As the weight of my backpack sets heavy over my shoulders I poke my head into the children’s playroom at the Wolfson Medical Center. I see a woman sitting alone as an Arabic tune emanates from her purse. She picks up her cellphone to answer, bowing her head with narrow eyes in my direction. The conversation ends and she looks back up toward me. The corners of her mouth crease into a smile as she welcomes me in Arabic to the hospital.
I learn that three weeks have passed since she first came to the Wolfson Medical Center by ambulance after giving birth in Gaza. Never having been to Israel before she is shy and withdrawn. She wraps herself in her own warm embrace as she sits alone, her infant child in the Intensive Care Unit. We sit together there in the children’s playroom on green metal benches. I watch as the ripples of her head covering rise and fall over her shoulders with heavy breaths. She is alone in a foreign country, coping with emotion that thankfully most people never have to experience. We sit together and she tells me about her child, Dialah. Her eyes begin to water as she explains to me the trauma of her birthing experience. Dialah’s mother woke up in labor in the middle of the night, barely made it to the hospital in time, and gave birth in the hospital’s emergency room. She believes that Dialah’s immediate heart condition might have been a result of this traumatic experience. Recalling the experience brings about heavy breathing and subsequent sobbing. Her back heaves up and down as she rests her head on her knees. As her tears subside and her breath calms she wipes the pain stroked salty water from her face and lifts her back and neck to sit in an upright position. I don’t know enough Arabic to console her through words alone, so I sit by her side in silence.
Eight months later we meet again. I see her float through the hallway toward the ward as I chat with the hospital clown. My eyes strain to recognize her face from a distance. “Lily!”, she exclaims, shooting out her arms and capturing my frame in a quick cheek to cheek embrace. “Come!”, she starts with excitement, “Come see Dialah”. Her English is better than I remember and her demeanor much more positive. As we walk together to Dialah’s bedside I see a child that in no way resembles the barely surviving infant I saw in the ICU less than a year prior. Now Dialah is beautiful. Her plump cheeks and full body indicate her relative health. She is back for a routine catheterization that will indicate the need for a future surgery. Her mother smiles proudly at me. Quickly, before they head out of the ward and back home, I manage to sneak a picture of this bubbly little girl.
Tala looking fashionable in the clinic.
We Look Forward to our Future.
Walking in to the Echo clinic at the Wolfson Medical Center I immediately recognized nearly every mother or grandmother visiting with children that day from Gaza and the West Bank. We shared excited wide-eyed and smiling gestures and embraces. I know that for them a familiar face means a great deal. Most of them traveled through the Erez crossing from Gaza to Israel with the heat of the morning beating down on their fully cloaked bodies. Not to mention, each was traveling with an infant or small child. This surely was not easy. Still they made it, and I found myself there to offer a comfort of familiarity and welcome them back to this familiar hospital environment.
There was one pair that I never met before. The child’s name is Saleh, and he and his father also traveled from Gaza that day for a follow up examination with the clinic. His father spoke English. I later learned that he received a university education to teach English lessons at the elementary school level. His son, Saleh, is six years old and already received surgery two years ago to correct the functioning of a heart valve. In general, Saleh’s father said that Saleh was in good health and doing much better after his first operation.
After asking the routine questions I began to speak with Saleh’s father more generally. When I am able to find parents who speak a very high fluency of English I really enjoy speaking with them in more detail about their lives in Gaza. “The situation in Gaza is very difficult”, began Saleh’s father, “electricity is not consistent and there is not enough gas for cooking”. “It is even difficult for most people to find food, and there is no work”. As he spoke to me I could see his expression becoming depressed.
At that moment I felt so helpless. There I was, iphone in hand, taking pictures of his child while he considered his family and friends desperate for survival. Slowly the weight of his expression began to ease as he looked straight at me. “I am so thankful to be here, and for all the help we received for Saleh”. He began to smile, “I said to Fatma (a SACH staff member) that as soon as there is a facility for this organization in Gaza I will be a volunteer, god willing”. He sat hopeful and looked to be proud to consider himself a future member of the Save a Child’s Heart team. His words were a way to implement hope and service, to give back to an organization that saved his child’s life.
I must have taken nearly 10 pictures of Saleh that day, but he simply did not feel like smiling. Instead he sat there for me, the animation on his bright yellow shirt depicting a Smurf and the words, “We look forward to our future”.
Mram and Remas
What is it about stickers and bubbles that makes them so entrancing? I’ll admit that my heart still races nearly every time I see them. It probably has to do with positive memories I associate with my childhood: sticker books, collages and decorations for birthday cards to name a few. As we grow older our stickers tend to display written material, political agendas, consumer slogans, etc. Despite their changing significance in our lives as we age and mature they have a way of capturing our attention. The same goes for bubbles. Bubbles are so compelling to me in the way that they reflect light and dance in the air until they dramatically pop, melting immediately into the carpet or flooring.
Watching the way Mram and Remas played with these bubbles and stickers on Tuesday brought me back to these moments in pre-school. The hospital clown at Wolfson on Tuesday wasted no time in introducing these anxious little girls to her magical world of colorful animals and dancing rainbow soap spheres. She began by pulling out a sheet of three dimensional animal and star stickers. Mram and Remas wasted no time in gathering all the stickers and meditating on their correct placements at the footboard of Mram’s hospital bed.
Once all the stickers had been used up Remas began to squeal as the hospital clown transferred the stickers onto Mram’s face.
After pretty much all the stickers had been appropriately placed on shirts and dresses, out came the bubbles.
Now I have never had the opportunity to visit Gaza, where both these girls live, but I can only assume that they do not often have the opportunity to play with stickers and bubbles as much as they did that day. It was such good timing as well because both girls had already completed successful surgical operations of their delicate hearts and both were heading home to see their families for the first time in weeks. Any anxiety they may have felt due to their impending travel arrangements were immediately eased by the soft and playful expression of Rotem the hospital clown, and these cheerful stickers and bubbles.
After watching their activities, sitting with the mothers and grandmothers all equally amused, the understanding of why they were there in the first place began to escape me. These children are survivors. They had holes in their hearts that due to a focused and competent Israeli medical team, as well as generous financial assistance from Save a Child’s Heart supporters, were fixed.