'Loss of dignity' difficult to witness in Gaza, medical volunteer says

Feb. 25—Few Americans have been to Gaza since Oct. 7.

That’s one reason Santa Fean Merril Tydings feels that “bearing witness” to the humanitarian crisis in the enclave was part of the job she undertook when she recently joined a two-week volunteer medical mission.

Tydings, 43, entered Gaza in late January, not long after the war reached its 100-day mark, along with five other doctors and nurses all volunteering with MedGlobal. The humanitarian nongovernmental organization provides emergency response and long-term healthcare programs in low-resource and disaster areas.

Leaders of international groups such as the United Nations have said a humanitarian crisis unfolded in Gaza within weeks of the start of the Israel-Hamas war and has deepened since, with about 85% of the Gaza Strip’s residents displaced and half at risk of starvation. The Palestinian Gaza Health Ministry reports more than one in 25 people have been killed or injured in the war and the death toll has surpassed 29,500 people.

Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which sparked the war, killed about 1,200 people. About 250 others were taken hostage.

Tydings, a critical care nurse currently working at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, said she has always been calm under pressure. And in a war zone, there is pressure.

“It’s kind of in my blood to, in a way, seek out these high-stress environments,” she said. “I feel like it’s just my constitution, part of who I am: The crazier it gets, the more mellow I become.”

Born in Santa Fe to two schoolteachers, she grew up mostly in Albuquerque, left the state after high school, moved to Taos about five years ago and then returned to Santa Fe in November. She has primarily worked in emergency rooms or as a flight nurse and has volunteered on medical missions in Honduras, Uganda and Ukraine — which is where she became involved with MedGlobal.

As conditions worsened for civilians in Gaza, Tydings reached out to the organization and said, “I’ve got availability. Whenever you’re sending a team, I would like to go,” she recalled.

In mid-January, she got the call. She asked her boss for time off and also — for her first time since joining international medical trips — made sure her financial affairs were in order in case she didn’t make it back.

One week later, she was driving toward the Egypt-Palestine border crossing with a 60-liter backpack full of clothes, supplies and 13 days of food. Her small MedGlobal team also brought with it about 30 large duffel bags stuffed with medical supplies like vitamins, antibiotics, blood pressure medication, gauze, tape, gloves, gowns and masks — “very simple, basic medical tools,” Tydings said.

MedGlobal has worked in Gaza since 2018 and operates a primary clinic in Rafah, but the clinic had run out of basic supplies. Raja Musleh, MedGlobal’s country representative in Gaza, said in a Feb. 14 news release the organization’s healthcare facilities “can hardly operate.”

Some countries and aid organizations have blamed Israel for restricting humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip, calling on Israel to open more border crossings and ensure the safety of aid convoys from military bombardment. Israel has denied limiting aid and said careful inspection of aid is necessary to prevent the entry of supplies that could strengthen Hamas.

Tydings said thousands of semi-trucks lined both sides of the highway for about 15 to 30 miles on the Egyptian side of the border, sporting logos of various organizations such as the World Central Kitchen.

“You could tell that it was nonperishable food and bottles of water and bags of flour and probably tons and tons of medical aid,” she said.

“That’s crucial aid. It’s life-saving things that these folks need,” she continued. “So to see them all stopped at the border, not able to get in … that was a really hard introduction to the situation.”

Once in Gaza, Tydings split her time between seeing patients at MedGlobal’s clinic in Rafah and European Hospital in Khan Younis. While two surgeons stayed at the hospital so they could operate through the night, most of the team stayed at a house that serves as MedGlobal’s headquarters.

In the hospital’s emergency room, treating casualties from warfare was “certainly a huge part of our day,” Tydings said.

“There’d be a massive commotion and bodies would be brought into the resuscitation room, and we would treat and do what we could for them, and then once they either died or were stabilized enough to go to surgery or the [intensive care unit], then we would go back and start treating people’s blood pressure,” she said.

Most people sought help for basic needs such as treatment for days-old wounds, diarrhea, malnutrition, dehydration and starvation, she said. Communicable infections such as Hepatitis A have also surged in Rafah, where an estimated 1.5 million Palestinians, or over half of Gaza’s population, have sought refuge.

Tydings described the hospital as “chaos” due to the sheer volume of people needing help.

Before the war, European Hospital’s emergency room typically saw 50 patients per day but has recently been seeing in the thousands, she said.

“You walked down the halls of the hospital and you literally only had a [small] path to actually walk because there were patients and their families lined up on either side in the halls,” she said.

Meanwhile, the medical team heard and saw missiles flying overhead and could hear “active warfare” in the distance, particularly at night, she said. Drones were a “constant, everywhere,” a noise to which Tydings quickly became accustomed.

“There was never a time where I was panicked or felt like I was really in danger, but I knew at any moment that could change,” she said. “Committing to go to a place like Gaza during active warfare in such a small space, you just you have to be OK with” the risk.

The hardest part of the experience, as a humanitarian, was seeing people’s “loss of dignity,” Tydings said.

“You look out on the horizon, and you don’t see anything but tents. They try so hard to make it dignified, to make it livable, and it’s just not,” she said.

“They don’t have anywhere to go to the bathroom. They don’t have any clean water to wash their hands. They don’t have any food to eat. Women, specifically, don’t have sanitary items, so that’s another layer of loss of dignity because they just have no way to keep themselves clean,” she continued. “People are freezing. And they also live in fear that at any moment, the small little space that they’ve created for themselves could be annihilated.”

On their way back to the MedGlobal house every day, the medical team drove past hundreds of people standing in line for food “and they would stand all night, and they would stand all day, and the line would not move, and bread would not come,” Tydings said.

The aid trucks that do cross the border cannot make it far because they are often mobbed out of desperation, she said.

She described the attitude of many of her patients as, “what will be, will be.”

“They would still give you the shirt off their back,” she said. “I came underdressed the first day, and I don’t know how many times people were literally taking off their own warm clothes to give to me. That was overwhelming, too; they have nothing, and they would still give you what little they had.”

The privilege of knowing she would soon fly back to her apartment and nearby grocery store was “heavy,” Tydings said.

“We have so much, and I saw people with so little, with nothing,” she said. “I think that what’s being portrayed by what media is getting out from on the ground in Gaza is true, but it doesn’t even show the half of it.”

She hopes more awareness of the humanitarian crisis will somehow, someway bring about a cease-fire.

“That’s really the only way for uninhibited aid to get in to meet the needs of the people. Whatever that looks like, however that happens, it’s so dire and it’s so necessary,” she said. “It should have happened yesterday.”

By 111 Tech

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