HAIFA, Israel—Overnight Monday, the staff at Rambam Medical Center sanitized its cavernous basement, with its raw cement floor and exposed pipes, and moved more than 100 patients underground. Cancer patients and those recovering from heart surgery would be treated below the ground now, as would new mothers and their babies.
Eight floors up, the orthopedic ward was jammed with Israeli soldiers and civilians—Jews, Muslims and Christians—torn up by Hezbollah rockets that had landed in northern Israel or in gun battles with Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon.
Not since the start of what became Israel's bitter 1982 invasion of Lebanon has the 1,000-bed hospital on the Mediterranean seafront seen so many war casualties—and for such a sustained period.
They've been arriving night and day, by army helicopter from Lebanon and by ambulance from this side of the border. Military casualties mingle with civilians in the wards and the hallways.
When a siren wails, warning of a possible incoming rocket, those who aren't quick enough or ambulatory enough to reach the shelters huddle in the stairwells, or outside in specially constructed rings of sandbags stacked 10 feet high.
In the eye ward, "Soldiers come in every day," said 1st Sgt. Guy Nehama, 21, a paratrooper-now-patient since he lost part of his sight and hearing in a Hezbollah gun battle last Wednesday.
His commander was killed in the first wave, a Hezbollah ambush on an Israel Defense Forces position, as well as a soldier in his squad. He hopes to get back to battle with his fellow paratroopers before the campaign is over.
"It's easier than to hear the sirens and go to the stairway," he said. "I'd rather be inside (Lebanon) than to wait here and get hit."
The medical staff also includes Christians, Muslims and Jews, all Israeli citizens.
"Haifa is a mixed city. You can see Arabs here treating Jewish soldiers. No one is looking into the origins of our patients," said Dr. Yaron Barel, the director of medical operations.
The orthopedic ward best reflected the city's mosaic Monday:
One room had three Israeli navy commandos who were wounded in a weekend raid on an apartment building in the Lebanese port city of Tyre.
Gabi Ashkar, 50, an Israeli Arab, was in the next room, the metal shards of a Hezbollah rocket still in his back, arm and hip from a strike the night before. "Everybody is suffering from this," he said, sneaking a cigarette in the corridor.
Down the hall, Haifa native Marvat Dragoni, 43, anxiously eyed the windowpane beside her bed, which is on the farthest side of the hospital from the Lebanon border.
"I was going to church, and I had just left my house when I heard the siren," she said of the attack Sunday that left shrapnel in her right leg. She ran to a neighbor's courtyard and was mostly inside the house when rocket shards exploded around her.
The neighbor, not as lucky, was in intensive care, paralyzed.
Haifa, Israel's third-largest city, had thought itself mostly immune from Lebanese border attacks until July 13, when the first rocket hit the city, one day after Hezbollah had captured two Israeli soldiers, triggering the conflict.
That rocket hurt no one. The first wounded arrived July 16, the survivors of a rocket strike on a railroad machine shop that killed eight.
On Sunday, a volley of 22 Hezbollah rockets flooded the hospital with casualties, from the seriously wounded to those in shock from the evening onslaught. That's when the staff decided to empty the wards on the side of the building that faces north, toward Lebanon—oncology, cardiology, maternity, neurology—and move the patients to the basement.
"It's not very clean. It's not a place that was built for treating patients," said Haifa-born cardiologist Tawfiq Zaydan, surveying the warren of underground rooms, which had 200 beds and 108 patients by midday Monday. "But under the circumstances, safety is the most important thing. The missile strike yesterday was really intense. It wasn't like the other ones."
Heart monitors, portable oxygen canisters and makeshift nursing stations with hastily moved computers now crammed the basement. Portable toilets had been placed in curtained-off areas.
Nursing supervisor Pnina Pier was cradling a 2-day-old girl named Tamar in the newborn unit as a fellow nurse wheeled in a 1-hour-old baby born by Caesarean section and wrapped in a fresh blanket. "It's not nice, not to see the sunlight," Pier said. "But it's secure. God willing, the situation will improve."
The medical staff said the hospital's work had continued apace. Outpatient cases are down 50 percent, said Barel, the medical director, because tens of thousands of people have fled the city south, beyond rocket range. But doctors are still doing elective surgery as well as emergency operations on the wounded.
"I can count on one hand" the number of medical staff who haven't showed up for work since the Israeli campaign began nearly a month ago, he said. Senior surgeons now sleep at the hospital overnight, rather than leave the work to more junior doctors.
"Some are scared. But almost everyone is coming to work. No one stopped, no one fled," Barel said.
(Rosenberg reports for The Miami Herald.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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