The little girl was crying in pain and shouting “mummy, mummy» while the nurse stitched her head wound without giving her anesthesia as she is not available at Al Shifa Hospital in her hometown Gaza.
It was one of the worst moments nurse Abu Emad Hassanein remembers as he describes the battle being waged by hospital staff to cope with an unprecedented influx of wounded and a shortage of anesthetic drugs since the war in Gaza broke out on October 7.
“Sometimes we give them sterile gauze (to bite on) to reduce the pain”Hassanein explained.
“We know the pain they’re feeling is more than anyone can imagine, beyond what anyone their age could handle,” he added, referring to children like the girl with the head injury.
Nemer Abu Tair, a middle-aged man, went to al-Shifa Hospital to have his gauze changed and an antiseptic applied to his back wound, which was caused by an airstrike. He stated that he was not given anesthesia when the wound was stitched.
“I recited the Qur’an until they finished,” he said.
The war began on October 7 after a bloody attack by Hamas against Israel, in which 1,400 people lost their lives. The Israeli military has responded with airstrikes and ground operations in the densely populated enclave, which have killed more than 10,800 Palestinians, according to Hamas’ health ministry.
Mohammad Abu Selmeyah, director of al-Shifa Hospital, said that when a large number of injured people arrive, there is no other option than to give them first aid on the floor, without administering anaesthetic.
As an example he cited the explosion at al-Ahli al-Arab hospital on October 17, when around 250 wounded arrived at the same time at al-Shifa, which has only 12 operating theatres.
“If we had waited to operate on them one by one, we would have missed many of the wounded,” he explained. “We had to perform operations on the floor without general anesthesia, or using simple anesthesia or painkillers, in order to save lives,” Abu Selmeyah emphasized.
Among the operations that doctors at al-Shifa Hospital have performed under these conditions are the amputation of fingers or limbs, stitches in serious wounds and the treatment of severe burns, he explained.
Pain or death
“It’s painful for the medical team. It’s not simple. Either the patient will suffer or die,” Abu Selmeyah pointed out.
At Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, Dr. Mohammad Zaqut said that for a period early in the war, stocks of anesthetics were completely depleted until aid trucks entered the enclave.
“Some operations were performed without anaesthesia, including caesarean sections on pregnant women, while we were forced to do the same on burn victims,” he added.
Zakut pointed out that the health staff did their best to reduce the patients’ pain by using other, milder drugs, but it was not enough. “It is not the ideal solution for a patient in the operating room who we want to operate under full anesthesia,” he emphasized.
During the first 12 days of the war, no aid was allowed into the Gaza Strip. On October 21, a first convoy of trucks passed through the Rafah border crossing, on the enclave’s border with Egypt. Since then several convoys have entered Gaza, but the UN and international aid organizations stress that the aid passing through the enclave is not enough to prevent a humanitarian disaster.
Zakut added that although shortages of anesthetics at his hospital have been eased thanks to humanitarian aid, there are still serious shortages at al-Shifa Hospital and the Indonesian Hospital located in the northern part of the Gaza Strip, where shelling is heavy.