Sunday, 23 July 2006

Frontline Israeli hospital takes cover underground

Facility remains fully functional as rockets rain down nearby


Dr. Arieh Eisenman, the director of the medical emergency room, says conditions underground are hot and cramped, but much safer. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle.

David Levy gets treatment for shrapnel wounds at an underground ward at Western Galilee Hospital. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle.

Sunday, July 23, 2006
Page A - 15

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Nahariya, Israel -- When Katyusha rockets launched from Lebanon started falling around the Western Galilee Hospital on the outskirts of this town in northern Israel, there was only one place to go.


The decision was made at 1 a.m. on July 13, about 24 hours after Hezbollah launched a cross-border raid and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. A little over an hour later, more than 180 patients, including mothers giving birth, newborns and general surgical cases, had been 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, 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 -- 180 of the underground beds are similarly protected," he said.

The hospital serves as Israel's frontline emergency room for most of the area now under bombardment, as well as the first destination for soldiers wounded in the fighting.

More than 2,000 people work at the hospital. When the Hezbollah rockets began falling, those who live 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 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 uses 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," Daniel said. No one on the hospital staff has been injured.

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. Overhead, huge silver ventilation shafts gleam dimly. Generators hum in the background. The various wards, which in their regular homes on the floors above enjoy state-of-the-art facilities, are separated by chipboard partitions with printed signs. There is a sense of highly efficient chaos glimpsed behind the scenes, as if a visitor had stumbled backstage on the set of a medical TV show.

David Levy, 58, a patient in the underground surgical ward, was being treated for a leg wound caused by shrapnel when a Katyusha exploded just a few yards from his home in the village of Zarait on the Israel-Lebanon border.

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

Levy needed three operations to repair the damage. Otherwise, he said, he "would go home tomorrow."

"I know it looks like a mess down here, but the staff are fantastic and the treatment is excellent. They are doing a wonderful job," he said.

In the makeshift emergency room, director Dr. Arieh Eisenman was making do with 20 beds instead of the 55 upstairs. A resuscitation room had been set up in an adjacent storage closet.

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

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