The “Gaza doctor”
Izzeldin Abuelaish is a Palestinian doctor who has worked in Gaza and Israel
Izzeldin Abuelaish, known to many as the “Gaza doctor,” is a Palestinian who trained as an obstetrician and gynaecologist and was employed in an Israeli hospital. In 2009, three of his daughters and his niece were killed by an Israeli tank at his home in Gaza. In their memory he set up Daughters for Life, a charity that seeks to empower young women in the Middle East by facilitating their education. He works as associate professor of global health at the University of Toronto.
Why did you choose to pursue a career in medicine?
As a Palestinian who was born and raised in a refugee camp in the Gaza strip, my parents realised education is vital to move forward. As a child I had rheumatic fever and was admitted to hospital. I saw the doctors and wondered: what are they doing? What can they do to save lives and to help? I realised it’s a miracle—saving lives and helping others, and that doctors are the messengers of humanity dealing with the most precious creature: the human. Medicine is the human equaliser and stabiliser in a world that has lost its stability and humanity.
Can you tell me about your training? How did you come to specialise in obstetrics and gynaecology?
I did my MD [Doctor of Medicine] at Cairo University. While doing my internship I started to think what specialty I might do, and I enjoyed obstetrics and gynaecology. When you deal with a new life, the cry of a newborn baby is the cry of a new hope. A new life is coming and it is our responsibility in this world.
I practised in Saudi Arabia for a few years where I did a diploma in obstetrics and gynaecology as part of a collaboration between the Ministry of Health and the University of London. I continued to practise in Saudi Arabia before moving back to Gaza. Then I joined the Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, Israel, where I was the first Palestinian to formally practise medicine. I did subspecialty training in fetal medicine at King’s College and in Italy and Belgium, and then I did a masters in health policy at Harvard to develop my policy and managerial skills.
What was it like to work in a hospital in Israel?
Inside the hospital borders everyone is treated equally and with respect. I felt part of the staff, proud of what we were doing. We are human inside the hospital. Many people are humble and kind; they feel their humanity when they are in holy places like the hospital, the mosque, the church, the synagogue. But when they leave these holy places they are different people. We need to ask ourselves: why do we change? Why can’t people practise outside what they had practised inside?
What inspired your change to public health?
I miss my profession as a physician gynaecologist, but I don’t want to be divided, and now I am focused on global and public health. This means having an impact on a larger scale. Global health concerns all seven billion people in this world. There is a difference between public and global health and clinical practice. They complement each other. We need both, but I can’t do both.
What do you teach?
I teach three courses to graduate students from a range of backgrounds. The first course is “health: an engine for the journey to peace,” in which we ask what health we want for ourselves: is it physical, is it mental, is it spiritual, is it financial? If someone is not healthy, he’s not at peace, the people around him are not at peace. It looks at how we can use health as an engine for the journey to peace, because peace is a journey. I also teach women and children’s health in countries in conflict. Women are paying in conflict, and in any community they pay the major price of the suffering. The third course is international perspectives on health services management.
You set up Daughters for Life a few years ago, can you tell me about that?
It was established in 2010 in memory of my daughters: Bessan, Mayar, and Aya, and my niece Nur, who were killed by Israeli tanks. My daughters had their own plans, and I am sure that if they were alive they would achieve them. I thought about the other girls in the world who have the same potential as my girls, but are deprived of resources. I want to see the plans of my daughters fulfilled by other girls. That’s why the foundation is dedicated to the memory of my daughters, for the health and education of girls and women in the Middle East. This is the most efficient and effective approach to make a change in this world, enabling women to achieve a role through education.
This year we gave 50 awards to newly graduate girls from the Middle East. We signed an agreement with Oxford Brookes University where they will sponsor a student for each one that we sponsor.
How do you balance your time?
I thank God I have the strength and the ability to balance these things. I find the time and energy for my daughters. My daughters give me the energy and the strength because I feel I am accountable to them. I see them every second, reminding me: “don’t leave us, don’t forget us,” and I assure them I will never forget them. As long as I am breathing and as long as I am living, they are my life.
Has your experience of being a doctor influenced your views about the world?
My profession has impacted my life in a positive way. As doctors, we will never lose hope as long as the patient is still alive. Maybe today we don’t have a treatment, but we have hope and we have the new generation of doctors and researchers—as long as there are good people working hard there is hope. My faith is very important as well, it taught me to take responsibility and do what I can to make a difference. It’s time to invest our efforts and direct our energy into taking responsibility rather than blaming. Be confident that our actions can make a difference in others’ lives and that we need to work together. If each of us took responsibility and did our part, this world would be a different one.
Do you feel doctors have a special role or responsibility in conflict?
The role of doctors is vital; to show that they are dealing with a human being and to demonstrate to others the value of a human life. Disease doesn’t know borders or barriers. Doctors are vital in the journey to peace and putting an end to the conflict in mediation, in ceasefire, in humanitarian aid; they are messengers for peace and humanity.
What advice would you give to medical students with an interest in global health?
It’s time to look around, learn, and then act. Global health is the health of all—the one in your neighbourhood and the one who is far from you. I used to believe that medicine is only in the department dealing with the patient. Medicine is far beyond that. The determinants of health are not just the hospitals; it’s far beyond the doctor, the bed, and the lab. Everything in life affects our health and we need to learn that and promote it.Emma Rourke, fifth year medical student
Correspondence to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Competing interests: None declared.
Provenance and peer review: commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
Cite this as: Student BMJ 2013;21:f958