The air is fresh and there’s a cool breeze. Welcome relief from the stifling heat of Ramallah. I can smell fresh bread baking and the falafels cooking in the deep fryer. Young doctors in clean blue scrubs are inside ordering food at the café till, taking a quick break from their busy schedules in Rafeedyeh Hospital across the street.
In front of me are the hills that buffet Nablus on either side. They’re close enough for the tall residential buildings going up them to look large and their beige walls shine brightly in the morning sun.
It’s not a busy street and mostly taxis go by honking insistently at pedestrians and each other.
Inside the hospital is a team of American surgeons who have come to Nablus for the week to offer their expertise and donate their time and skills to treat children with urological problems. This covers genital issues but also other organs like the kidney and bladder. Their trip was coordinated by an organization that matches children with surgical needs with doctors and hospitals from abroad who have the facilities to treat them. Some of these children’s problems have been with them since birth while others are treated for injuries received during the many bombings or conflict related incidents that occur frequently in the Palestinian Territories.
Walking into the ward I am introduced to the organisation’s head social worker in Nablus – a warm, bubbly lady with twinkling brown eyes. She is simultaneously speaking with the doctors, manning the door to the surgery and shaking my hand as we are introduced. Her pink hijab matches her flowing pink top which in turn frames her pregnancy beautifully. She is in charge of finding children in need of surgery and helping to coordinate the logistics for the medical teams they bring in from abroad.
Next to her is Teresa. A friendly American lady in her 40’s whose short, ash blonde hair is part hidden by her surgical cap. She is the medical team’s nurse. This is the third trip to the Territories for this team and she has already picked up an impressive amount of Arabic.
‘Sabah al kheir’ she says cheerfully to the Arab doctors walking by. They respond in kind, charmed by her relaxed demeanor and quick laugh.
The three of us and the head of the organisation, who is also the kind friend who gave me a ride in to Nablus, stand around and chat about the team’s experiences and wellbeing. Since arriving in Nablus three days ago they have been doing almost back to back operations on children with a variety of surgical needs. Currently they are operating on a 1 year old who was born with under developed genitals and a faulty urinal system.
As far as I can understand, his urethra ends at the base of his penis instead of extending to the tip and he urinates through his abdomen wall. Because of this the penis is very small and has a severe curve in it.
‘Would you like to take a look?’ Teresa asks adjusting her eye glasses which rest on top of her head, underneath the cap.
‘What the surgery do you mean?’ I ask in surprise.
She smiles and nods giving me green slippers to place over my shoes and begins asking around for an extra pair of scrubs.
‘There’s going to be some blood,’ she warns as I suit up. ‘Are you alright with that?’
It’s a difficult question to answer. It’s hard to predict how one will react to watching a surgery involving the reconstruction of the penis of a one year old until they are actually in the situation.
I nod hesitantly from behind my surgical mask.
‘The best thing to do is to keep your arms crossed like this’ she demonstrates ‘that way you can be sure not to contaminate anything.’
She leads the way into a spacious operating room. I walk in behind her my elbows practically pointing to the floor as I over cross my arms in fear of being that girl who messed up the operation.
To the left is a small group of doctors who are closely following the operation on a TV monitor. Less than a metre from there and right in front of me is the operating table. The baby is covered with a green sheet with his genital area exposed. A white haired American doctor is working on placing a tube through the penis and sewing a new urethra around it. Once this heals, the tube will be removed and the child should have normal urinary function. As he guides the curved needle in and out of the pink flesh the American describes the process, passing on as much knowledge as he can to his Palestinian counterparts.
The atmosphere is calm and orderly.
Teresa talks me through what the doctor is doing then motions me towards the head of the operating table ‘come meet the anesthesiologist’.
She introduces me to a friendly American gentleman who explains his job to me and shows me what the squiggly lines on his monitor mean.
We stand silently and watch for a few minutes as a man from across the world changes the life of a young child who will never see him again.
I nod at Teresa and we quietly leave the operating room.
‘How do you feel about helping me with my rounds?’ she offers.
As we go around the children’s ward, Teresa checks up on the patients the team has already operated on. I stand nearby and translate for her as she checks up on each patient and speaks with their mothers.
Are they eating well? Where is the pain?
Teresa’s Arabic is good however the mothers have concerns and questions that go beyond their English and Teresa’s Arabic. They ask questions about whether their child will now function normally and details about their condition; I do my best to translate.
Despite the language barrier the mothers clearly trust Teresa and she, in turn, speaks to them with genuine care. The connection between her and the women is heart-warming and their affection for her is obvious.
As a patient touches her warmly on the shoulder speaking of the olives she has set aside for her to taste I look outside the window; it’s a beautiful day.