‘Misery is misery, but this was bad … very bad,’ says ex-Gilbert Bain surgeon


When surgeon Harald Veen worked at the Gilbert Bain Hospital in Lerwick, he could not have imagined the horrors he would face in years to come.

The Royal Navy surgeon, who worked in Shetland from 2003 to 2006 and returned to the isles briefly last year, has recently gone back to his base at the navy’s Princess Royal medical centre in Gibraltar after performing crucial life-saving surgery in war-torn Gaza.

Working for the International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent (ICRC), the Dutch-born surgeon completed hundreds of difficult operations in the 600-bed Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, the biggest hospital in the territory.

Bombs fell all around as Mr Veen worked from “dark to dark”, treating patients with horrific injuries who were rushed in by whatever means possible.

He said the painful memory of seeing innocent children caught up in the shelling would stay with him forever.

“It is especially the children who really can’t help all this. The pictures are gruesome, whether it’s the five-year-old girl with beautiful hair but with a hole in the chest and one arm missing – she died a short time after – or the small boy lying on his back with nothing wrong, but you turn him round and there is a huge hole in his spine – he’ll be paralysed for life.”

Then there was the older man, said Mr Veen, who stood sobbing with the body of his dead wife in his arms.

“Misery is misery, but this was bad – it was very bad. There was always a steady flow of patients, and these were mostly injuries from bombardments from shelling. This was war – it was nothing less than war, and war is horrible.”

So horrible was the experience, in fact, that most of every day life could not be shown by the media, despite widespread television coverage on the news and current affairs programmes.

Mr Veen said viewers have been largely protected from the worst of the atrocities, adding much of it was too gruesome to show in peoples’ living rooms.

“I fear that in most of the media the pictures are too clean to do it justice,” he said.

If working in Gaza was a challenge, however, just getting there proved to be almost as difficult.

Part of a four-member emergency surgery team, Mr Veen faced three days of frustrating delays before the Israeli authorities would eventually let them cross into Gaza.

Once there, the hospital had to deal with 50 to 100 wounded patients every day.

Very few of them, said Mr Veen, came with gunshot wounds. Most people suffered penetrating injuries and traumatic amputations, with many seeing arms and legs torn off indiscriminately by heavy blasts.

“Patients had very dramatic injuries, but they could have died from bleeding inside the abdomen. Surgically it was quite a challenge to treat.”

Despite that, Mr Veen said staff at the hospital’s emergency room coped admirably with the strenuous task that lay before them.

“The emergency room at Shifa Hospital was quite a hectic place, and that is because Shifa is in the centre of Gaza City, so within minutes of a blast going a car races in and you got lots of people.

“You got a lot of very committed family and friends and when that happens there is simply no way of keeping them out of your emergency room.”

But he said staff were able to work under hard pressure, and treated many patients in double-quick time.

Shifa created three 15-member surgery teams and each would do a 24-hour shift while another team waited on standby. The ICRC team that Mr Veen worked for provided backup to the larger local team of doctors.

Thankfully, essential medical supplies like anaesthetics were never in short supply. They came from a central Palestinian ministry of health warehouse in Gaza City.

But another massive challenge for Gaza’s people is looming on the horizon. Mr Veen said a massive amount of post-operative care will be needed for those who had suffered traumatic injuries.

No stranger to countries in difficult circumstances – Mr Veen has already worked in Gaza before this month as well as Iraq and Chad – the surgeon admitted having been scared by the sounds of bombings and explosions around him.

“Nobody can deny that. Initially during the night when we saw blasts in the distance it looks far away, but if it happens just around the houses there is shaking and it’s very frightening.”

? Meanwhile chairwoman of the Disasters Emergency Committee in Scotland, Judith Robertson, has called on people in Shetland to help make the current Gaza Crisis Appeal one of the most successful ever.

She said the humanitarian crisis was worsening every day. Half of Gaza’s 1.5 million people were children under 16 and among the most vulnerable who were suffering the most. These innocent people were in desperate need of basic supplies such as food, water, medicines and shelter.

Ms Robertson said: “The humanitarian need in Gaza is acute and funds are urgently needed. A small donation can go a long way, so I am calling for the people in Shetland to help make this Gaza appeal one of the most successful ever. “Aid agencies are already in Gaza and working hard to respond, by providing food, clean water and other essentials, however to do this vital work we need public support in the form of money donations.

Donations can be made by calling 0370 60 60 900, online at www.dec.org.uk or at any Oxfam, Red Cross or Save the Children shop or post office.


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