Intensive care doctor confronts harrowing scene on Gaza’s front lines, warning: disturbing images

Stepping into the Intensive Care Unit, I immediately became engulfed in chaos. Patients arrived continuously without any order; we did what we could, but it was never enough. Some patients died before we could even attend to them.

  • 2 weeks ago
  • May 8, 2024
6 min read
journalist’s notes
interview subject
Vanita Gupta is an intensive care physician with over thirty years of experience in the United States. Originally from the United Kingdom, she has dedicated her career to serving critical care needs globally. This year, she joined MedGlobal, a non-governmental organization, and traveled to Gaza to provide medical aid in one of the world’s most challenging environments.
background information
In the early hours of Saturday morning, October 7, 2023, the conflict between Hamas and Israel escalated as the first rockets landed in Israel. Hamas invaded killing and kidnapping hundreds of Israeli citizens. This prompted an immediate response from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as they reported incursions by armed militants from Gaza into southern Israel. Following this, Hamas, the Islamist group governing Gaza, announced the onset of “Al-Aqsa Storm,” launching what it claimed to be a barrage of 5,000 rockets targeting Israeli military positions, airports, and bases, while its military commander, Muhammad Al-Deif, called for a general uprising against Israel.

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed that Israel was at war and initiated a counter-offensive, going inside Gaza. Thousands of Gazan citizens have died as a result. For more details, visit CNN Español’s coverage of the Israel-Hamas conflict and additional live updates.

RAFAH, Gaza — As an intensive care doctor, connecting with suffering is part of my job. Yet, nothing prepared me for the horrors I witnessed in Gaza. The sight of children seriously burned or fatally shot felt beyond traumatic. Instead, it was shocking. My skin curdled and my heart froze. The chaos overwhelmed me as I witnessed endless pain and despair. In the midst of it all, any notion this was a simple conflict dissolved in my mind; what I saw felt more akin to genocide.

For years, I felt a strong pull towards volunteer work, driven by a strong desire to apply my skills where they were needed most. This commitment led me to join MedGlobal. As the conflict in Gaza intensified and the demand for medical professionals like me surged, I promptly volunteered. My deep connection to the suffering of others always fuels my motivation.

Read more stories on Gaza at Orato World Media.

Doctor prepares to volunteer in Gaza, thousands desperately await help

Before leaving for Gaza, I mentally prepared myself, facing the real possibility I might not return. I organized my affairs and drafted my will. Despite these measures, nothing prepared me emotionally for the sheer scale of suffering I encountered upon arrival. No level of mental readiness equipped me to handle the devastating realities of the situation.

As part of a United Nations convoy, crossing from Egypt into Gaza illustrated the stark challenges ahead. Before we even entered Gaza, we confronted a kilometers-long queue of trucks laden with supplies and food, all barred from entry. This vital aid sat just outside the Strip, unreachable for the thousands inside desperate for help.

Entering Gaza felt heart-wrenching. The landscape, dotted with thousands of tents housing displaced people, appeared to be surrounded by enormous piles of garbage. I arrived at night, and the darkness amplified the eerie, foreboding atmosphere. I stayed with other volunteers in an unheated house. The biting cold forced us into layers of clothing as we tried to rest on the hard floor, lacking even basic comforts like beds.

Lying there, I became acutely aware of the countless people just outside, enduring far worse conditions in those tents. Imagining their survival in such harsh circumstances seemed unfathomable. The next morning, my first visit to the hospital overwhelmed me both emotionally and physically. What should have been a hospital resembled more of a refugee camp. Tents filled every available space, housing both the sick and those with nowhere else to go. The constant influx of desperate individuals never stopped.

Injured patients filled every corner, hundreds died before receiving medical attention

Stepping into the Intensive Care Unit, I immediately became engulfed in chaos. Patients arrived continuously without any order; we did what we could, but it was never enough. Some patients died before we could even attend to them. Patients laid on the floor while injured people filled every available space. It became difficult to focus as people shouted out in pain.

On my first day, I treated a six-year-old girl with severe burns covering 40 percent of her body. Her father had died, and her mother was critically ill. We had no morphine to offer, and her cries broke my heart. I offered food, and she tearfully asked for eggs and fried potatoes. I felt hopeless, unable to fulfill her simple wish.

I managed to arrange her transfer to Cairo, Egypt holding onto the hope she might receive the necessary care in better conditions. However, two days later, I received devastating news. The six-year-old girl passed away. I almost broke down, but the relentless demand from other critical cases – children with burns, gunshot wounds, and amputations – required me to focus.

To cope with the profound sadness, I pondered a haunting question: “If she had survived, what would her life have been like?” I knew she would have faced a life of disfigurement, homelessness, a dying mother, and deep trauma. A desolate realization struck me. In Gaza, if you are seriously wounded, maybe dying is the best thing that can happen to you.

Doctor prevails: “Witnessing life leave her body felt profoundly sad”

While I got lost in these reflections, the harsh reality surrounded me. Not long after, I cared for another patient, a woman shot in the head and unable to speak. I did not know her name or her story, but I was there during her final moments. Witnessing life leave her body felt profoundly sad.

In Gaza, I wrestled with a constant internal contradiction. When faced with an injured person, my instinct to help kicked in, to cling to life. Once, a father with tears in his eyes asked me, “Doctor, can you save my daughter?” I promised to do my best, yet I questioned whether intervening was the best thing to do. This tension between action and inaction relentlessly haunted me, but ultimately, my drive to aid prevailed.

I witnessed many children dying, and their families collapsing in anguish, pain, and despair. Surprisingly, none of these parents ever expressed anger toward the doctors. They treated us very peacefully, never yelling. In the United States, hospital interactions often involve a lot of aggression. You might expect parents of a child dying from a bombing to be angry, but they remained calm, perhaps already resigned to their fate.

Despite everything, many people tried to maintain a positive spirit. When I asked how they managed, they simply replied, “We are counting the days.” After spending about a month there, I realized that the Gazans I encountered accepted this harsh reality and strove to make each day as bearable as possible.

Doctor finds it difficult to adjust to everyday life in the United States: “I find myself questioning many aspects of our lifestyle”

During that month, sleeping became nearly impossible for me. At night, lying on a hard, cold floor, I heard the incessant rumble of bombs falling in nearby areas. Thoughts and memories of the day’s events at the hospital tormented me. Despite taking sleeping pills, I struggled to fall asleep. I did not experience fear during my time in Gaza, because I accepted that any moment could be my last. I live by the philosophy that whatever happens will happen, and in the meantime, I must keep going.

When I returned home to New York, I broke down in tears. In Gaza, the routine took over, leaving no room to attend to my emotions. I resisted being sad in front of people enduring a terrible situation. I stayed strong to convey hope and give them a smile. At home, however, tears rolled down my face as I released all the emotions I bottled up inside.

It remains difficult to adjust to everyday life here. I find myself questioning many aspects of our lifestyle. Once, while meeting friends at a restaurant, I noticed one of them left her plate nearly full. I remarked, “You are wasting food; you could feed so many people in Gaza with this. They don’t even have half of what we have.” It makes me angry and offended, and I often feel guilty. I constantly compare our lifestyle with those in other places. When people ask, “What can we do about this?” I see my role as informing others about what is happening, to help awaken the world.

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