A little girl plays with a doll on the deck of the ship Vulcano (Photo: Alberto Reggiori)

"Me, a doctor, among the wounds of war"

The testimony of Alberto Reggiori, a surgeon on a mission on the Italian ship Vulcano to provide aid to Palestinians fleeing the Gaza Strip.
Alberto Reggiori

It was all the fault of the radio: I was in the car on my way to the hospital where I work when a piece of news enlightened me. It said that the Italian Navy hospital ship Vulcano was moored a few kilometres from Rafah, on the Egyptian coast, and was providing medical assistance to the wounded fleeing the Gaza Strip. Since October 7, the conflict in Palestine has dominated newspapers and the television news, as well as chatter and discussions among friends and colleagues. It is a thought that worries and weighs. What also weighed me down was the fact that I could not do anything but talk about it, to the point that I almost feel annoyed at doing so, especially if it is limited to a sickening one-sidedness. Who is right? Who is wrong? Whose side are you on? I have no other answer :I am definitely on the side of those who suffer. I often find personal and silent prayer for peace and especially for the fate of those who weep or die more sincere and involving. What inhumanity, everything desperately cries out for salvation! But after this news, I cannot stop thinking that, as a doctor, I might as well get personally involved, take to the streets instead of watching from the window. Why not?

The desire for my life to be useful did not go away, it is an urgency that is difficult to silence, independent of me and demands that I take a stand. This, let us be honest, applies to everyone: wanting to be useful! Why not? I talked to my wife and a few friends, they support me. I was not crazy. Finally, I made up my mind and wrote a few somewhat casual emails until the replies directed me to the Francesca Rava Foundation in Milan, which manages and organises the team of health professionals, doctors and nurses, on the ship alongside the soldiers. After an interview I was accepted and I was happy about that, rightly so.

Then the already scheduled departure was brought forward and in a very short time I was on a military flight. I was almost surprised to have already got there, moored in front of the windy Egyptian sea, with the theatre of war a few dozen kilometres away. Yet all anxiety of the violence seemed far away when the sun set behind the helicopter deck as the profiles of the hospitalised Palestinian children playing with dolls or cloth balls, who became silhouetted against an orange sky. The little children finally began to smile when the Italian staff gave them toys, washed them and dressed them in Spiderman and Frozen pyjamas. It was the most serene moment of the day. Perhaps because it was ending or because it reminded us of home. On the ship, we prepared for the evening and then the night. Patients who were not bedridden were escorted or pushed in their wheelchairs to the comfortable rooms in the ward area for dinnertime and therapy, for phone calls, often unanswered, to loved ones still inside the Gaza Strip or who knows where, from Qatar to Europe. Mediators helped them with a sim card or a mobile phone. Even the Italian soldiers, who had already been there a few months, called home, some to wish their elderly mother a happy birthday, others to connect by video with their young children and send kisses to their wives. For the Palestinian patients it was also a time of nostalgia and sadness, the hell from which they had just escaped still existed, it followed them and they cannot be rid of it so easily, it would soon return in their dreams and nightmares.

Hamed, who is 15 years old, arrived there alone. He had lost his mother and his little brothers under the rubble; his father who wanted to accompany him was stopped at the Rafah border where Israelis and Egyptians only let wounded women and children out; the boy only reached our ship in an Egyptian ambulance and was hospitalised on board. A nurse pushed his wheelchair into the room; he spent an hour on deck so that he could breathe the clear air and see the sea. Hamed has an amputated left leg; in the operating theatre on board we closed the stump that had been left open like a book in who knows what hospital and in who knows what condition; the military orthopaedists have realigned some fractures in his right hand.

If I try to identify with him and what he is feeling, I do not get very far. I gave up almost immediately. I kept repeating to myself, and to those who could answer me, that everything asks for salvation. What is left of his life? What a young person, with no relatives and who has lost his mother and two little sisters, feels is unimaginable. One night a panic attack meant that he could not breathe. We ran to his bed, he looked at us terrified, we understood, now he is calm. Repeated attempts to contact his father on his mobile phone finally yielded some results; he kept telling him to hold on, not to give up, it was almost a command. Here, the father figure enjoys unquestionable respect and esteem, he is the model for life.

Adhija is a big and, in spite of everything, smiling 44-year-old natural science teacher who suffered an injury to her legs, fortunately a light one, with only grazes. She boarded with her two children, aged 5 and 7, who were pale and poorly nourished. She told me in her stunted English that her husband had lost his whole family, more than ten people, to a missile that had hit their house. She and her two children were outside. She did not want to speak about going back to Gaza, even though he is forced to stay there. She said that her children are too precious to put at risk, they came into the world after four consecutive miscarriages, so were much desired. "No," she said, "I do not want to lose them.” Until there is peace, there was no question of returning. She obtained permission to be evacuated with them to Qatar, even if far away from her husband. The next day her dream would come true. The children jumped radiantly on the bed at the news that they would fly the next day. It was the first time for everyone. I treated her legs for the last time, then she greeted me and thanked me, asked me to show her a photograph of my family, which she commented on with amazement. She said that she had met very nice people here, both military and civilian, that I could be her father and have treated her like a daughter. She surprised me a little, I vigorously shook her hand repeating "thank you, thank you!", while her children high-fived me.

The following day, a new convoy of yellow ambulances arrived at the quayside, patients disembarked and entered the triage tent. Interpreters listened to their story, collected essential data, and then they were welcomed onto the ship. Those who were able to walk climbed the long ladder, the others were hoisted up with stretcher and hoist, as if rescued on the high seas. For some, operations were scheduled for still open or infected wounds and retained metal fragments, for others daily therapies and medication. All the medical staff, military and civilian, did as much as they could with sincere generosity, no one spared themselves: I could see the medical director cleaning the floor with a broom, or the doctor taking the wheelchair-bound patient who was ashamed to be washed in bed to the bathroom. This good impetus comes from our truest part. When faced with the needs of others, everyone gives the best of themselves.

The patients' stories are strikingly similar: during a day of war, which might be as desperate as many other days but is destined to be unforgettable because of the violence that is taking away their world, a flash of lightning and thunder would suddenly stun them. Then darkness. Those who do not wake up cannot tell us where they are. Those who wake up cannot remember anything, they are either in a frantic hospital or surrounded by rescuers and family members screaming in the rubble of the collapsed building. As they regain consciousness, what the great light has taken away is revealed: a leg or an arm, a section of a torso. Shock that anaesthetises the senses and sensations, is it a film or life? Bodies pulled out of these traps of rubble and wreckage, wounds medicated superficially, pain beginning to make itself felt, running to an ambulance or on some rickety stretcher. Anguished questions about the fate of their loved ones. Then gradually a different kind of via crucis begins for everyone, whose route nor end is known. Bodies and souls inextricably torn and scarred; there is forever a life before the great light and one after.

Walid, 19, told us that during the night he woke up in his home in Gaza hearing the evil buzzing of drones, which they call mosquitoes, feared by all as heralds of death. Seven other relatives were also sleeping in his room on make-shift mattresses. A flash and a roar knocked down two adjacent buildings and involved theirs as well. He found himself in the rubble, two floors down, and had the readiness to pull his arm out from a swamp of rocksto make himself visible. His mouth was full of earth and the concrete dust was choking him; he felt that his minutes were numbered, then help reached him and thus someone swtiched off the sun. The next day he woke up in hospital with wounds and burns already covered by bandages. He was anaemic from the lost blood. They informed him three out of the seven relatives in his room had survived. The others went from sleep to death. He then wondered how he would continue his beloved engineering studies, the university had been destroyed. His parents remained inside the strip in a tented camp. For him too, after a few days a plane would take off that would open up a new life for him in Qatar. When will he see them again?

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This rescue mission of the Italian institutions is a sign of a country that is still alive and human, which knows the meaning of the word mercy. It will continue for a few more days, then it will find different ways to provide care and treatment for patients, especially children. For me it is a touching encounter with innocent pain; looking into its eyes, up close, makes me uncomfortable because it is the opposite of life, it is unbearable. But if God accepted it, it is not useless. Perhaps pain is only useless to those who have never experienced it. If, as someone here keeps repeating, prevention is better than cure, let us not fool ourselves by asking where God was. He is surely in the right place, the only disease to be prevented is human wickedness.