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Hope and Loss in Gaza: A Bay Area Doctor Reflects on His Aid Mission

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Dr. Mohammad Subeh poses for a portrait in San Francisco on April 3, 2024, after a medical mission in Gaza. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

View the full episode transcript.

This episode contains descriptions of graphic violence.

At least 33,000 Palestinians — including an estimated 13,000 children — have been killed by Israel’s bombardment and invasion of Gaza. The region’s health care infrastructure has been decimated, as a mere 12 of Gaza’s 36 hospitals are considered operational. 

Dr. Mohammad Subeh, an emergency room physician from the South Bay, recently returned from a volunteer medical mission to the city of Rafah in southern Gaza. In this episode, he talks about why he went, what he saw, and the people he met.


Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

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Alan Montecillo: This episode contains graphic descriptions of violence. Please take care while listening. I’m Alan Montecillo in for Ericka Cruz Guevarra. And welcome to the Bay. Local news to keep you rooted. An estimated 33,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel’s bombardment and invasion of Gaza. At least 13,000 have been children. The Israeli military’s attack on Gaza has also decimated the region’s health care system and put aid workers in danger. An estimated 12 out of 36 hospitals are currently operational. On Monday, Israeli forces completed a two week raid on Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, claiming it had served as a base for Hamas militants. That same day, seven aid workers with World Central Kitchen were killed by an Israeli airstrike. Right now, the need for any help is dire. And despite this recent news, there are still volunteers who are putting themselves in harm’s way to provide food and medical assistance. One of them came from right here in the Bay area. Dr. Mohammad Subeh Is an emergency room doctor in the South Bay, and in February he went to the city of Rafah for a five week volunteer medical mission. Today, I sit down with Doctor Suba to talk about why he went to Gaza and what he wants all of us to know about what he saw.

Dr. Mohammad Subeh: My name is Mohammad Subeh. I’m an emergency physician. I was born to a family that was forcibly displaced from Palestine and a village called the lid in 1948. So they sought refuge in the small country of Kuwait, where I was born in 1984. And I lived, the first six years of my life in Kuwait. As a Palestinian born in Kuwait. You’re not a citizen of Kuwait. So I always held this a travel document that said I was stateless. And so in 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, we try to ride out the war for almost two months before we had to abruptly leave as my father was going to be killed. And that was from an early age, my first exposure to war, death, destruction. When we left Kuwait, we came to the United States as refugees. And that in and of itself was a life changing experience. I grew up in Los Angeles and, rougher area of Los Angeles and, in the 90s, surrounded by gang violence, surrounded by really tough living conditions. My elementary school wasn’t too far from our apartment, and very frequently I would hear choppers, you know, police helicopters overhead with the floodlights, looking for people, but also a different sound for the LA County medevac helicopters that would come and land in our elementary school field to pick up trauma patients. And so any time I would hear that from the distance, I would just take off and just run towards the field and just watch the helicopter land and pick up a patient. And I was always very, very much in awe of the team that was working on the helicopter. And I said, you know, I want to do that. I remember at a young age, just looking up at the sky and thinking, you know, what am I doing here? Why did I go through all those difficult moments, you know, at a young age? I just remember kind of really shaping my foundation.

Dr.Mohammed Subeh takes a selfie with children at the field hospital where he volunteered in Gaza. (Photo credit: Dr. Mohammed Subeh)

Alan Montecillo: And so what was your path from? From that to the Bay area?

Dr. Mohammad Subeh: There was a big light switch that turned on for me. I actually wasn’t very, didn’t do well academically in elementary school because I was just so again, I was very confused about what was happening in my life. And so high school for me was very different. It was all about not only doing well academically and learning as much as I can, but also putting my values into action. I was lucky in my final year to be mentored by an ER local ER physician from the Bay area. That was my first exposure to the Bay area and led me to apply to Stanford, where I did the majority of my education, undergrad and grad school.

Alan Montecillo: And now you live in the South Bay and, you have a family of your own now, right?

Dr. Mohammad Subeh: Yeah, yeah. So we live in Saratoga. My wife and I and our two boys.

Alan Montecillo: When did you decide that you wanted to go to Gaza?

Dr. Mohammad Subeh: So I have family in Gaza, aunts, cousins, their children, and we talk on a monthly basis. And you kind of understand what the health care infrastructure looked like, just that baseline, which is not that great, especially under the nearly two decades siege. Because, so our conversation was around like, how can we help? Like, what can we do? Even if it’s a small minute thing that, you know, some way we can move the needle and then you kind of fast forward to, October of last year and the health care infrastructure started, being decimated. You know, from day one. And I remember the first week my wife, I was in an E.R. shift, and my wife sent me a message and said, hey, you should really look into these potential hospital ships that are they’re thinking of sending over to Gaza to serve the people. One. It sent me the message that we’re all on board as a family. Like, we got to go do this. And second, it made me really be much more active in trying to pursue whatever medical mission that’s going to allow me to go there and serve the people in Russia. Once that opportunity came to me, I definitely there was no hesitation. I took it on.

Alan Montecillo: Were you afraid before you left?

Dr. Mohammad Subeh: Do you mean it? Was I afraid.

Alan Montecillo: For your own safety?

Dr. Mohammad Subeh: My own safety? I never let that paralyze my decision making. From a young age, my parents always taught us. We’re all going to die one day. Every human being is going to die. We don’t know when, where, how, but we’re going to die. And you can’t let that fear of death paralyze your ability to share the gifts that God has given you to the world. And it’s our responsibility to not only be aware of those gifts and nurture those gifts, but also make sure that they’re put into action and bring bring about a better world around us. And so that was always front and center for me and my decision to go to Gaza. My biggest fear actually was my biggest worry was making sure I tied up any loose ends. We actually my family runs a coffee roaster in the South Bay as well. And I roast for, you know, roast coffee on my in my time and your abundant.

Alan Montecillo: Free time from your regular job as an air doctor.

Dr. Mohammad Subeh: But it was, it’s actually one of the things that brings me a lot of fulfillment, because it was, a project that my son, my son and I started together. So kind of going back to your question, the fear was really around making sure, you know, my absence did not, hinder any operation I was leaving behind. And, to me, fearing that I would be a burden on the system, that I go there and be a burden on the people there, and I never wanted that to happen. Death injury never was really front and center for me and, intentionally did not let it be because, yes, there I always had that risk. Right. And it’s a real risk. But we still have to do our part. And that’s what led me to, you know, move on and keep going on this medical mission.

Alan Montecillo: What was your journey into Gaza like?

Dr. Mohammad Subeh: I flew into Cairo like everyone, and the only way into Gaza right now is through Rafah, which is on the southern part of the Gaza Strip. As you’re approaching the Rafah crossing. There are miles upon miles of trucks that are parked there waiting to be let in. As soon as you get out of the vehicle and go into the, Egyptian side of the border. You start hearing these drones above your head, not too far away. And these drones are in the form of these reconnaissance planes that are obtaining information of what’s happening on the ground, also outfitted with missiles and quadcopters, which are drones that are outfitted with machine guns. And you kind of constantly hear that, kind of like this annoying hornet that is buzzing around your head, and that doesn’t stop until you exit. That’s constantly there. After going through the process of entering into my first drive through the encampments, you feel like you’ve entered this apocalyptic horror movie. It’s like, is this really 2024? Is this earth right now? People were just with torn up clothes, no shoes dirty, no access to clean water, trying to just look through trash. You have people building fires so they can provide heating for their families or cook something, whatever they have access to. And, you start hearing missile strike after missile strike, and it’s just shakes the whole vehicle. For me, it was very startling. It took me almost a week to actually kind of drown out the missile strikes.

Alan Montecillo: Do you remember the first person you met when you finally got there?

Dr. Mohammad Subeh: My first encounter with a Palestinian. Was this older gentleman. Torn up clothes. The sandals were torn up and he approached me smiling. And he handed me two cookies that he had. And he said, I want you to have this. And I said, I was so bewildered. I was like this gentleman who I know doesn’t have much. He’s giving me two cookies that he has. And I said, no, Hummel, I’m going. Arabic means uncle. I know I’m not. You know, I don’t need this, you know, keep it for for yourself. And he said, no, I want you to have this. I’m so happy you’re here. Thank you for being here.

Alan Montecillo: Coming up. What life was like at the field hospital. Stay with us.

Alan Montecillo: What was your first day and where were you based?

Dr. Mohammad Subeh: My first day in Toronto was the 14th, February. I was based in Russia, so we set up a field hospital. You know, we go to a plot of land, and we set up tents, and we try to operate out of those tents to see patients and offer different services depending on what we can offer.

Alan Montecillo: Once you’re there and you’re seeing patients. What was a regular day like for you? Was there such a thing?

Dr. Mohammad Subeh: There was no normal day. There was no like, this is how my day looked like. I was at the field hospital 24 seven. I would start off at 430 or 5 a.m. and, I will start my day with journaling. I would journal every day because I had to get my emotions, my thoughts down on paper A to allow me to be able to function. We set up the hospital in January and anticipated about 40 to 50 patients that we’d see on a daily basis. The week I left, we were seeing up to 1000 patients a day, and we found that we needed to really offer all different types of services, many of which we really didn’t have access to or we couldn’t do at 100%. You know, things as basic as rubbing alcohol. For a long time, we did not have. When we did end up getting rubbing alcohol, we had to dilute it from 70% to 7% to make it last as long as possible, because we didn’t know when anymore would be allowed in. We had no access to ventilators, so ventilators are very important for our patients coming in with respiratory distress, respiratory failure. And so we had no means to intubate a patient to put them on a breathing machine, because we had no breathing machines. We actually had very little supplemental oxygen. Medications were very sparse. Sometimes we had antibiotics. Sometimes we didn’t. How many times we didn’t have Tylenol? Ibuprofen. So you have children coming in with febrile seizures. You have no way to bring down their their temperature. Anesthetics, pain medicines. We were doing for a long time major procedures with just ketamine. Ketamine is a medicine that dissociates the mind from the body. And we’re opening people’s chests, their abdomens, resetting intestines, resetting their spleens, all with ketamine. I remember that there was a seven year old girl, eight year old girl named Reema, who had been shot outside of her tent as she was playing outside of her tent. And we had to, she had to undergo, major surgery, open up her abdomen, take out a large portion of her intestines that was injured, repair her urinary bladder. I remember that night after the surgery, she was in excruciating pain, screaming, crying. We had no pain medicines for her. I you know, I would see patients also with medical emergencies. Just things we would see here strokes, heart attacks and not be able to do anything because there are no medications or supplies. There’s no nothing to do for them unfortunately.

Alan Montecillo: Where most of your patients. Children, elders. Whole range?

Dr. Mohammad Subeh: I would say, so about 70% of our cases were trauma patients. The rest were medical emergencies. And, you know, things, people coming in with strokes, sepsis, heart attack. Of the 70%. A large majority were children. Over half were children coming in with shrapnel injuries, gunshot wounds mangled, extremities dead. I never imagined seeing so many dead children in front of me. Mothers, family members, screaming, crying. There was so much that I was seeing that I was not used to, I wasn’t prepared to see. You know, I would get these mule drawn carriages bringing me, piles of bodies that I had to go through and figure out. Is there any life left in this body? And I have to put them in body bags. Many of these bodies would come to me like a half skull with a spine, torso, intestines, and have to put those in a body bag and prepare for burial. That’s not something we’ve ever been trained to do. Yet that was a daily, experience for me in Russia. And go. You go through a lot of emotions while they’re on the ground, but it became very frustrating after witnessing and seeing the miles upon miles of a trucks just a few miles away, those trucks holding all the supplies and medications that we could save these people’s lives and do no harm is our main motto in medicine. And, yet we weren’t able to provide that basic care. There is no no, like, one flavor of the day for all of us. The only constant for me was, aside from the atrocities I was seeing, was the steadfastness of the Palestinian people.

Alan Montecillo: Are there any specific people you met or moments of joy, I suppose. Amid all the suffering that still stick with you?

Dr. Mohammad Subeh: So many people. I think the one that just comes to mind automatically for me right now is, a young boy named Ennis. And this is seven years old. He witnessed his entire family being killed. His only surviving family members is uncle, who is about 30 years old, and niece, is one of the children we housed in our field hospital. As he awaits, evacuation for definitive treatment of his shattered tibia, his shinbone. And, and this is like an old soul. He would always talk to me, and I would talk to him if he had so much wisdom. And he, carried himself in such a different way than any other child I interacted with. And he would always bring a smile to my face. He would call me always Doctor Mohammad. Doctor Mohammad, come. Come sit with me. Let’s talk or communicate with me at the end of the day. And it always would fill up my bucket. There is a night where a young boy had come in and found out that his cousin, who was his best friend, had been killed. And this young boy’s name is Maher, 11 years old, and he was just so distraught, crying and crying. And he said, why? Why did they have to kill Faizan? He’s my best friend. I loved Faisal so much. Why did they have to kill him? Anything I would say or do like didn’t seem sufficient to console him. I hugged him and I would tell him, you know, it’s okay. He’s he’s in gender. He’s in heaven. You know, I took him outside. We were walking around the field hospital and as he was crying, some of these children were housed on their crutches and walkers kind of come over quickly and they say, what’s what’s going on? Why is he crying? And I say, you know, Matt had just found out his cousin was killed, and they all hugged him and they consoled him and said, it’s okay. Alhamdulillah, Alhamdulillah. Show gratitude. And one of the young boys said to him, you know, in the Koran, Allah tells us that the believers and the patient ones are the ones that when they’re tried with difficult times, say in Elohim, well, you know, like you ride your own to Allah we belong and to Allah we will return. And that was the thing that helped me. I had kind of. Kind of feel the soothing tranquility and peace. And that was offered from a child who is no more than ten years old. It just showed me that these children have developed such a different perspective in terms of healing and coping, that many of us here in our luxuries don’t even have an ounce of that. It made my mission that much more precious and unique for me.

Alan Montecillo: When was your last day in Gaza?

Dr. Mohammad Subeh: So our missions are outfitted with like a sometime before and after the entry and exit because of, all the logistics of getting in. So I returned on the 15th of March. So it was, a day and a half before that that I exited.

Alan Montecillo: Was it hard to leave?

Dr. Mohammad Subeh: Very difficult. I’m having withdrawal. I’m having like a Gaza withdrawal because of, you know, that sense of purpose that I had. While they’re on the ground? Definitely. Incrementally. Feels like it goes away when you’re here. That sense of perspective on life, feeling like you’re having impact. I definitely miss the people. I so miss the people. There was a profound feeling of guilt, of leaving, because it’s like I have this luxury of leaving. Like I can choose one to leave. People can’t choose when to leave. I almost felt embarrassed. Hey, I was leaving and people, everyone would tell me like, we’re going to miss you so much. Please don’t forget us. Please come back. It just felt like. Is this, like tug of war in the heart?

Alan Montecillo: Do you hope to go back to Gaza?

Dr. Mohammad Subeh: Yeah, I’m in the process of coordinating my second mission and making sure that it’s impactful. More importantly, how I can best help the population there. That’s that’s my kind of my litmus test right now. Where’s my presence? Kind of marginally most beneficial for the population there in right now and making a decision around that question. It’s really having vision and purpose to me going. I feel like there’s so much to be done. There’s so much to be done in bringing awareness to our local communities about what’s happening. And you sit with families there and you realize families here have families there. Everybody’s the same. We’re all human beings, and we have this shared collective humanity. Everybody wants the best for their children, wants the best for themselves. We can stop the harm like this. This is manmade. People have a right to live in their homes peacefully. To live with dignity. To live with self-determination. But these are human rights, and we all enjoy them as we should. And we just have to make sure that we’re not ever complicit in taking those rights away from other people.

Alan Montecillo: Well, doctor, thank you very much.

Dr. Mohammad Subeh: Thank you for having me here.

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Alan Montecillo: That was Dr. Mohammad Subeh. An emergency room doctor based in Saratoga. This episode was pitched, cut down and edited by producer Maria Esquinca. It was scored by Dana Cronin. Music courtesy of first. Com Music and Audio Network. The Bay is a production of KQED Public Radio in San Francisco. It’s made by Me, Maria Esquinca, and host Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Jen Chien is our director of podcasts. Katie Sprenger is our podcast operations manager. César Saldaña is our podcast engagement producer. Maha Sanad is our podcast engagement intern. And KQED chief content officer is Holly Kernan. I’m Alan Montecillo in for Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Thanks for listening.

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