Israel's Kathmandu Field Hospital, a Medical Oasis in the Midst of Destruction

The Israeli army has set up the largest foreign-run field hospital after the massive quake in Nepal, treating 1,000 Nepalis.

Amie Ferris—Rotman

KATHMANDU – Twelve-year-old Rosan Tamang slides back and forth in his wheelchair, his expression switching between joy and confusion. Sometimes a memory of the earthquake passes by, making his eyes glaze over with sorrow.

Tamang, with black spiky hair and the right side of his body in bandages, had collapsed under a pile of rubble that had been his house. Israeli doctors managed to perform a skin graft on the boy, using his leg to save his arm. But knowledge of his parents, brothers and sisters, is hazy at best. Snippets of unreliable information filter in.

Life in Kathmandu is still chaotic after the April 25 earthquake that killed an estimated 7,500 people, displaced hundreds of thousands, flattened whole villages and destroyed a cluster of centuries-old historic sites. The United Nations warns that eight million people across Nepal were affected by the 7.8-magnitude quake.

An Israeli paramedic hands Tamang an orange bottle of bubbles, which he blows excitedly, filling the roomy tent with iridescent globules. “Can’t I live here instead of going home?” Tamang asks. The doctors and nurses exchange glances. Even if he had wanted to, Tamang has no home to go to.

With remarkable speed and efficiency, the Israel Defense Forces set up the largest foreign-run field hospital in Kathmandu after the quake. A network of 18 olive green tents are organized on a sprawling open space next to the Nepalese Army’s expansive military hospital. The complex is home to over 260 Israeli personnel, where they deliver births, set broken bones and perform dozens of amputations (60, by last count).

A few tents from Tamang, a baby girl lays in an incubator. Born prematurely at 33 weeks, she already has a full head of black hair. As two Israeli nurses delicately adjust the diaper engulfing her tiny body, one cannot help but compare this scene to the country’s largest – and now, beleaguered – Paropakar maternity hospital, where newborns with complications were being treated in a battered and unheated van parked outside. Though formed of tents on a blanket of grass under a merciless sun, the IDF field hospital is remarkably adept. Its 122-member medical staff have treated 1,000 Nepalis since opening on April 29. The hospital boasts triage for children and adults, an operating room, an intensive-care unit, imaging, a high-tech lab, pediatrics, labor and delivery, and orthopedics.

A clown from Dream Doctors entertains Nepali relatives of the injured at the IDF field hospital in Kathmandu. Amie Ferris-Rotman

“We have the experience, the know-how, the volunteers. That’s why we’re the biggest,” says Libby Weiss, the IDF’s spokesperson on the ground.

Touring the polyester labyrinth, it is easy to see the humanitarian scale of the earthquake. In one tent, Dr. Giora Weiser treats a 5-year-old boy with acute diarrhea in the hope he can prevent typhoid. In another, nurses are tightening the metal rods in a 40-year-old woman’s leg, making her shriek in pain. The emergency room is abuzz with shouting and stress as a team operates on a toddler. Wearing oversized lavender-colored medical scrubs, a boy who was pulled out of rubble after 120 hours sits perched on his bed, connected to an IV.

Chief clown David Barashi at the IDF field hospital in Kathmandu. Amie Ferris-Rotman

Later, the children will be entertained by whistle-blowing clowns sporting red noses and oversized shoes. The ensemble, from the Israeli Dream Doctors Project, believes in the restorative benefits of clowning. “There are lots of different techniques to treat patients,” chief clown David Barashi says before wildly dancing to a live rendition of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. “Ours involves playing with people.” The performers are perhaps more of a relief to the staff than the patients, and they join in and dance.

Israel’s PR machine is in full swing here: The hospital is bedecked with Israeli flags and some of the patients are even being taught Hebrew. An Israeli paramedic holds up his smartphone and plays a video of a small recumbent boy, heavily sedated after an operation, in which he murmurs toda raba – Hebrew for “thank you very much.” This is met with cries of jubilation from doctors and nurses.

A baby, born premature at 33 weeks, lays in an incubator in the IDF field hospital in Kathmandu. Amie Ferris-Rotman

While Nepal is a top destination for Israeli tourists, especially those on post-army backpacking trips, the IDF’s swift and slick response to provide aid “to all and everyone” raised eyebrows among critics. Kenneth Roth, executive director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, took to Twitter in anger, saying that it is “easier to address a far-away humanitarian disaster than the nearby one of Israel’s making in Gaza.”

According to the UN, efforts in Nepal by tiny Israel come only second to religion- and language-sharing neighbor India (China and the United Kingdom, by contrast, sent considerably fewer people than Israel). The IDF hospital even earned a personal visit from Nepali Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, who praised the two countries’ friendship, saying Israel had really come through in Nepal’s time of need.

An Israeli nurse attends to a 40-year-old woman with a broken leg in the IDF field hospital in Kethmandu. Amie Ferris-Rotman

Israel’s foray into international disaster relief is relatively new; the IDF deployed medical teams to Haiti after its 2010 earthquake, to Japan in the wake of its 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and to the Philippines in the aftermath of its 2013 typhoon.

The IDF says its field hospital will stay in Kathmandu for up to three more weeks, after which it will pack up and return to Israel, taking with it the cadres of health professionals and 90 tons of state-of-the-art equipment that have saved so many Nepali lives.

“No one is better organized than Israel,” says Amit Aryal, a U.S.-educated advisor at Nepal’s Ministry of Health. And while Nepalis are understandably grateful to the IDF, one cannot help but think of the bonus points being generated back home.

This article was supported by the International Reporting Project.