“Surgical Mission to Palestine: Frustration and Gratification”
"Volunteer American Surgeon", writing from occupied West Bank for The Palestine Review, July 30, 2009
The author conducts a presurgical evaluation for a young cleft lip/palate patient, with parents looking on.
I am a private practice surgeon in Chicago and have always wanted to somehow give something back to the poor and needy. My first experience with charitable surgical work was in Latin America and I enjoyed it immensely. I had always wanted to give back in my own country of Palestine, however. The opportunity was eventually made possible by the Palestine Children's Relief Fund (PCRF) which opened this door for me and now I go there at least twice a year.
I recently returned from my latest surgical mission to Palestine. I have been fortunate to be able to participate in volunteer surgical missions to the occupied territories twice a year over the last few years. These missions are very satisfying and I always look forward to them, despite the obstacles faced in both the preparation and arrival. The barriers encountered always quickly fade away upon arriving in Palestine. Seeing the faces of the children and their families brings immense satisfaction, knowing that no matter how small our contributions may be, it will make some kind of difference for the people living under oppression and occupation.
What was different about my latest mission, however, was that I embarked on it and planned it with a greater sense of optimism than usual. This was due to several factors. Firstly, this trip came after a series of successful fundraisers for our cause which enabled us to purchase additional equipment and supplies. As a consequence, we were the most prepared we had ever been. Secondly, we had anticipated the participation of a large number of surgeons and were expecting to accomplish more than we ever had. Everybody was very motivated for this trip especially after what had recently happened in Gaza, even though we were going to the West Bank.
No matter how much you plan, though, things do not always go smoothly! After months of preparations, setting and coordinating dates, and purchasing tickets in the eleventh hour, we had to reduce the number of volunteer surgeons on our mission due to swine flu concerns. Eventually we embarked on our mission and then came the day of the “bridge”, i.e., the border crossing from Jordan to Palestine under complete Israeli control.
We have learned to leave on a Friday as it is a short day and the crossing officially closes at 3 PM in anticipation of the Sabbath. We also leave Jordan late in order to minimize our waiting time at the crossing. By now we know that no matter what time we arrive we will not have our passports released until the minute they close. We are always subject to the same interrogations and endless questions. As I mentioned, this does not bother us any more; we expect it, endure it and go on. We look upon it as a kind of game, knowing we must put in the time in order to get to the next step.
This time we arrived on the Israeli side around 1 PM. We were quite happy with ourselves, having anticipated a wait of no longer than 2 hours. The first setback was the "stamp" some of the surgeons received on their passports. In the past we had requested that our passports not be stamped which allowed us to freely travel within the territories and “Israel”. On our last trip, though, it was difficult to get to Jerusalem. The soldiers at the checkpoints had insisted on seeing the entry stamp which we did not have on our passports or on the pieces of paper they used to give, but which they discontinued by saying “it’s on the computer”. I knew that eventually it would come to this where by not giving you the stamped piece of paper they could make your life difficult by claiming ignorance and playing stupid. The game continued as they would audaciously ask, “How did you get into the country?” Well, this time we asked for stamps to avoid having a difficult time going to Jerusalem. When our passports started trickling back we were surprised with a new entry stamp recently devised saying “Palestinian Authority areas only”!!! Upon inquiring about this we were questioned, “Isn't that where you said you were going? You have no reason to go to Israel, do you?” At that point I lost it, and demanded a “regular” entry stamp. They would not change those already stamped but, oddly enough, granted my request. They even stamped a piece of paper that they left with me.
Everyone eventually got their passports back except for two volunteers, who were held back. Since I received mine, I decided to proceed with the luggage search in order to get through quickly. Our bags were always thoroughly searched since we carry surgical instruments and supplies. But, since it’s a security check we always eventually got our bags and continued. This is what I was expecting but was surprised this time when told that I was “smuggling” medical instruments and supplies. As I mentioned earlier this time we were very happy that we were so well equipped and looking forward to our good fortune at being able to perform many surgeries. No amount of pleading or explaining that these were the same instruments and supplies we always carried (and they always remembered us) succeeded in changing their minds. They said that first we must obtain clearance from the Israeli Ministry of Health. We would then be subject to customs even though they knew that what we carried was aid intended for the Palestinians. Our supplies and instruments could end up being confiscated pending the proper paperwork or we could retrieve them on our return to Jordan. This was an extremely hard and disappointing blow!
At this point it was already 5 pm and we were the only remaining travelers since the border crossing had shut down at 3pm. They had actually shut off the lights, but we still were not ready to leave; two from our party had not yet made it through immigration with their passports! Eventually at 6:30 pm the remaining passports were released and we were on our way…upset and disheartened…and without our instruments!
We eventually arrived at our hotel late in the evening. The next morning we initiated screenings of the many patients waiting for our services. As I previously expressed, seeing all the children and their families and hoping to make even the smallest difference in their lives is what makes it all worthwhile. You forget about all the suffering you endured just to get there, which is clearly intended to break our resolve and desire to return. We started our screening with renewed optimism and went on to schedule our surgeries despite our lack of complete instrumentation. We persevered, knowing that God would help us manage with what we had and hoping for a miraculous release of our “held” instruments.
On our first day of surgery we performed relatively simple procedures, requiring minimal instruments. We continued to monitor the progress and status of the release of the remaining instruments with much hope. On the second day, with still no news, we soldiered on with our more complex surgeries and with limited tools. We were able to successfully carry on and as each day passed, this became our routine. We managed the surgeries, always hopeful that our instruments would be returned to us. As the days passed however our faith in the release of our instruments began to fade.
The author, on the right, performs delicate cleft lip surgery.
In the end, we triumphantly completed each day of surgery. We were happy to be able to achieve our goals, despite our many handicaps. Even with the increasing and escalating odds we endured, at the end of yet another successful mission we were once again very sad to say our good-byes.
After the mission was complete, and with a renewed sense of resolve to return very soon, we spent a couple of days in Jerusalem on our way back to Jordan. Upon our arrival at the bridge we started the nightmare of retrieving the instruments. This should have been a very simple process of presenting the confiscation form and retrieving the held bags as we were now leaving the “country”. However, in typical Israeli fashion, which is intended to degrade you as a human being and break your determination, nothing is easy. You are continuously shuffled around and forced to wait on various officials in a charade designed to demonstrate the utmost disrespect. We were sent from one official to the next until we came to the original customs official we knew we had to see and attempted to explain this many times only to be told to stay quiet as they “know”. Upon reaching the correct official I was told to wait in front of his office for a long time. After eventually being allowed to explain my purpose, I was told to wait yet again. After a while I was told that I could not have my instruments. I attempted to explain that I was leaving and was here to retrieve them to take them back to Amman. Finally I was able to convince them that I would be returning to Jordan. My instruments were released and we were on our way to the Jordanian side of the border after over 2 hours spent retrieving the instruments.
Overall we did have a successful and gratifying mission in spite of all the odds and frustrations. Our perseverance was also renewed to always return no matter what obstacles are placed in our face to discourage us from continuing our work. In doing so, we are continuing our mission and supporting even in the smallest way the resistance of those who have endured the occupation and humiliation all their lives. Just as they persist, we cannot be broken and remain steadfast, we also will never allow them to “win” by breaking our determination. We will return regardless of any and all obstacles. What they do not understand is that every time they try to discourage us they actually do the opposite by increasing our strength and our tenacity.
I will never forget my first trip when a member of my mission was very somber and upset after the bridge crossings. This was a person who was always upbeat and happy. I questioned the wisdom of having him join us, assuming he was tired and upset over the intense humiliation he endured and never expected. I asked him in an apologetic manner about what he went through and why he was upset. His response was “I am not upset by how I was treated, but by how they treat people as animals; therefore, I will always return!”