back from medical mission says his ‘heart and soul’ remain with children in Gaza

Warning: This story contains graphic images.

A Canadian trauma surgeon says that for every child he saved in the hospital in southern Gaza, another would die of their injuries.

“We lost many children before our eyes,” said Dr. Anas Al-Kassem, chief surgeon at Norfolk General Hospital and West Haldimand General Hospital. 

The Hamilton-based doctor travelled to Gaza last month as part of a medical convoy to help Palestinians injured in the Israel-Hamas war, and suffering from what the World Health Organization has called “catastrophic” health conditions. 

Al-Kassem, a father of five, returned to his Ancaster, Ont., home on Thursday after the two-week mission, but said his “heart and soul” stayed behind.

“The children of Gaza, they took my heart,” Al-Kassem said. “When you look into their eyes, you can see that they’re telling us, ‘Don’t leave us alone.'”

The trip was organized by Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations-Canada (UOSSM), a coalition of medical humanitarian organizations, and included six doctors from Canada and the U.S. who entered Gaza through Egypt. 

WATCH | Dr. Anas Al-Kassem talks about what he saw in Gaza:

Ontario surgeon describes humanitarian disaster in Gaza after trip

6 hours ago

Duration 6:05

Hamilton-based Dr. Anas Al-Kassem travelled to Gaza last month as part of a medical convoy to help Palestinians injured in the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas and suffering from what the World Health Organization has called ‘catastrophic’ health conditions.

They worked at one of the territory’s last functioning hospitals in the city of Khan Yunis. Al-Kassem said that every night, there were intense bombings that made it too risky for ambulances to pick up injured patients.

It was at sunrise, when the bombings eased up and people were pulled from rubble and rushed to the hospital, that his work began. 

‘I’ve never seen this in my whole life’

Al-Kassem said he would treat upwards of 30 people each day, at least half of whom were children, some as young as two. Many suffered head trauma, shrapnel in the chest and abdomen, or injuries to their arms and legs that required surgery. 

He’d stitch up patients’ wounds on the floor without having any bed or painkillers to offer. After quick assessments, the doctors would have to decide who to try to save with their limited resources, he said. 

man in scrubs kneels over child laying on stretcher
Al-Kassem stitches up a child’s wound on the floor of the hospital in the city of Khan Yunis. (Submitted by Anas Al-Kassem)

Al-Kassem said there were bright moments, like when he and another surgeon from Toronto saved an eight-year-old boy’s life by removing shrapnel from his heart. But even compared to his time working in Syrian hospitals since 2011, the situation in Gaza was far more intense and catastrophic.

Al-Kassem said thousands of people were sheltering in the vicinity of the hospital in Khan Yunis. Tents were set up anywhere there was space — in corridors and the front and backyard. 

“It’s so crowded — I’ve never seen this in my whole life,” he recalled. 

Since returning to Canada, he has been speaking out about what he has seen.

“I feel these people have been ignored and absolutely abandoned by the international community.” 

Al-Kassem said he’s calling for Canadian and American officials to end the war, which began on Oct. 7 when Hamas militants attacked Israel. For instance, those governments could take a firmer stance against Israel’s attacks in Gaza, he said.

Hamas killed 1,200 people on Oct. 7, mostly Israeli civilians, according to Israeli officials. They also took about 240 hostages, some of whom have since been released. 

Wounded people lie on the floor of a medical establishment, as doctors in blue scrubs attend to them.
Medical staff at a Nasser Hospital in southern Gaza attend to Palestinians wounded during an Israeli raid on Dec. 10. (Bassam Masoud/Reuters)

In response, Israel invaded Gaza and has killed more than 23,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry. Two-thirds of those killed have been women and children.

The Israeli offensive has destroyed hospitals, homes and other infrastructure, displacing nearly 85 per cent of Gaza’s 2.3 million people and leaving a quarter facing starvation. Analysts say it’s the most destructive bombing campaign of this century.  

Canada voted in December in favour of a non-binding motion before the United Nations General Assembly that calls for an “immediate humanitarian ceasefire.” But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said late last month that Canada’s support for Israel remained unchanged, despite the vote.

Doctors ‘critically’ needed in Gaza

Toronto-area Dr. Ben Thomson is also part of UOSSM and plans to go to Gaza in the coming months, he told CBC Hamilton on Sunday.

“When we talk about the teams of physicians that come in and provide support, they are absolutely critically required more than ever,” he said.

Thomson has been outspoken on social media about his support for Palestinians and with warnings about the humanitarian crisis, leading to a one-month suspension last fall from the Richmond Hill hospital where he works as a nephrologist. 

He was in Gaza in September and said the public health situation was already dire before the bombings began. Now, it’s “completely destroyed,” he said. 

The United Nations reported last week that thousands of children have already died from not only the violence, but also disease and starvation. 

Dr. Aliya Khan, a professor of medicine at McMaster University and UOSSM board member, said it’s also important for physicians like Al-Kassem to go to Gaza to be an eyewitness to the “humanitarian catastrophe unfolding before our eyes.” 

Few international journalists are reporting from Gaza and nearly 80 media workers have been killed in the war, including in southern Lebanon, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international watchdog. The large majority have been Palestinians.

“It’s like a media blackout,” Khan said. “So the world will not know the size of the catastrophe. They won’t be able to see the destruction.” 

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