Sister Sarah lends a hand as Dr. Simone Yohannes performs an ultrasound on a expectant mother. (photo: Norbert Schiller)
A sister wraps a newborn in swaddling clothes. (photo: Norbert Schiller)
Sister Boushra presents two Muslim grandmothers with their first grandchild. (photo: Norbert Schiller)
Sister Sarah teaches a little girl how to hold her new baby sister. (photo: Norbert Schiller)
The diminutive nun in white nursing gear tenderly caresses the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Holy Child. Our Lady lovingly looked after all those who delivered babies today, especially the last, who was delivered by Caesarean section, smiles Sister Sarah. God has been merciful to us!
The Virgin and Child, resplendent in celestial blue and gold leaf, adorn the entrance to Al Hayat Hospital in Baghdad. Run by the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine, Al Hayat is Iraqs smallest hospital, with just 12 beds. But the sisters are in the process of expanding their work with the addition of a new wing, financed in part by CNEWA. The attractive, concrete two-story edifice is already up, right next to the main building, but much more work is needed to turn the dirt floors and exposed bricks into part of the hospital complex.
When complete, Al Hayats new wing will house five halls on the ground floor and rooms accomodating 13 beds on the second floor. A tiny chapel will also be available on the top floor. At first, we thought we could have a dormitory for the nuns serving at Al Hayat, but we felt the hospital needed more beds, explains Sister Boushra, who is responsible for the medical unit. We pray to God to help the Iraqis who are suffering, and that he will use us to aid them.
Al Hayat is mainly a maternity hospital, and its half-dozen sisters serve Iraqs women and babies from both Christian and Muslim backgrounds in the Baghdad area and from around the country. Sister Boushra says the government respects the nuns and is grateful for the nondiscriminative service they provide.
Iman Hamad, a Muslim from Baghdad, had her first child, a baby girl, successfully delivered by C-section, at Al Hayat. The joyful sounds of female family members and friends filled the building as they celebrated the news of her safe delivery.
We came to Al Hayat because its a better hospital, said Imans sister, Simitar.
The atmosphere at Al Hayat differs markedly from similar government-run institutions. It is intimate, immaculately clean and well-ordered; its tranquil environment is due in large part to Sister Boushra and her team. Some are Muslims; others hail from northern Iraq and come from Chaldean and Syrian Catholic backgrounds. Sister Boushra has worked at the Baghdad hospital since its establishment on 21 December 1992, just after the Gulf War. The team obviously feels called to serve their people and their Lord in the task set before them, despite the difficulties posed by United Nations sanctions and the aerial bombardments experienced by Iraq.
We passed through hard times. For a period, we had to leave the building because of intensive bombing around the city. When we returned, however, we restored the hospitals services, explains the slightly graying Sister Boushra. Other times the staff found themselves in the operating theater delivering babies while bombs exploded in the surrounding area.
Electricity poses another problem. Due to sanctions, broken parts cannot be replaced, thus electrical outages frequently happen in the central and southern parts of the country. Although Al Hayat has a small generator on which it depends for surgeries, sometimes the generator does not work properly. Then the sisters are forced to operate without air-conditioning, sometimes in temperatures reaching an excess of 125 degrees. Room temperatures of that level are unsafe for infants, so when necessary air-conditioning is reserved for the nurseries.
Most Iraqi healthcare workers complain of always falling short of even the most basic of medical supplies. The United States government has accused the Iraqi government of hoarding food and drugs that should be distributed to the Iraqi people under the UNs oil for food program. The program allows Iraq to sell $5.26 billion of oil every six months in order to purchase food, medicine and other supplies to ease the impact of sanctions. However, the UN humanitarian operation overseeing the distribution of supplies in Iraq says that goods often arrive separately, such as a box of vaccines arriving without syringes, adding to distribution difficulties. CNEWA tries to help the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine in purchasing medicines for use in Al Hayat. But, as the hospital staff says, medicine for ordinary Iraqis is very expensive.
Iraqs children are also endangered by malnutrition, something that was almost nonexistent in the country before the Gulf War. Malnutrition weakens immune systems, which often leads to infections. Iraqi women are encouraged to reduce the outbreak of illness by breast-feeding their babies; mothers and healthcare workers are urging governmental officials to distribute therapeutic milk and high protein biscuits to underfed children.
Al Hayat Hospital opened a new department eight months ago that offers treatment related to infectious diseases for infants, toddlers and adults. The clinic has an ultrasound and ECG facilities, equipment not even found in Baghdads large hospitals.
Dr. Simon Yohannes, a Lebanese national who fled with his family to Iraq during the Lebanese civil war, has served at Al Hayat for five years. Yohannes says pregnant women are especially susceptible to infection because many are malnourished. In turn, their health influences that of the children they carry in their wombs. He adds that resistance has built up against ordinary treatment for some diseases, especially when medicines are hard to come by. Yohannes says congenital abnormalities are increasing in Iraq and there is a high incidence of abortions.
People are not only tired of disease, he explains. They are tired of this draining situation of sanctions. Thats what makes them sick.
Sister Boushra says that it is only because of Gods blessing and presence with us that we are able to endure this unjust suffering. Otherwise, we could not manage.
Sister Boushra has asked the church in the West to pray for the work of the sisters and Al Hayat hospital and for the people of Iraq.
We need prayer to stop these sanctions. Be the voice of one crying in the wilderness to stop this suffering, she says, her own voice choking up and her eyes filling with tears. Be an instrument of peace, so that we too may know peace. Our children are hoping to live in security, and with Gods help this will happen.
Dale Gavlak is a freelance writer based in Cairo.