8 Jun 2024

‘Morgue overflowing with bodies’ in Gaza, says doctor

Social Affairs Editor and Presenter

We are joined by Dr James Smith, who has just returned from Gaza, where he was working in Al-Aqsa Hospital until Wednesday.

Jackie Long: Huge numbers of casualties from this attack will be going to that hospital that you were in just a couple of days ago. What are your colleagues telling you things are like?

James Smith: We were actually working at both of the hospitals that you see in the footage that you’ve shared, Al-Awda in Nuseirat and Al-Aqsa. And in the days that I was working in the hospital, we had seen several mass casualty incidents. But they were minuscule in comparison to what has happened today. We had several colleagues working in the emergency rooms of both hospitals, along with working alongside our Palestinian colleagues there, and they described the most horrific conditions that I have ever attempted to comprehend as an emergency doctor. Tens of patients on the floor.

They have a resuscitation room in Al-Aqsa Hospital that is capable, at the best of times, of treating three people. They had ten, 15 patients side by side on the floor there, many of whom had been intubated or were critically unwell. We saw a morgue that was overflowing with the bodies of people that had been killed. I’ve worked in that hospital not only in the last couple of days, but back in December, January. And this is unlike anything that I have seen before.

Jackie Long: Brutally speaking, the pictures look as if it’s chaos, as if it’s absolute carnage. But presumably there are still processes that you, as doctors, have to try and kick in to get work done to save people’s lives. What happens?

James Smith: The team led by the Palestinian doctors and nurses has tried over the course of the last eight months to maintain a triage system of sorts. So the most critically unwell people are seen in the red area, and then the yellow area for those that are less critically unwell, and the green area for what you typically refer to as the walking wounded. But the sheer number of people that have been injured in these airstrikes  has meant that system has effectively collapsed.

In addition to that, we’ve had regular power outages in recent days. The last day that I was working in the hospital, we had a patient on a ventilator who died because the power went out and the ventilator stopped working. These are very, very difficult conditions. When we talk about a collapsed healthcare system, what you see in the footage here is that in action.

Jackie Long: And the truth, presumably, is that even the people who get to that hospital who are alive with treatable injuries may die anyway.

James Smith: Of course. Frequently we ran out of essential medical equipment. We didn’t have the medicines that we needed. We didn’t have the equipment we needed to administer basic first aid. Patients that need to go to the operating theatre to receive life-saving surgical interventions often were in a long queue of patients, and they just simply didn’t make it.

Jackie Long: Can I ask you briefly, you literally have just returned today. What does that do to people like yourselves and the Palestinian doctors who are still there, how does it impact on you?

James Smith: It’s horrifying. I see my colleagues, I recognised colleagues in the footage that you’ve shared, and I cannot comprehend how the barbarity of this has been allowed to continue for as long as it has.