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Going to hospital meant risking our lives’: the terror of giving birth in Gaza

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30 December 2023, The Guardian, by Aseel Mousa in Gaza

Women such as Hanan face labour at home without medical help or pain relief, with only neighbours and relatives to help.

When Hanan went into labour earlier this month, she was caught between the pain and fear of facing childbirth without medical help, and the terror of Israeli airstrikes and snipers if she tried to reach hospital.

With hospitals emptying of supplies, raided by the Israeli military and already filled far beyond capacity with victims of the war, she decided to bring her youngest son into the world at home.

A nurse who had taken shelter in their apartment building came to help, but could not offer more than basic medical advice. Hanan’s other children listened in horror to the reality of birth without medical support or pain relief.

“The pain was excruciating, and I was desperate to get to a hospital. But the situation outside made it impossible; going to the hospital meant risking our lives,” Hanan said, a few days after the birth.

There is almost no electricity in the Gaza Strip, with power supplies cut, power plants damaged, and fuel supplies for generators almost exhausted after more than two months of Israeli attacks and a tight blockade.

The women living in Hanan’s apartment building rallied together so that Haya, the nurse, could monitor her patient through the long night, using their phone batteries to light up the room.

“Despite the challenges of charging our phones … they lit up the room with their flashlights to help Nurse Haya during my delivery,” Hanan said. They also tried to support her through the labour, encouraging her and trying to help her regulate her breathing to endure the brutal pain.

The UN has said it is “gravely concerned” about pregnant women who cannot access healthcare in Gaza. In October it estimated more than 50,000 women in Gaza were pregnant, with over 100 expected to give birth every day amid shortages of basic necessities including food and water, and little access to healthcare.

The number of functioning hospitals has dropped from 36 to eight, and doctors across Gaza say they are overwhelmed by victims of airstrikes and fighting. That has forced hundreds of women to go through childbirth alone, at home, like Hanan.

“I found myself screaming in agony, in front of my children, who were already terrified for me and distressed by the relentless Israeli airstrikes,” she said. Her daughter began crying, and Hanan tried harder to endure the pain without screaming, the only comfort she could offer seven-year-old Sirin.

“Sirin’s cries broke my heart. I couldn’t reassure her, and she was frightened by my screams. So in the midst of my own fear and pain, I struggled to contain them.”

Haya had worked on maternity wards in hospitals, but always alongside doctors. “I had never delivered a baby myself,” she said. Suddenly, she was having to do everything she could to keep both her patients alive.

The odds are stacked against children born prematurely or with medical problems in Gaza today. There are 130 newborn babies in incubators; the UN says they are among the territory’s highest-risk patients.

Four babies died in the intensive care unit of al-Nasr hospital after staff were forced to evacuate during an attack and were unable to take the babies with them, Human Rights Watch reported in November. Five others died in al-Shifa hospital, before its surviving neonatal patients were evacuated to Egypt.

Hanan, now a mother of three sons and a daughter, fled one brutal war a decade ago. A Palestinian who grew up in Syria, she moved to Gaza in 2012 to escape the civil war in her first home, only to find conflict waiting in her new home too.

The family live in western Gaza’s al-Nasr neighbourhood, which Israeli troops ordered civilians to evacuate at the start of the war. They headed south to Khan Younis, but conditions in the city were so grim they decided to return to al-Nasr.

“Even if it meant risking my life, I preferred to face death with dignity,” she said. “I couldn’t bear the thought of being in a shelter for displaced people, where my children didn’t have mattresses to sleep on, and there was a shortage of even basic essentials like water and food.”

So the family – Hanan, her husband, and children Hassan, 16, Hamada, 14, and Sirin – went back to wait out the war and prepare for their new arrival.

During the labour, friends and neighbours offered what they could to help; beside the lights from their phones, mostly prayers and clothing that could be cut into strips for Haya to use as she attended to the mother and the baby.

“When the baby’s head emerged and the cries of the newborn filled the room, a wave of mixed emotions – relief, fear, joy, and anxiety – swept over everyone,” Haya said.

“I had to improvise and cut the umbilical cord using scissors from Hanan’s kitchen. There was no steriliser, and leaving the house to try and get some, or buy medical scissors, was impossible.”

Everyone in the building considers the baby their “miracle child”, Haya added. His parents are happy he is alive and seems healthy, though they have not been able to take him for the usual newborn tests.

“I named my son Ward, which means flowers. I hope he will have a future as beautiful as roses,” Hanan said. “Even as a newborn baby he has displayed remarkable strength, defying Israeli bombings and the lack of food and basic medical support to come into this world.”

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Article source: The Canberra Times/ Aseel Mousa in Gaza 30.12.2023

2024-02-22 05:36:48.000000