Lucky me, I’m sick… (A personal visit at Ashkelon’s Barzilai Hospital)

I have a dear friend in Gaza. Thanks to the Occupation that “makes hearts grow fonder” bringing me to Gaza every month, I used to meet my friend in his home town regularly for two years. That happened eight years ago, when Gaza was licking its wounds from the First Intifada and rebuilding itself out of the rubble. Since then, a lot of sewage has been flowing in its streets again, and Mustafa and I – praise God – nourish our ties over our cell phones, when there is enough electricity in Gaza to charge his.

But not all is lost in Gaza. If, for example, you are very ill, in serious condition, and not yet dead of lack of medication and surgical instruments and/or power shortage at the hospital, and/or the absence of a proper doctor, and in addition are lucky enough and the hospital administration has approved financing by the Palestinian Authority, you might just, by miracle, find yourself hospitalized in Israel.

That is how Widad, Mustafa’s wife, arrived at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon to care for her ailing father. We visited them several times. On Tuesday evening, we visited them for the third time. We crowded by a round table in the nice, cozy lobby of the mouth and jaw ward – Ehud and myself, visiting, Widad’s father suffering from a violent case of mouth cancer, Aatef, the father’s roommate in the ward, he, too, a Gazan, waiting for surgery in his parathyroid gland, Widad who insisted on hosting us in spite of our protests, and 3-year old Sarah with 18 stitches to sew her cheek back together along with her mother who stays with her, from Gaza as well. We all sat and talked thanks to my broken Arabic and Ehud’s better Arabic, and the much better Hebrew of the father who had worked for ten years for the Egged bus company in the ‘good old days’ of Occupation in the 1970s and 1980s.

At the next table sat a young woman, visiting some local patients, reading a small Jewish prayer book. The television hanging overhead was tuned to the Knesset channel, which invaded our ears as well since even on medium volume was much too loud. Aatef turned down the volume in the public TV set and apologized to the young woman sitting next to us. She answered with a smile and said this was alright, and added that the hospital is a place of understanding and that everyone here is a friend.

“But Sderot is receiving surprises” she added after a short silence. Aatef asked what the word “hafta’ot” (surprises in Hebrew) meant and I translated it for him to Arabic, and added that she meant the Qassam rockets. Aatef nodded his head in understanding and solidarity.

She looked at us and her gaze hovered over little Sarah who was playing at our side. The 18 stitches in Sarah’s right cheek invited a long look. When the woman looked away from Sarah, she turned to me, asking: “What happened to the little girl? It’s painful to see, she’ll probably be scarred for life.” Since she spoke to me, I gave her the information I had (from a previous visit of my son at the ward): “This is from the surprises she receives in Gaza”.

The silence that fell was broken by the young woman who said: “I have an idea. We must carry it out. We must tell the story of Sarah from Gaza and the boy from Sderot who lost his leg and more stories of children from here and from there, on television instead of all that talking”. (Let us not forget that the television was still on the Knesset channel).

We all listened to her. She spoke excitedly, as someone who had discovered something that had hitherto been hidden from her. Again silence fell among us, until another wave of excitement exuded from her into our respectful listening: “Not just once. 24 hours a day, this should be told.” She repeated this several times. We nodded in our agreement and translated her words to the Gazans. A wave of empathy reached her from all of us.

On our way home to Shoval, a 45-minute drive from Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon, I knew in my heart that one more person had joined the circle of those who grasp the most essential point. “Thanks” to 18 stitches in Sarah’s right cheek, at a hospital where one staff cares for all, and where people are at their most vulnerable, both patients and their visitors – hearts are more open, and it is much more difficult to blur the pain.

This young woman, whose name I forgot to ask, encountered little Sarah’s pain alongside her own. Personal pain with a name and an address, and her heart opened at once with enough compassion to contain the whole world.


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