Tuesday, 25 July 2006

As rockets rain down, a hospital takes cover

BOSTON GLOBE | July 25, 2006
By Matthew Kalman, Globe Correspondent

NAHARIYA, Israel -- When Katyusha rockets started falling around the Western Galilee Hospital on the outskirts of Nahariya in northern Israel, there was only one place to go -- underground.

In just over an hour, more than 180 patients, including birthing mothers, newborns, and general surgical cases, were moved together with their monitors, drips, nursing staff, and all ancillary equipment into bomb-proof shelters beneath the hospital buildings.

``After the hospital was hit by rockets in the early 1980s and three employees were wounded, we insisted that every new wing must have a bomb-proof emergency facility constructed underneath," said Dr. Moshe Daniel, the deputy director of the hospital, which serves a population of more than 450,000 people across northern Israel.

``Now we have 400 beds underground, including a medical emergency room. All of our eight operating theaters are bomb-proof and also protected in case of a chemical or biological event. One-hundred and eighty of the underground beds are similarly protected," he said.

The hospital serves as Israel's front-line emergency room for most of the area now under bombardment from Hezbollah rockets, as well as the first port of call for soldiers wounded in the fighting. More than 2,000 people work at the hospital.

When the rockets began falling soon after the start of the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict on July 12, employees more than 10 minutes' drive away were asked to sleep over between shifts so as not to endanger themselves on the roads. When Nahariya was placed under curfew and residents ordered into bomb shelters, the hospital expanded its day-care facilities for the children of its workers in one of the underground bunkers and brought in extra people to help look after them. The army provided some of its young conscripts to help the nurses.

``I was on my way to work when the first rocket fell on Nahariya," said Daniel. ``It exploded right in the street ahead of me. Since then rockets have been falling all around us, every day. This is the largest building in the area and from a distance it probably stands out. I think Hezbollah use our main block to help aim their weapons. Maybe they think it looks like a military facility."

The hospital treated 400 patients injured in the first week of the war, including one soldier. ``Fortunately, only three of them were seriously injured," he said.

The basement spaces beneath the buildings are connected by large tunnels wide enough for ambulances to drive through. Inside, the atmosphere is hot and hectic. Generators hum in the background.

One of the surgical patients was David Levy, 58, whose leg was sliced open by shrapnel when a Katyusha exploded just a few yards from his home in the village of Zarit on the Israel-Lebanon border.

``I've been through all of Israel's wars, but this is the toughest," said Levy, his leg swathed in bandages. ``We came under massive fire. They used these six years since Israel pulled out to dig in and arm themselves with huge quantities of missiles."

In the underground emergency room, director Arie Eisenman is making do with 20 beds instead of the usual 55. A makeshift resuscitation room has been set up in an adjacent storage cupboard.

``It's cramped. There's hardly enough room for the doctors to get around. It's less ventilated and very hot. The staff have to remember to keep drinking all the time. But it's much safer down here," he said. ``We are under heavy shelling all the time. It's a necessity."

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