Privacy and Sunlight: This East Jerusalem COVID Ward Is Unlike Any Other

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A coronavirus ward in St. Joseph's Hospital in East Jerusalem, January 2021.
A coronavirus ward in St. Joseph's Hospital in East Jerusalem, January 2021.Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

At the height of the pandemic’s third wave, the coronavirus wards at Jerusalem’s Hadassah and Shaare Zedek hospitals overflowed, and the city’s two largest hospitals had to send patients to medical centers in the center of the country. A smaller hospital in East Jerusalem was also filling up, but its coronavirus wards looked quite different.

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The rooms at St. Joseph Hospital are larger and offer more privacy. Each room has a bathroom and holds only one or two patients. Natural light completes the scene.

With many of Israel’s coronavirus wards underground, the more normal atmosphere can’t be overrated. St. Joseph, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in the center of the city, has converted 40 of its 100 beds into two coronavirus wards.

When these began to fill up, the hospital postponed certain nonurgent procedures. After an encouraging lull last week, the two wards were full again by Monday. Most patients during the first two waves of the pandemic were residents of East Jerusalem, but with the growing pressure on hospitals in West Jerusalem, Jewish patients are arriving too.

St. Joseph's Hospital in East Jerusalem, January 2021. Credit: Emil Salman

Though St. Joseph is a Palestinian hospital and most of its staff live in East Jerusalem or the West Bank, it’s used to treating Jewish Israelis. The hospital’s maternity ward is popular with Jewish women from Jerusalem and nearby settlements, accounting for 15 percent of births there. The ward offers natural childbirth or a so-called water birth, perfect for a woman who wants to give birth in a hospital but not the conventional way.

Kosher food is supplied from a restaurant in the Mahane Yehuda market in the west of the city, and, if necessary, a crucifix or depiction of Jesus will be discreetly taken down from the wall.

Recently, four Jewish patients from West Jerusalem were being treated at the hospital, as was a tourist from Italy and a Russian-speaking new immigrant. The medical staff treats any patient who comes to the hospital, but the Health Ministry’s policy toward the place is a bit more circumspect.

In the coming decades, the ministry plans to add more than 2,000 hospital beds in the Jerusalem area, but not one is designated for a hospital serving East Jerusalem residents, even though Palestinian neighborhoods are home to about a third of area residents.

St. Joseph's Hospital in East Jerusalem, January 2021.Credit: Emil Salman

Last week, Dr. Maher Deeb, the hospital’s medical director, reported a decline in infection rates in East Jerusalem. Two weeks ago, the coronavirus wards were full with 40 patients, including 15 in critical condition and needing intensive care. By Thursday, 10 beds were available and only seven people were in intensive care, but by Monday the number of patients was back up to 36 and the number of people in critical condition had doubled.

“With this disease, you don’t know what to expect,” Dr. Abdullah Bakr said. “You see a patient who looks okay, whose chest X-ray is terrible but he’s not feeling anything, and another who looks very bad but who’s in good condition. It’s totally unpredictable.”

Bakr also noted that, for the most part, the patients in this wave are younger and are getting sicker faster.

Abu Sabri Saliama from Hebron, at St. Joseph's hospital in East Jerusalem, January 2021. “I’ve been in the hospital for five days,” he said. “Everything is from God, health is from God.”Credit: Emil Salman

In one room lay 65-year-old Abu Sabri Saliama from Hebron, who was hoping to be discharged soon. “I’ve been in the hospital for five days,” he said. “Now everything is fine, but it was very hard. Everything is from God, health is from God.”

Elias Khano, a 71-year-old locksmith from the Beit Safafa neighborhood, doesn’t know how he got infected. “I always wore a mask,” he said. “I didn’t feel well but now, thank God, I’m getting better.”

With a smile he added that, even though it’s not a popular stance where he lives, he and his family support Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party. “In this country, you need somebody strong,” he said.

Elias Khano, a 71-year-old locksmith from the Beit Safafa neighborhood, in St. Joseph's Hospital, East Jerusalem, January 2021. “I didn’t feel well but now, thank God, I’m getting better.”Credit: Emil Salman
St. Joseph's Hospital in East Jerusalem, January 2021. Only two coronavirus patients to each room.Credit: Emil Salman

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