‘Walls were shaking’: Calgary doctor’s humanitarian mission to Gaza truncated by looming danger

Click to play video: '‘Walls were shaking’: Calgary doctor on dangerous humanitarian mission to Gaza'
‘Walls were shaking’: Calgary doctor on dangerous humanitarian mission to Gaza
WATCH: A Calgary doctor who has been in volunteering in Rafah, Gaza, for the past week has been told to leave because the situation is too dangerous. Dr. Fozia Alvia and her son were part of the first foreign primary care team to be assisting the sick and injured in the border city and delivering much needed medicine. Carolyn Kury de Castillo reports – Feb 19, 2024

As international concerns remain about a potential Israeli offensive in the city of Rafah, Gaza, a Calgary doctor who has been volunteering in the border city this month has been told to leave because the situation is too dangerous.

Dr. Fozia Alvi says she was part of the first foreign primary care team to assist the sick and injured in Rafah. The team was able to deliver medication for epilepsy and broad spectrum antibiotics, as well as pain medication.

She arrived in the city about a week ago with a small team that included her 20-year-old son who serves as a translator.

Alvi, who grew up in Pakistan and now practices medicine in Airdrie and Calgary, founded the humanitarian aid group Humanity Auxilium.

She was planning to stay in Rafah for two more weeks but the situation has grown worse.

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“Since Friday, we were waking up many times at night because the room where we are staying inside the hospital, the walls are shaking. And on my last day I’m so sad to see that and hear that everybody is scared, and these noises are getting louder and louder,” Alvi said in an interview from Rafah on Saturday.

Dr. Yipeng Ge, a resident physician at the University of Ottawa who was suspended in November for his pro-Palestinian social media posts, is also on the humanitarian mission.

“I felt like it was the right thing to do,” Ge said. “It felt like it was a duty and an obligation because I have the skills and training in family medicine, having also trained in emergency rooms in different parts of Canada, also having worked in under resourced settings, including in Nunavut.”

However, Ge said nothing could have prepared him for what he saw in Rafah. “Children having lost their entire families and are lying in ICU beds fighting for their lives.”

According to Ge, the sound of airstrikes and bombings has intensified over the past few days.

“The madness and chaos continues — the bombing. the airstrikes. The constant sound of drones that has been so pervasive and normalized for the people here,” Ge said. “I feel horrible that we’re leaving on Sunday. We have the privilege to leave and people here cannot leave.

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Ge has worked in the primary care clinics in Rafah, dealing with everything from respiratory infections to hepatitis A, gastrointestinal disease and malnutrition.  He said some children can’t walk because of malnutrition.

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A recent report by the Global Nutrition Cluster screening for malnutrition in Gaza showed five per cent of children in Rafah under the age of two were “acutely malnourished.” Rates in northern Gaza were triple what was found in the southern border city.

Prior to the conflict, acute malnourishment among children under five was below one per cent. The report led Unicef deputy executive director Ted Chaiban to say the region is “poised to witness an explosion in preventable child deaths.”

Ge said when doctors see acutely malnourished children, little can be done without broader aid.

“All they can give them is five per cent dextrose and IV fluid bag, which is just a little bit of sugar water into their veins. What they really need is shelter and food, and clean water, but instead we’re actually introducing another source of infection through IV line and causing more distress,” Ge said.

“Sometimes, if not all the time, the causes of disease and suffering are those broader determinants of health like access to food and water and shelter and education, a stable job, and all of those things have been completely decimated in Gaza. Nothing has been untouched.”

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Click to play video: 'Israeli PM Netanyahu rejects calls to halt ground offensive in overcrowded city of Rafah'
Israeli PM Netanyahu rejects calls to halt ground offensive in overcrowded city of Rafah

Many of the patients the Canadian team have been seeing had surgery at the Shifa Hospital months ago, which had been under attack.

“They still had the hardware in their arms and the pus was coming out,” Alvi said.

She said patients who were rushed out of the hospital without proper follow-up care or access to antibiotics now face the possibility of infection and amputation.

“On top of everything, there’s no antibiotics available. We are seeing small babies with pneumonia and we doctors are giving them Tylenol. It’s mind-boggling. We are seeing in the small school, where thousands of people are seeking refuge, an epidemic of hepatitis A because there is no clean water. We are seeing their yellow eyes.”

She said hepatitis A patients need proper nutrition but there’s no food available.

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“We need food to eat. There are starving children on the ground,” Alvi said. “I lost count with how many orphan children I have seen. I saw a 30-year-old lady who lost her one eye, she had an amputation of her arm, amputation of both of her legs by the knee and (lost) all of her children.”

Alvi said local health-care workers are suffering too. She said nearly all the staff members she’s worked with have experienced the death of a family member or friend.

“We were sitting down in the staff room and I spoke with the doctor. I said that I’m very sorry about your brother and your sister and he burst into tears. He said to me that the outside world have no idea what Gazans are going through,” Alvi said.

Ge said what struck him the most about the people living in Gaza was their resiliency and that they had become used to the constant sound of war.

“A missile landed somewhere near the hospital and the building shook, and the kids in this family didn’t bat an eye. The doctor told us this is normal because it’s been normal for many months, but we were saying ‘Oh my God.’ We thought we were going to die,” Ge said.

Alvi said she’s feeling guilty about leaving on Sunday and wonders what will happen to the people left behind.

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“These children are innocent. I don’t see the difference between the children of Gaza here and the children who are living in Canada — there’s no difference,” Alvi said.

She has previously worked in refugee camps and natural disaster areas, but this is her first time working in a war zone.

“It’s hard as a human being, as a mother, as a physician. I don’t think I will ever recover from this trauma that I have seen,” Alvi said. “Just witnessing that trauma is hard.”

She said her choice to come to Gaza was the most difficult decision she’s ever made.

“Leaving my 18-year-old daughter was very difficult. I wrote letters for my daughter, for my children, and I put them by my bedside drawer, and I told my husband that if I cannot make it back home then just open it,” Alvi said.

She said her daughter was proud of her but didn’t want her to go.

“It was very difficult. But when we do this kind of work, we have to make some sacrifices and I was ready to do it,” Alvi said.


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