February 24, 2024

Dr. Seema Jilani is currently a senior technical adviser at the International Rescue Committee, where she leads their emergency health responses globally. In December, she went to Al-Aqsa Hospital in central Gaza to aid the humanitarian effort there. More than twenty-six thousand Palestinians have been killed by Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, which began after Hamas’s terrorist attack on October 7th. Since that time, Gaza’s health-care system has been on the brink of collapse, and Israel has refused to allow sufficient food and medicine into the territory. I recently spoke by phone with Jilani, who has practiced medicine across the world, including in numerous conflict zones, about her experiences in Gaza. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Where have you worked before you ended up in Gaza?
Dr. Jilani has been in and out of Gaza and the West Bank for the past nineteen years. She was previously in Gaza in 2005, prior to Israeli disengagement, and then again in 2015, right after the 2014 war. And also again several times in and out of the West Bank. She has worked in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, and on refugee rescue boats off the coast of Libya.

When you’re working in Iraq, or Pakistan, or Afghanistan, who are you working with, and in what capacity are you working there?
In various N.G.O.s, some that are mainly composed of volunteers. She was working with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Lebanon when she lived there. Jilani usually works in a pediatric capacity as a clinician. In Turkey, she was teaching refugee and migrant medical students how to advocate for their patients.

In the first few hours of my work, I treated an approximately one-year-old boy. His right arm and right leg had been blown off by a bomb, and flesh was still hanging off the foot. He had a bloodstained diaper, which remained, but there was no leg below. I treated the baby while he lay on the ground. There were no stretchers available because all the beds had already been taken, considering that many people were also trying to use the hospital as a shelter or safe space for their families. Next to him there was a man who was on his last breaths. He had been actively dying for the last twenty-four hours, and flies were already on him. All the while, a woman was brought in and was declared dead on arrival. This one-year-old had blood pouring into his chest cavity. He needed a chest tube so he wouldn’t asphyxiate on his own blood. But there were neither chest tubes nor blood-pressure cuffs that were available in pediatric sizes. No morphine had been given in the chaos, and it wasn’t even available. This patient in America would’ve immediately gone to the O.R., but instead the orthopedic surgeon bandaged the stumps up and said he couldn’t take him to the operating theatre right now because there were more pressing emergencies. And I tried to imagine what was more pressing than a one-year-old with no hand and no legs who was choking on his own blood. So that was symbolic of the impossible choices inflicted on the doctors of Gaza, and how truly cataclysmic that situation is.