Healing goes beyond border


JERUSALEM - The hospital room is small and crowded, but it now is Samer Kawasbeh's home. While other patients are usually discharged after a few days, he arrived more than nine months ago and is here to stay for a long time to come, hooked to the machines that keep him alive.

He spends his days wandering the halls dressed in a loose-fitting blue gown that barely conceals the thick bandages covering the gunshot wound in his abdomen. Unable to eat, he receives his nutrition intravenously.

Kawasbeh's physicians say it is nothing short of miraculous that the 27-year-old Palestinian survived being shot in April by an Israeli soldier. By all accounts, Kawasbeh was a bystander - an unlucky one - who was caught up in the first, chaotic moments of what became a 39-day standoff between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

When the soldier fired, Kawasbeh was trying to draw water from a well in the church courtyard. Friends dragged him inside the church, where nuns watched over him for the next 12 days. His wound developed gangrene. Finally, with the siege still under way, he was evacuated along with a small group of other civilians.

The army took him to Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, at the western edge of Jerusalem. Dr. Avraham Rivkind rushed him into the operating room.

"Listen, we were sure he was going to die," says Rivkind, the chief of the hospital's surgery and trauma unit. "What we did was from desperation, not hope. This is something you see only once in a lifetime. It was a disaster, like the bomb at Hiroshima had destructed inside of him."

It was also the start of an unexpectedly warm doctor-patient relationship, between an Israeli physician known for his expertise treating gunshot wounds and a Palestinian patient who was estranged from Israelis.

"The soldiers are still the enemy, they want to kill," says Kawasbeh. "But the doctor and everyone in this hospital just want people to live."

By the time he reached the operating room, most of his intestines and bowel had spilled from the wound, which was infected by maggots and worms. He has undergone a dozen operations. He has at least as many more ahead of him before he might be deemed well enough to return home to Bethlehem.

Hadassah - founded by the women's Zionist organization of the same name - has two medical centers here, one on Mount Scopus, in East Jerusalem, and the larger hospital at Ein Kerem, in West Jerusalem. It is not unusual for Hadassah to treat Palestinians; indeed, the hospitals are among the few remaining places where Palestinians and Israelis cross paths, though not always easily.

Several American donors who visited Hadassah in December voiced displeasure about the hospital's extensive care of Kawasbeh, after Rivkind described the case. The hospital, and by extension Israeli taxpayers and donors, has spent more than $250,000 to keep Kawasbeh alive.

About 10 percent of Hadassah Ein Kerem's budget comes from donations, most of them from the United States. The money helps pay for the hospital's advanced equipment and for care of uninsured patients such as Kawasbeh.

"The people from abroad were very critical," says Rivkind, who trained for two years at Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore and another year at a trauma unit in Los Angeles County in the late 1980s. "They said, 'Listen, he wants to kill you. How do you save his life?'"

Rivkind, 53, appears relaxed only when he is frenzied. He speaks while sipping coffee in a cluttered office near the hospital cafeteria and deftly handling a ringing cell phone and several beeping pagers.

"I'm a great believer in life," Rivkind says, unhappy that he has to defend treating any patient. "To me, life is a holy word. When you are outside of Israel, everything looks so extreme. But when you live here, and your neighbor is injured, you try to help. Why did the soldiers bring Samer here and not put him in front of another hospital in Bethlehem?

"Although Hadassah is in Jerusalem, it is out of Jerusalem," he says. "It is an island of peace. The situation has not entered these walls. Do you have a solution for Samer? What should we do, take him back?"

Israeli army spokesmen do not say that soldiers were wrong to shoot Kawasbeh, but they also don't consider him a member of a militant group. He is not under police guard, and his mother, who lives in Bethlehem, has a special permit allowing her to pass army checkpoints so that she can visit.

Like thousands of other Palestinians in the West Bank, Kawasbeh used to work in Israel. He was a construction worker in the coastal city of Netanya and bussed tables at a restaurant in the village of Abu Ghosh, west of Jerusalem.

When Israeli authorities barred Palestinians from entering Israel in October 2000, after the start of the Palestinian uprising, Kawasbeh found a job at a restaurant in Bethlehem's Manger Square, but because of the dearth of tourists, worked only sporadically.

How he came to be in the Nativity Church in April is unclear. The army had occupied Bethlehem for a few days, but soldiers had not yet reached Manger Square, where hundreds of people had gathered.

On this particular day, soldiers chased Palestinian gunmen to the square. The gunmen shot their way inside the church gate to avoid capture. Many civilians, rushing to get out of harm's way, also raced into the church.

Kawasbeh believes he was shot during the initial gunfight in Manger Square and was taken inside the church for treatment. But Israeli and Palestinian officials said he was among the civilians who had run inside at the start, and was shot a few days later when he tried to elude Israeli snipers when going to the well.

"I don't remember who shot me," Kawasbeh said recently. "The Israelis and the Palestinians were shooting." He said he passed out within minutes of being wounded. He arrived at Hadassah unconscious, and remained that way for three months.

Alert and out of intensive care, Kawasbeh has become a fixture on the third floor of the surgical wing. He has learned a smattering of Hebrew and helps Israeli-Arab patients adjust. He can get up, walk in his slippers and smoke, but sustenance arrives through an IV.

To pass the time, Kawasbeh serves other patients tea, plays card games with attendants - and sometimes with visiting Israeli soldiers. He is shy, almost reluctant to share his story, but promises to relay to his family and friends the good treatment he has received.

"I don't feel anything bad about the people here," he says, referring to Rivkind as a "dear friend." "He is very important in my life. He saved me."

Rivkind returns the favor by calling Kawasbeh "my son." The two often talk, Kawasbeh in his broken Hebrew and Rivkind in broken Arabic.

Kawasbeh's prognosis remains uncertain. Rivkind says he has no idea whether his patient will ever eat or function normally. "Samer will suffer all his life from this injury," the doctor says.

In six months to a year, Rivkind will discharge Kawasbeh and send him back across the Israeli army checkpoint to Bethlehem. "Samer is not a chair or a bed. He is not part of this hospital," the doctor says. "This is the aim of all doctors, to treat their patients and send them home."

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