Egyptians wounded in protests struggle for medical care

McClatchy NewspapersMay 12, 2011 

WORLD NEWS EGYPT-WOUNDED 3 MCT

Naama Ismail sits in the hospital room in Alexandria, Egypt, where her 15-year-old son, Abdullah Shehata, is recovering from a gunshot wound to the.

HANNAH ALLAM — Hannah Allam / MCT

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — When Abdullah Shehata's father died, the15-year-old dropped out of school and looked for work, a quest that took him from his impoverished home province of Assiut to the potato fields outside this ancient Egyptian port city.

On the evening of Jan. 29, four days into the uprising that would unseat President Hosni Mubarak, Shehata and his brother heard of youth protests in Alexandria and were eager to join. They left their work in the fields, hopped into the back of a pickup and rumbled toward the city.

As the brothers approached the demonstration, a stray bullet struck Shehata in the head, piercing his skull. He survived, but with permanent brain damage, and is now among the 6,400 Egyptians the government says were wounded during the revolution.

While the 846 people who were killed in the anti-Mubarak protests are remembered in hundreds of posters and video tributes, there's little public discussion of the thousands of people, like Shehata, who'll need expensive medical treatment for the rest of their lives. They've been promised state compensation, but so far what little help they receive comes from overwhelmed local aid groups and handouts from relatives.

Medical workers and families of the wounded say the interim government must do more to meet the needs of Egypt's new generation of wounded "veterans." The vast majority are young men who'll never work again because of eye injuries, brain damage and other long-term health problems.

"There's a severe negligence toward the wounded," said Hamdy Khalaf, 36, a cousin of Shehata's who visited his hospital room on a recent day. "What's going to become of this man? He got injured during the revolution, for the sake of the country, and now he's got no job, he's crippled and he's getting no help."

In Alexandria alone, where 85 people were killed, an estimated 700 were wounded. Most of those, said Marwa el Dereini, the director of the Future Protectors Association, an Alexandria nonprofit aid group, will require long-term care. Only 25 have been admitted to the military hospital for treatment. The rest, she said, are struggling.

"They need psychological care, they need to find jobs, they need physical rehabilitation," she said.

For now, the most critical cases are shuttled from hospital to hospital, doctors and victims' advocates say, each facility worse than the one before, as cash runs out for the expensive private treatment centers. The bureaucracy involved in being admitted to a military hospital is so daunting that few families try.

Public hospitals, typically dismal places where infections and bedsores are common, are supposed to be free. But families said they were forced to provide their own medicine, bandages and linens.

"We should help the families of the martyrs," said Wael Mousa, 33, referring to those killed in the protests. He's an accountant who volunteers with another Alexandria nonprofit group that's helping Shehata's family. "But, at the same time, we can't wait for the injured to become martyrs.

"No one is conveying the voices of these people to the government. And I have sympathy for the government, too: How can they treat these thousands of people without knowing who they are or how they were injured?"

Shehata is still recovering in Healing Palace Hospital, a gleaming private facility in Alexandria where he's racked up thousands of dollars in medical bills that his family is unable to pay. He's mostly lucid but unable to speak because of a tube down his throat; doctors say the extent of his brain damage is still uncertain.

The Egyptian aid group that's footing the bill has warned the family that the money is running out. There's not even enough cash for the round-trip bus fare that his mother, Naama Ismail, needs to continue her regular visits from Assiut.

On a recent day, Ismail sat at her son's bedside, tears welling in her eyes as nurses came in to change his dressings. Family members already have cut back on food to save money; they're in debt to several relatives, and there's no telling how they'll manage the extensive care Shehata will need when he goes home.

"The doctors said he's gradually improving, but he'll never be the same as before," his mother said.

In the next room over, another family shared the heartbreak. Antar Abdelazim, 27, was struck in crossfire on Jan. 28, a particularly bloody day of the revolution. The bullet severed Abdelazim's spine, his doctor said, leaving him paralyzed in both legs and his left arm. He was to be married the week of his shooting.

"She's still holding on to me," Abdelazim said in a raspy voice from his hospital bed, a smile spreading across his face at the mention of his fiancee.

Abdelazim was shuttled between public hospitals and substandard private clinics, the family said, until donations from relatives and friends allowed his transfer to Healing Palace. Like other families of wounded protesters, they haven't received any government assistance.

They're barely getting by, family members said, and their latest goal is scraping together enough cash to send Abdelazim to the United States for a bone-marrow transplant that the family is convinced, against scientific evidence, would return his mobility.

"The transplant would allow him to walk again," said his brother, Fares Abdelazim. "We're just preparing the documents and medical files and waiting to see how we're going to finance the trip."

Outside the room, a doctor who's treated Shehata, Abdelazim and several other young men who were shot during the revolution said the debilitating injuries and lack of official support were difficult to witness. When asked about Abdelazim's family and their talk of a full recovery in the United States, the doctor looked pained.

"What chances? Did you see him?" he said. "His wedding is canceled, his whole life is canceled. And he is so young."

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