THE SCMCI DOCTOR WHO IS TREATING EVACUATED CHILDREN IN EILAT
Dr. Keren Shahar Nissan from Schneider Children’s Medical Center was in the middle of her maternity leave when the war broke out after the murderous terror attack on October 7th. She took her infant aged 4 months and went down to Eilat to the children’s clinic for evacuated children that was opened there by Schneider. “To sit next to them quietly and try to share the enormous gravity of their inconsolable distress” – a personal column:
Within this delusional dimension of time and space that we are all immersed in – left without certainty, without rest, without a sense of security. A space where grief overflows its banks and it is impossible to absorb more pain, or even to internalize the existing pain – we established a Schneider Children’s Clinic for evacuated children in Eilat.
As a mother on maternity leave with her 4-month-old infant, who since October 7th looks into her sweet baby’s eyes and cannot fathom anymore to what world she had chosen to bring her daughter into, and whether I am truly able to promise that she will be protected – I was consumed that I could not be called up this time to the reserves, to the ER, to wherever possible. And so I found myself in a place where I could get to, to give the little that I could, between nursing times.
Even when the war broke out in Ukraine, I left with a team from Schneider to establish a field hospital in Ukraine, but this time, I was unable to explain in words what was happening here. Eilat, known for summer vacations and always associated with fun and leisure – until today, when it became a temporary shelter for multitudes of people.
Entire families wandering around, plucked from their routine against their will. Dogs on leashes walking around with their owners between the lobbies and the rooms of the hotel – lost among the unfamiliar smells and noise.
Children in bathing costumes between the swimming pools – a confused glance appealing to return to normality, to the familiar. And the small talk in the lobbies and the dining room. Oh my God, you should never know the content of these conversations. In another world, at another time, in this place were discussions about how hot it was outside and how high the humidity was that day.
And no-one knows how long this will go on, or how to manage in this temporary situation. And it is impossible to even plan next week with everything up in the air, a different kind of waiting, where there is no routine and no experience in creating routine, but also where there is no breaking of a good kind of routine. One of the mothers in the clinic shows me all the time that she received a message that they will remain in Eilat until the beginning of November, and after a few days, this became the middle of November, and today, they already advised that it would be minimum until the end of December, but of course, this is not final. And everyone is hanging around in this dimension of time, of between the in between. Only it is unclear between what and what.
The children’s clinic is located within the office space of the hotel. I meet cute children with ear infections from the pool, which grants them a kind of holiday bubble experience among this chaos that the parents are trying to manage. Brave and amazing youngsters, who were present in scenarios that I could never have imagined, only think how they can participate and help. Tender infants who should have been going to a routine visit at the health clinic in another world, in a sane world. A toddler who says “boom, boom” every time there is a noise because he thinks that a rocket is coming. A child who repeatedly asks his mother, where is he? And where is she? And where is their baby? And the answers that never should be, like “he is dead”, “she was murdered”, and “we hope that he was kidnapped”. And another cutie who offhandedly tells me “you know that they shot my neighbor?”
And there is one collective fear of these children’s fantasies and of their parents and ours, all of ours – when they threaten to drown us, to rob us of all memory of a sense of happiness and security. A youngster who saw the terrorists from the window and suffers from tics since then, a girl that refuses to leave the hotel room since she was rescued from the shelter where she stayed throughout long hours. And they are embarrassed to say that they are scared. And what can we say to them? That I, the privileged from the center of the country, close my eyes and dream that terrorists will kidnap my children from me? That I didn’t move 20 meters away from my building since October 7th? That only from reading the news about what they endured, each knock on the door makes my pulse jump to 200? That they are so brave just because of the fact that they get up in the morning and try to function?
And suddenly it seems cynical to call myself a doctor. Because, despite 7 years of study, residency and sub-specialization, I do not have a single tool to heal wounds of this kind. Huge chasms that have widened in so many hearts. And I would like to ask them to guide me, to give me a hint, to tell me everything that I can do to alleviate, even a smidgen, of what they are going through. I prescribe ear drops for one, and ointment for another. But the real wound I honestly cannot treat. And how simple and insignificant is the ability to diagnose a bacterial throat infection amongst everything that is happening to our people.
And they thank me, and I am unable to understand for what, because really, I did not help them heal the actual wound. And I say to them, “excuse me”, excuse me for this unimaginable situation that was forced upon you. And I want only to be there with them, in this time dimension, just be there. Present. To sit alongside them quietly and try to share the enormous gravity of their inconsolable despair for which there is no mercy.
And the clinic closes, and I leave with my family to go outside for a bit, to breathe some air. And I don’t have any, I don’t have air. And every spare minute I am filled with thoughts of the children who are gone, and the children who have been kidnapped – how on earth? How hellish? And this feels like a nightmare that perhaps morning will come and I will awake from it. But this time, just the opposite. I look forward to dreams of refuge from this catastrophe that became reality.
But, at the same time, alongside all this weight that we are carrying around on our chests, I notice that something else has been born here. Within the crowded and over-burdened clinic, inside the packed dining room with not a space to spare – I have been here already for a few days – I do not see any angry people. I didn’t hear any raised voices, nor see any “chutzpah”. There were no unsavory words said, no-one pushed in the lines. Every time that I asked who was next in line for the clinic, every looked at everyone with a loving countenance – and every family tried to have another family go in before them. I didn’t hear one ounce of politics, not a crumb of argument or division between people or opinions. Only tenderness in glances between one and the other. Only compassion.
And everyone is enveloped, enveloped in a monumental embrace by everyone. There are those who opened laundry collection, and those who initiated a center for equipment. There are volunteers in the children’s club and those who cook meals for families, and the doctor who arrived by car to collect patients for examinations at his clinic and returns them to their hotel afterwards, and the teacher who left her job and arrived to volunteer to open a temporary school. There are no limits to the energy and the accomplishment – and there are no limits to ability. It is infectious. It is understood by all that this time it is them, and tomorrow it could be us.
So yes. We have lost the sense of home. Physically, emotionally. We have deep burns in our souls. And it doesn’t yet feel so but perhaps when we emerge from this awful dimension of time, after the terrible tragedy, we will be able to create a new home. Another home. A home where everyone feels protected. Where there are no neighborhoods where children must live in fear. Where there is a huge community, like now, where there are super strengths which live and breathe forever, independent of everything. And nothing can touch it. And then, only then, maybe, there is a chance that we will agree to remember what happiness is.
Dr. Keren Shahar Nissan is a senior physician in the Emergency Medicine Department (ER) at Schneider Children’s Medical Center.