Qanta A. Ahmed
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Peace goes by the name Hadassah

After practicing in Saudi Arabia, the sense of community at Israel's flagship hospital feels extraordinary
A dove nestles among stones at Jerusalem's Western Wall (Photo: Qanta Ahmed)
A dove nestles among stones at Jerusalem's Western Wall (Photo: Qanta Ahmed)

It is spring in Rehavia. Leaving the twinkling lights of the King David Hotel, I walk to dinner. Jerusalem gleams from the recent rain. The city is fresh, the night breeze cool. Contemplating the plans I have for tomorrow, I run into a colleague from New York. Hearing my schedule, she says,

“Tomorrow, you will see what Peace looks like.” Her words remain with me for the rest of my time in Israel. For a long time, I will think of nothing else.

* * *

I am in an elevator in Ein Kerem. Dr. Mickey Weintraub, chief of Hadassah Hospital’s Pediatric Hematology Oncology division accompanies me to the ward. In a brief silence, I stand stock still surrounded by my colliding worlds. To my right stands a veiled Muslim woman in full hijab and abbayya. To my left, a tall Hassid wearing his somber 19th century suit stands, looking ahead. Everyone follows the digital display of the changing floors, but all I can do is stare around me. What to me seems miraculous, to everyone else seems mundane. The short journey slows to a single potent memory: the dichotomous worlds where I have made my homes have condensed into this powerful moment, one where an Israeli Hassid stands next to a Western Heterodox Muslim who flanks a modern Orthodox Jew in ranks with an orthodox Muslim Arab woman. The tumultuous region, the turbulent ages kaleidoscope into a sharpness of extraordinary clarity. For a moment, I steal a first, numinous glimpse as she reveals herself to me: I see Peace.

The elevator opens, dispelling this mystery, and we separate to different paths. I follow my colleague and meet the staff and patients at Hadassah Ein Kerem’s Pediatric Hematology Oncology Unit. The ward is familiar in the way all hospitals will always be to me. But what is so strikingly distinct is the diversity of humanity which unfolds along our tour.

Nurses, doctors, parents and patients continue with the demanding business of confronting cancer. The youngest arrive in strollers, others walk to their treatment rooms. Veteran parents experienced in the toils of illness support newer parents still reconciling the gravity of disease. In each bay of the ward I notice a round table. Casually pulled up, families are gathered around, some of their children receiving intravenous chemotherapy, others awaiting the routine events of their day. Haredi parents, barely out of adolescence themselves, minister to their small child with the novelty that betrays them as new parents. Intermittently, nurses record vitals in charts, murmuring reassurance to those in their charge. Some of the nurses are hijabed Arabs, others equally observant and covered Haredi women. I find them almost indistinguishable.

My colleague details the logistics of serving this community of patients. Hadassah is an 1100 bed facility which serves more than a million people across some of the most contested territory in the world. It served both communities, even during the violent Second Intifada, earning Hadassah the nomination for the Nobel Prize – the only hospital in the world to have been thus honored. Hadassah does all this on a budget which is over 90% philanthropic. That’s akin to one American hospital attending almost 39 million Americans, in the face of smoldering conflict, almost entirely financed by charitable patronage. Though these donations are almost (but not entirely) from the Jewish international community — Muslims patrons in Turkey and Morocco exist — many of the patients at Hadassah are Muslim Arabs from the Palestinian territories. Hadassah has trained more than 73 Palestinian resident physicians in recent years and now seeks the opportunity to train them as subspecialists, recognizing the urgent need to build physician capacities in the Palestinian community. Lacking specialist physicians — cancer specialists included — all too often, patients must be cared for in Israel, at Hadassah-Ein Kerem or Hadassah-Mount Scopus, away from their loved ones.

Dr. Weintraub speaks of practical challenges of his work in the way only a devoted physician can when he has long served his patients. The sick, children especially, shouldn’t need to travel distances, cross borders, and be away from their families if it could be avoided. A community’s suffering could be so eased if they had their own highly trained oncologists. And aspiring Palestinians physicians seeking to become specialists deserve the education and opportunity in their own communities, to engage them in serving their own people instead of settling overseas where they nowadays train.

In coming days the same insights are echoed when I meet with Dr. Osnat Levtzion-Korach the female physician Director of Hadassah University Hospital-Mount Scopus, and Dr. Hani Abdeen, the former Palestinian Minister of Health who is now the Dean at the School of Medicine at Al Quds University Medical School in East Jerusalem. Numerous Israeli and Palestinian medical residents and faculty observe the same themselves. The unity of their commitment to serve a shared population are striking, inconsistent with a region portrayed as in interminable, violent conflict. I find both Israeli and Palestinian physician leaders seek the same goals — to better serve their hybrid community, to better educate the physicians of the future and above all to pursue these complex goals together in close collaboration.

I absorb all this despite the overwhelming distractions of Hadassah’s extraordinary environment. As my colleagues speak, I realize to them this diversity of faith, race and ethnicity is unremarkable — its all they have ever known. To me, who has practiced a few hundred miles east of here in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia nothing could be more extraordinary than the intimacy, respect, solidarity and sense of community I could feel, a community which was expressed without words, without shared language but which was utterly palpable. Often during my time at Hadassah I find myself daydreaming and re-imagining my world in Riyadh if it were one day populated with Jewish patients alongside Muslim patients, Jewish colleagues alongside Muslim colleagues. It seems at once unimaginable, and as I return to my surroundings, immensely possible.

* * *

Along the corridor a Muslim mother catches my eye. She wears an emerald green abbayyah and matching headscarf. Her eyes are beautifully lined, her lipstick freshly applied. I watch as she settles her child in a room, which she then leaves for a moment. She looks at home here and I wonder how long her child has been sick. As I study her, I find I am remembering every female colleague, every female patient of mine in Saudi Arabia. She locks gaze with me for a moment and we sense a connection. Moments later, she has gone and my gaze lands behind her. I spy, in colorful woodcut, a cheerful child’s Mezuzah gracing the doorway of her child’s room, and indeed that of every other room I will see at Hadassah. I imagine the unseen workman who must have installed these small objects repeatedly for families he would never meet. In this tiny gesture lies Hadassah’s central humility. How fortunate for those who are treated in this hospital which, despites its extraordinary command of technology and innovation, still blesses each admission and discharge with the Shema, the original Lord’s prayer. This glimpse captures a richness that the marble and gold, the fountains and lawns, the cavernous mosques of Riyadh cannot compare.

The next day at Hadassah’s Mount Scopus campus, I am about to visit the emergency room. My guide stops to enquire about a visitor we both recognize to be in distress. Asking me to wait, I take a seat in the waiting room, watching her silhouette disappear into the long corridor. It is rare that a physician spends time in a waiting room and I savor the luxury of unscheduled time as I study the vista I rarely experience.

I sit among these people of Jerusalem. Around me, the soft hum of families murmurs as they settle in for their waits. I see Arab families who might have been from Malaaz in Riyadh. Ordinary working folk, they are veiled, or thobed, bearing baskets of nourishment and necessity. I almost catch the faint scent of cardamom that such families in Riyadh inevitably trailed as they traveled with delicious thermoses of Arabic coffee. Once again in Israel, I find myself transported to Arabia.

Seated in the same area nearby, I see families I might have attended in Maimonides, New York had I accepted a job I was once offered. It’s hard to believe I am not in Brooklyn as I see the tall, demure, peyos-adorned men, their formal black hats, escorting their modest wives. They look at me peaceably with entirely no curiosity. I remain unnoticed because, I discover with some delight, I fit in. Only later do I realize there is no segregation, neither men from women, nor Muslims from Jews, not Israelis from Palestinians. Instead, we have formed one people.

* * *

These were just some of the memories Hadassah gifted me during my short visit, memories I cherish as I read of the hardships Hadassah faces now. In visiting my colleagues and their patients, in entering the familiar spaces of health where I have lived more years than I have not, I finally see Israel as she was intended. Israel is a place of healing and recovery for all who enter, a place where respect is accorded to every human created in the image of the Lord. Israel is a place where Peace not only has alighted, but has made her permanent abode. As I reluctantly leave Shel Zahav, the City of Gold, though it is my third trip to Jerusalem, I realize this has been my first glimpse of Yerushalayim Shel Mala, the cosmic Jerusalem, where Peace goes by the name Hadassah, and makes her humble nest in a place God — and His People — call Israel.

A dove nestles among stones at Jerusalem's Western Wall (Photo: Qanta Ahmed)
A dove nestles among stones at Jerusalem’s Western Wall (Photo: Qanta Ahmed)
About the Author
Qanta Ahmed, MD, is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, a life member, Council on Foreign Relations and an Honorary Fellow at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. She is the author of 'In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom'