When Dr. Yael Mozer-Glassberg, chief medical officer of Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Israel, was initially invited to join the team of people who would be responsible for welcoming host children returning to Israel, her internal reaction was was immediate.
“Oh my God, no,” she remembers saying to herself. “But how could I say no? “It’s a national mission.”
She was selected to join a group in Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv, made up of the first medical professionals to care for a group of children and their mothers returning to Israel. During the ceasefire, which lasted from November 24 to December 1, the hospital admitted 19 children and 6 women kidnapped on October 7 in Israel by Hamas and other militant groups.
To the initial surprise of many, the children were quick to speak freely about their experiences. Social workers and psychologists listened intently as the children told stories in voices that barely reached whispers.
One child said he kept track of time by tearing off pieces of his nails and saving the clippings to count the days. Dr. Efrat Bron-Harlev, director of Israel’s Schneider Children’s Medical Center, said another child asked a series of questions: “Are we allowed to look out the window?” Are we allowed to open the door? “Can we get out of the room?” Another child said she was confused to see people waiting for her because she was told no one was looking for her, no one cared about her and there would be no more Israel for her.
Sometimes a social worker or psychologist would come out of the room to cry.
“They talked about death like they were going to the grocery store and talking about what ice cream they would buy,” Dr. Mozer-Glassberg said.
The war has also hit women and children particularly hard in Gaza. They represent a large part of the 15,000 people killed in Gaza since the war began on October 7, according to the UN and Gaza health officials.
Dr. Bron-Harlev had long planned how his hospital would handle children held hostage. A little over a week after October 7, she sent an email to the Ministry of Health: “Let us think of the optimistic days when children will return from captivity. »
She began building a team that felt like a whole new ward. She didn’t know if any hostages had suffered sexual trauma, she said, so she created a team made up of mostly women. She didn’t know if anyone would come back with acute physical trauma. So she set up an on-call team including the head of the intensive care unit, the head of anesthesiology, the head of the surgical team and the head of orthopedics.
Dr Bron-Harlev then assembled a small inner circle of senior doctors and nurses, social workers and psychologists, hospital support staff and kitchen staff. Food could be a big problem, she thought. What would they be able to bear and what would they want?
When the children arrived, some with their mothers, they were greeted slowly. They first reunited with their families and spent time together. The medical teams approached each child and each mother with sensitivity.
“We took it slowly, one step in, two steps out, to see what their needs were,” said Efrat Harel, director of social services at the medical center. Each patient was assigned a doctor, nurse, social worker and psychologist.
They found patients who had lost 10 to 15 percent of their body weight, who had heads full of lice and chests full of bites, and who had hygiene unlike anything the hospital had ever seen. Many bathed only once during their captivity, just before being released, with a bucket of cold water and a cloth.
One patient was particularly comfortable with Dr. Mozer-Glassberg, so she spent four days slowly drying the girl’s hair with a lice comb and crying softly. Dr. Mozer-Glassberg remembers her asking if she should shave her head because the infestation was so bad. “They will go away eventually,” Dr. Mozer-Glassberg assured him of the lice. “They will go.”
She had initially feared that the children would suffer from refeeding syndrome, a dangerous condition in which an undernourished person returns to eating normally before their body is able to digest larger portions.
However, when given food, many children took a few small bites and then put the food aside. When asked why, Dr. Mozer-Glassberg replied, “That way the food will last for the rest of the day.” »
Despite assurances that more food was available, many children struggled to eat.
Then, at 1 a.m. on his second night in the hospital, asked for schnitzel and mashed potatoes – a joyous development – and the kitchen staff enthusiastically prepared the food and found a lovely plate, cutlery and a glass to serve.
Children began speaking in voices louder than whispers and playing with their loved ones outside their rooms.
But questions and worries still haunt their parents and guardians.
A mother described how she and her child were taken to Gaza on a tractor with a soldier who was seriously injured. Her daughter was covered in her blood by the time they reached Gaza, and the child asked the mother, “What happened to the man who poured red?” » said Dr. Bron-Harlev, translating.
The child still asks questions about the man. The mother doesn’t know what happened to him.
On Monday, after sirens went off in Petah Tikva, sending the girl and her mother to a secure room in the hospital, the girl asked her mother if they were going back to the tunnels. When she assured her daughter that this was not the case, the girl then asked her if they were moving, like they did in Gaza.
The hospital’s work is heartbreaking, and staff members are supportive of each other, said Dani Lotan, director of psychological services at Schneider Children’s. Many talked about having to slow down, realizing they couldn’t rehabilitate children and mothers in a day or two or “compensate them for everything they lost,” Mr. Lotan said.
Like much of Israel, Dr. Mozer-Glassberg hopes to treat two other children, Kfir Bibas, who was 9 months old when he was kidnapped along with his 4-year-old brother, Ariel Bibas. Hamas claimed that the two children and their mother, Shiri, were killed by Israeli airstrikes, but Israeli officials have not confirmed this information. The Bibas family said they hoped their claims would be “refuted by military officials.”
As Dr. Mozer-Glassberg spoke, a blaring siren sounded outside and his phone announced “Tsevah adom” in Hebrew – red alert.
“Ach,” she said, grabbing her things and walking with the rest of the staff to a nearby stairwell, as Israel’s Iron Dome defense system could be heard intercepting missiles.
His work and the war were far from over.