AFOPA member Dr Francis Nathan (Ophthalmologist) reports back on his recent visit to the West Bank, Palestine, 22-27 October 2016, with the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF).
Rafidia Hospital, Nablus: This mission was scheduled for 22-27 Oct 2016 with the actual surgery performed over four days.
Some 55 operations were completed: 52 patients had cataract surgery with lens implants, two without lens implants due to intra-operative complications and one patient had surgery to rectify a complication encountered eight months ago when another team visited.
The patients who did not receive implants this time will be treated with a secondary lens implant when their eyes recover, either by the local surgeon or by a visiting team at a later date.
Discussions were held with the Chairperson of the PCRF Medical Board, Dr Khalid Abughazaleh, a maxillo-facial surgeon who was visiting from Chicago with his surgical team, and Dr Hamdi Nabulsi, the Director of Health Services, Ministry of Health, Palestine. The discussions centred mainly about procuring a phaco machine for cataract surgery for Rafidia Hospital.
Being Ophthalmic Adviser to the Medical Board, I have given it full support, as it is time to enhance the quality of service of subsequent missions.
We also discussed the expense of the ongoing costs of the consumables and how to budget for those.
Dr Abughazaleh will recommend the purchase of the machine to the PCRF board at their next meeting.
This last trip to Palestine turned out to be my 25th visit!
So time for some reminiscing!
Our first trip was in May 2000 and organised by SEE (Surgical Eye Expeditions) International whom I had been affiliated with since 1991, doing surgical expeditions to various other countries.
Baillie Brown from SEE International came along bringing all the required supplies.
Our local hosts were PCRF and after the mission we were invited by them to return on a regular basis, starting a long and fruitful relationship.
We worked with Dr Anan Matar, Chief Eye Surgeon at Rafidia Hospital. He has been pivotal in the ongoing service and has helped with every mission so far.
Baillie Brown is an OR (Operating Room) technician and has contributed enormously to the eye surgery service to PCRF working also in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. Her role was to source donations of supplies for the surgery and also to train OR staff.
She persuaded surgeons from other countries, viz. El Salvador, Peru, US, Canada, Spain and India to attend PCRF missions in Palestine, Lebanon and Syria.
We experienced some interesting situations together.
One episode stands out – when both of us made a decision to walk steadily towards an Israeli soldier who had his weapon cocked and pointing at us with our US and Australian passports held up high – to get through a checkpoint!
Following another incident, when she challenged the Israelis at the airport, she was cruelly deported and barred from returning to Palestine. She has been missed by all in Palestine but has continued her work in Lebanon till now.
We went to Gaza between 2002 and 2005 but our help is required no longer there, but for a good reason. The local eye surgeons are self-sufficient with their own surgical programs.
An oculoplastic surgery service was initiated in 2010 with the attendance of Dr Amal Husni. She is a Palestinian surgeon based in Jordan and has done 5 trips to Hebron, Nablus and Lebanon.
Her role was fixing children’s eyes, and reconstructive surgery to treat deformities around the eye caused by trauma, tumours or birth defects.
Dr Amal and I worked together twice in Hebron in 2010 but that program was discontinued due to lack of continuing support in the public hospital and the decision to centralize the public eye service in Nablus.
I have had the great honour and pleasure to work with dedicated surgeons from afar, viz:
Dr Ernesto Basauri from Spain to whom I am eternally grateful for bringing me to Palestine in the first instance (as a tourist!) while he was at the St John Eye Hospital in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem.
He attended one mission with me in Nablus when my most memorable experience was when both of us operated on two patients who were husband and wife, together at the same time, in the same OR!
He also provided specialty service as a retinal surgeon to Palestinians while he was at St John’s.
Dr Roberto Jule from El Salvador has brought his team to Nablus since 2005 on 5 missions and worked with me separately as well.
Dr Abdelfattah Arafat from Nablus and Dr Charlie Kanawati from Bethlehem attended a joint mission in 2005 when a new operating microscope (manufactured in Adelaide by ScanOptics) and partly funded by AFOPA was commissioned.
We had a dedicated team of OR staff which invariably changed over the years, from Shahnaz and Majida in 2000 to Bhushra and Abdullah in the middle years and Hiyam, Shifa and Um Aziz at the present.
Also a large team of co-ordinators and social workers led by the ever-present Suhail Flaifl who works everything from Gaza since 2000, organizing operating lists, accommodation and even taxi pick-ups from his desk and laptop – not being able to leave Gaza.
Several instrument sets for cataract surgery and a set of oculoplastic surgery instruments have been donated by AFOPA (Australian Friends of Palestine Association) with contributions towards purchase of an operating microscope and a sterilizer.
A new operating microscope was also donated in 2013 by AUSAID through the advocacy of The Hon. Tom Wilson, the Australian Representative for Palestine, to Rafidia Hospital.
I am indebted to AFOPA for their financial support with airfares and towards donation of essential equipment and supplies.
I am forever grateful to Steve Sosebee and PCRF for the unique opportunity to serve the Palestinian people and their faith and trust in me.
Finally, I thank my life partner and wife, Merlin, for her support and companionship on many a trip together.
To the next 25! (or maybe 10!)
DR FRANCIS NATHAN
Ophthalmic Advisor to Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF)