Home » Paul Ley, doctor in Khan Yunis: “Never have so many children been operated on as in Gaza. I spend my days amputating limbs”

Paul Ley, doctor in Khan Yunis: “Never have so many children been operated on as in Gaza. I spend my days amputating limbs”

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Paul Ley, doctor in Khan Yunis: “Never have so many children been operated on as in Gaza.  I spend my days amputating limbs”

I have worked in hospitals in Afghanistan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Cambodia, Jenin… but I have never operated on so many injured children as I do now in the Gaza Strip.” The telephone interview with Dr Paul Ley it lasts an hour, and for an hour you can hear the cries of a little boy in the background. “We don’t have enough painkillers for everyone, we do surgeries with minimal levels of anesthesia. And we are forced to choose who to save and who to let go.”
Orthopedic surgeon for the International Committee of the Red Cross, Ley is 60 years old, has a French passport but spent his childhood and adolescence in a town in the Varese area. Years ago he worked with Gino Strada’s Emergency. He arrived at the European Hospital in Khan Yunis on October 27, crossing the Rafah border crossing. With him a team of six people. “Do you want to know what I do? I spend my days amputating limbs, which I then put in a cardboard box and return to the family. It is the procedure that respects religious precepts on bodily integrity.”

How many patients are you caring for?

“I don’t know the exact number, they just transferred 500 from Gaza City, many of whom were hospitalized at al-Shifa and Indonesian. For nine days no one has been taking care of them, they are wearing the same dirty clothes on which worms proliferate.”

What type of injuries do they have?

“They have no gun marks. They all survived bombings, air raids and building collapses, they have lacerations in their bodies, crushing injuries and various degrees of burns.”

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How many children were hospitalized?

“To give you an idea: we have a special unit for burns, and 40 percent of the patients are under 15 years old. 13 percent less than 5 years. Infections spread rapidly, almost everyone has a cough.”

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How many are you operating?

“There are 7 or 8 surgeons, but even if we were ten times more it wouldn’t be enough. Furthermore, Palestinian surgeons can no longer bear to amputate the arms and legs of their fellow citizens, they are so worn out by the devastation in the Strip that they ask us at the Red Cross to operate in their place. So I work 18 hour shifts a day. Since I arrived I have never left the hospital.”

What will you never forget about the desperation you are experiencing?

“A 35-year-old woman who arrived a few days ago from the North, with bloody legs and infected wounds. I explained to her that I would have to amputate her lower limbs and that she would never walk again, they had no choice about her. She replied that I could cut any part of her body because she no longer had any interest in living after a missile killed her two children and her husband.”

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Are you in the situation of having to select who to treat?

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“Unfortunately, yes, we live this dilemma every day. We do the triage together with the others on the team, then we decide which patient to take under the knife based on the chances of survival and we avoid making desperate attempts on those who we think might die in two or three days. In words it’s easy to do, but when you have to make the final decision on someone’s life and death you feel bad. Right now there is a twelve-year-old with 90 percent of his body burned by a bomb and who we have chosen not to operate on, we keep him under sedatives. However, they are not even enough to eliminate his pain.”

What do you use as an analgesic?

“A lot of ketamine. It is a substance that is often used in situations like this, of war, but it is not ideal. Usually to remove the clothes of those who have more than 40 percent of their body burned, we use powerful sedatives, now we do it without. And the suffering that patients feel is indescribable.”

What is the situation like within the European Hospital?

“We are probably the last functioning health line in the south of the Strip, but we are collapsing. The diesel for the electric generators is running out, so only the essential departments and the intensive care unit have electricity throughout the day.”

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Are the displaced people also camped there?

“Yes, there are a few thousand, maybe more than 5 thousand. Some sleep inside the elevators, others crowd the corridors. Even a doctor from al-Shifa who came to help us has to sleep outside, under a plastic sheet, because there is no room left.”

Have you been bombed so far?

“So far the hospital has not been hit by missiles and there have been no anti-Hamas incursions, as happened last week at al-Shifa. Around the perimeter of the structure there is a 150 meter free zone that the Israeli army is respecting. But the fighting is very close. I sleep on the floor, in a room reserved for staff, away from the windows. This way I reduce the risk of being hit by bomb splinters.”

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