Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Palestinian Physician Teaches about Professionalism

Driving to my office this morning I was brought to tears by an NPR story about Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish.

Dr. Abuelaish is an OB-GYN physician who lives in Gaza. He has cared for patients in both Gaza and Israel. He has also done an MPH at Harvard School of Public Health.

Dr. Abuelaish is well known in Gaza and Israel as a spokesman for tolerance and rapprochement. Here's the story:
During the Gaza offensive that dragged into January, he stayed home with his family, providing updates to journalists by phone about what was happening in the territory. Fluent in English, Arabic and Hebrew, he appeared on Israeli radio and television to give updates during the siege.

"All of Israel, they knew that I am at my house. … Just two days before the tragedy, the tank approached the house, 10 meters from the main gate. I felt secure," he recalls.

But instead of protecting him, the tank's crew fired at his home on Jan. 16. A shell crashed into a bedroom, killing his daughters, 14-year-old Aya, 15-year-old Mayar and 21-year-old Bissan, along with his niece Noor, 17...

Abuelaish says his faith helped him through the next terrible few weeks.

"As a believer, as a Muslim, with deep and strong faith, everything which comes from God is good. Why I was selected? Why my daughters were selected? For a purpose, for something good," he says.

"Because what happened in Gaza, it was craziness, practiced against Gazan civilians. And no one knows. I was selected to disclose the secret, to open the eyes about the size of the tragedy the Gazans were facing. And something good will come from this tragedy," he says.

Shortly after his daughters died, a cease-fire was put in place and Israeli forces withdrew from Gaza. But Abuelaish felt that he needed to do more.

"It's not only terrible, it's unbelievable what happened. I lost three precious, beautiful daughters, but I can't return them back. I have five more, and I have the future. I have many good things that I can do for others," he says.

"They were special — how modest and helpful and lovely, willing to help others, thinking of others. And they were killed full of dreams, of hopes. That's why immediately after, I started to think to establish a foundation in memory of my three lost daughters for only girls and women in education and health," Abuelaish says.

He says the initial funds will come from an unlikely source — the Israeli government, which he says has accepted responsibility for his children's deaths.

"The blood of my daughters will be the seeds of that money. Any compensation that comes from the Israeli government, the majority of it will go for this foundation," he says.

Despite his loss, Abuelaish preaches tolerance and understanding. He says he could be consumed with bitterness and anger at what happened, but he sees those emotions as harmful.

"I am a physician who treats patients, and I don't want to feel diseased. I want to help others. So I should be healthy, physically and mentally," he says...

"Military ways are futile, for both [sides]. Words are stronger than bullets. We have to understand each other. We have to respect each other as a human, as equal, and that the dignity of both is equal," he says.

These days, he says, his philosophy is simple: "Love each other, help each other, respect each other."
One of my writing projects this summer is a chapter about the ethical underpinnings of medical professionalism. I've collected a number of articles to read. Several make arcane philosophical arguments.

But Dr. Abuelaish has said it all in nine words: "Love each other, help each other, respect each other."

(See here for a brief profile of Dr. Abuelaish by a medical student from Be'er-sheva, Israel and here for a previous post on professionalism.)

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