NJ doctor, trapped in Gaza, says he’ll treat kids hurt in explosions until he can go home

A New Jersey doctor and pharmacist are among the approximately 20 health care professionals a medical aid group says it’s been unable to bring home from a hospital in Gaza, after Israel closed the Rafah border crossing to Egypt, cutting off access to humanitarian aid and replacement personnel.

“We are still waiting for clearance to be able to leave and for another team to go in,” Dr. Adam Hamawy, a surgeon with plastic surgery offices in Princeton and Woodland Park, told Gothamist on Wednesday. He spoke from the European Hospital in Khan Younis, an area near Rafah, via WhatsApp.

He and the other medical personnel entered Gaza on May 1 as part of a Palestinian American Medical Association team to provide emergency medical relief services under the umbrella of the World Health Organization, according to the group. The group said in an announcement this week that the medical workers were denied their planned exit on May 13 because of the border closure. They’re now waiting on word about when it will be safe to leave.

Hamawy, a Princeton resident described scenes of devastation, and the explosions the medical workers hear just before patients come in with shrapnel injuries or serious burns. He recounted the task before him Wednesday: treating his youngest patient to date, a 1-year-old, for burns covering 20% to 30% of his body. It was unclear if the child would live.

Hamawy said he and the other medical personnel are functioning on one bottle of water and one meal per day, usually some tuna or falafel.

“I know that’s a lot more than the people outside the hospital compound are getting as well,” he said. Hamawy is an Army veteran famous for saving the life of Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth in 2004 after a rocket hit the Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting in Iraq.

Also trapped with the group is pharmacist Ghada Abukuwaik, who runs a pharmacy near the Clifton-Paterson municipal line. Heba Macksoud, another North Jersey pharmacist who knows Abukuwaik, shared a WhatsApp message from her saying the medical personnel had been cut off access to all aid.

“We are unable to leave and we have not been able to get basic supplies. We just need a safe corridor in and out of Gaza for humanitarian aid,” Abukuwaik wrote. “I’m asking for help to allow us to safely leave. Please ask for a cease-fire. Now I have seen with my own eyes what innocent people are suffering. Our presence instills a sense of safety, hope and relief to those who are in pain.”

U.S. Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman and Bill Pascrell both said they and several other New Jersey political leaders, including Sen. Cory Booker, were working to bring the medical professionals home.

“We have made clear to our own government to move heaven and earth to get the doctors home,” Pascrell said.

Pascrell shared a letter that he said he penned to the Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Herzog Wednesday afternoon, in which he requested “urgent assistance in helping a constituent of mine safely return home to New Jersey.”

“Dr. Abukuwaik is an active community member and pharmacist in Paterson. She and her colleagues traveled to Gaza to help preserve innocent lives. I hope and expect that your government will work closely with the U.S. Department of State to ensure Dr. Abukuawaik and all her American colleagues are granted expeditious passage from the war zone and safe return to the United States,” Pascrell wrote.

The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond to a request on Wednesday for an update on when the group of doctors trapped may be able to travel home.

Hamawy said that last week his team was informed by the World Health Organization that there was “no safe corridor” to leave Rafah. He said that since then all they’ve heard is “rumors” but nothing definitive about being able to leave.

“We’re just, just all waiting,” he said, adding that “There’s no official date when I can leave.”

On his personal condition, Hamawy said, he’s “doing OK.”

“I’m tired. But, as a surgeon … we’re used to working long hours,” he said. Hamawy added he’s thankful that he’s still healthy.

Hamawy said that while the medical professionals wait to hear an update on when they’ll be able to leave he’s just continuing to work.

“What else could you do? You know, we’re not going to help anything by just sitting and worrying, and actually the days fly by,” he said.

Hamawy said his day typically starts at 5 a.m. He said the medical personnel usually hear airstrikes nearby — “some get pretty close” to the hospital and have blown the doors open. Then, an hour or so later, casualties start to come in once they’ve been pulled from the rubble.

He’s said he’s working with local Palestinian medical students as assistants to perform surgery.

“In the operating room, I have medical students helping me most of the time. These are, Palestinian medical students who until Oct. 7 [the day of Hamas’ attack on Israel preceding Israel’s invasion of Gaza] were either second, third or fourth-year students. And they have not been to school since.”

“Their school has been destroyed,” he said.

He said the students working with them are unpaid.

“We have nothing to offer them. They’re not getting paid. But it’s better than just sitting at home and hoping things will get better,” he said.

Hamawy said that most of his patients are victims of explosions — and many are children.

“Most of the patients I see suffer from explosive injuries that include shrapnel penetrating wounds to the body and burns,” he said, adding he’s treating “a lot of the kids” who get thrown “like 100 feet away” by blasts. Many lose limbs or have burns on up to 80% of their bodies, he said.

He said his average patient is 12 or 13 years old.

Hamawy gave the 1-year-old burn victim he saw Wednesday a “50-50” chance of survival, which he said was a “good prognosis” for the hospital.

“He’s still in ICU. It’s a fresh burn injury. I pray he’s going to survive. This should not be a fatal injury at home. Here, it’s I mean, I would say 50-50 here, and that’s a good prognosis for anyone that makes it to this hospital because of the rate of infection and the level of facilities and resources that we have,” Hamawy said.

Hamawy was supposed to be home for his oldest daughter Noor’s graduation from Rutgers University earlier this week, but he missed the ceremony. The pandemic kept crowds from gathering for her high school graduation four years ago, he said, “so she never had a graduation for high school, and now I’m missing this.” He said he can’t wait to give her a big hug and “hopefully throw a huge graduation party for her.”

Hamawy’s daughter, Noor, told Gothamist that her father had planned to come “straight from the airport” to the graduation. But she said he called on Thursday to tell her he wouldn’t be there.

“And he was so upset about it. I was more worried about his safety, and the graduation’s not a big deal, it’s whatever. But no, he felt so guilty, and that just made me feel even worse,” she said. “But it’s good to know that he’s at least safe over there. That’s what matters.”

Hamawy said he believes the U.S. government can do more to bring the medical professionals home.

“I appreciate every effort they are making, but I know they can do more,” he said, adding that he believes the United States “could stop this war today if we want to.”

“We could demand that we have a safe entrance and exit for all humanitarian airporters, and we should do that. You know, for us to be supporting a trickle of humanitarian aid and paying for billions of dollars of bombs — we’re saying one thing and doing the other,” he said.

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