De Paul’s Daughters: Offering Health Care in a Time of Crisis

Editor’s Note: Earlier this summer, CNEWA received two grants, including one for $925,000 from a member of the Holy Land Christians Society, to support five Catholic hospitals in Lebanon. Combined with a grant of $300,000 from a donor who wishes to remain anonymous, the grants cover salaries for 1,093 doctors and nurses over a 12-month period at Geitaoui Hospital in the heart of Beirut; the nearby Rosary Sisters Hospital; St. Joseph Hospital in Dora; Tel Chiha Hospital in Zahleh; and Bhannes Medical Center in Dahr el Sawan, near Beirut. The grants stabilize for now the institutions whose financial resources have run dangerously low since the collapse of Lebanon’s economy. Our feature today on Bhannes launches a five-part series profiling each of these facilities.

In 1907, when present-day Lebanese territory was under Ottoman rule, the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity spotted the perfect location to build a center to treat pulmonary diseases and tuberculosis: Dahr el Sawan in Mount Lebanon Governorate, at an altitude of 3,280 feet and surrounded by a vast, green Mediterranean forest, offered pure, fresh mountain air. That center today is known as the Bhannes Medical Center.

The Daughters of Charity, founded in Paris in 1633 by St. Vincent de Paul and St. Louise de Marillac, are present in more than 94 countries. The congregation’s 13,000 sisters work in health care, education and women’s rights.

In the late 1970s, during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), the pulmonary disease center was transformed into a general hospital. In the 1990s, the hospital started to expand, opening a physical rehabilitation center that included physiotherapy and speech therapy.

Bhannes Hospital building
Founded by the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity in Mount Lebanon, Bhannes Medical Center provides crucial services for the local population, where hospitals are scarce compared with big cities like Beirut or Tripoli. (photo: CNEWA/Beirut)

In 1991, the hospital inaugurated a specialized center for children with cerebral palsy, where children between the ages of 2 and 15 suffering from severe cerebral motor disabilities are treated by therapists and specialists. In 1996, the hospital opened a new center for chronic patients who require long hospital stays and, in many cases, palliative care.

Today, the private nonprofit hospital has 251 beds: 85 beds in the general medical ward, 66 beds in the center for patients with chronic illness, 50 beds in the physical rehabilitation center, and 50 beds in the center for children with cerebral palsy.

The hospital, located in a semi-remote area, provides crucial services for the local population. Hospitals in this region are scarce compared with big cities like Beirut or Tripoli.

Currently, the Bhannes Hospital is experiencing the same hardships as other medical centers in the country due to Lebanon’s severe economic crisis, which began in 2019.

The inability of the state-run electricity company to provide more than two or three hours of electricity per day pushes people in Lebanon to cover the remaining hours with costly power generators that consume fuel, a combustible whose prices keep soaring. 

In the first five months of 2022, Bhannes Hospital paid $354,000 — or about $70,000 per month — for fuel to run the generators, draining its dwindling financial resources. The winters are especially hard given the extra heating costs at the hospital’s high altitude.

A man consoles another man, a patient suffering acute rheumatism at Bhannes hospital.
Charbel Haddad, 42, who used to be an electrician, had been suffering from acute rheumatism since a young age, after he caught COVID-19 earlier this year, his medical condition started to deteriorate, which required hospital admission. He was admitted to Bhannes hospital in April 2022. CNEWA helped cover part of his medical invoices. Unfortunately, Charbel passed away in June after several health complications. (photo: CNEWA/Beirut)

A clear sign of the crisis is the decrease in the number of patients, given that many people cannot afford a medical bill or the fuel to drive to the hospital. These days the Bhannes Hospital is mostly at 50 percent occupancy. Often, patients will go to the hospital for care as a last resort, when their condition is severe, which translates into a crowded intensive care unit.

The devaluation of the Lebanese currency has decimated the middle class and pushed a large portion of the workforce to emigrate, including health care workers, whose salaries have lost about 70 percent of their value in the past three years. Since 2020, 200 staff and 40 doctors left the hospital, creating scarcity in specialized medical care. For instance, the number of physical therapists has dropped from 12 to seven; reanimation doctors in the ICU have dropped from three to one; and there are no pediatric orthopedics left, forcing the hospital to refer children to other hospitals for care. Today, the hospital staff includes only 60 doctors, 55 nurses and 115 nurse aids.

Recruiting new doctors and nurses is also more difficult for Bhannes Hospital than it is for medical centers in larger cities, given its remote location and the cost of fuel to get there.

CNEWA’s grant to cover a portion of the doctors and nurses’ salaries aims to stem the migration and retain much-needed medical staff.

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