'At times I operated without anaesthetic': British surgeon's harrowing Gaza account

This video contains distressing images

A British surgeon who has just returned from Gaza has spoken to ITV News about the horrors he saw, the injured children he tried to save and moments 'he cannot take out his head’.

Dr Junaid Sultan worked at the last fully functioning hospital in the region, which is overwhelmed as the numbers of those injured in the conflict continues to rise daily, now reportedly exceeding 77,000 - of which the majority are women and children.

He spoke to ITV News reporter Martha Fairlie about his experience. This report contains some distressing images and accounts.

“If I’m being honest and blunt, some of my friends and colleagues said to me that’s like suicide.”

Dr Junaid Sultan has just arrived back in the UK from Gaza.

The consultant vascular surgeon from Hull University Hospitals admits it is very strange to be here, as we set up for our interview in an elegant restaurant surrounded by crystal chandeliers.

"What made me really go there was because I wanted to go here as an ambassador of humanity and to make these people realise people in the world think of them," he tells me.

"We care about them, and we are not ignoring them."

Dr Junaid travelled to Gaza earlier this month as part of a team of 15 surgeons from the UK and the United States.

They were with the American non-profit organisation FAJR Scientific, which aims not just to treat patients but also to rebuild Gaza’s healthcare system, bringing medical supplies, as well as specialists into the conflict zone.

Dr Junaid travelled to Gaza earlier this month as part of a team of 15 surgeons from the US and UK. Credit: FAJR Scientific

For two weeks he worked day and night treating patients at the European Hospital between Khan Younis and Rafah. It is one of the few medical facilities remaining in Gaza.

From the moment they arrived, Dr Junaid says they were acutely aware of the desperate and dangerous environment they were in.

"There was a constant noise of drones,” he tells me. "It was a feeling that you’re being constantly monitored and under surveillance. There is someone watching you all the time.

"And that noise was very, very loud. And there was 24/7 gunshot noise all the time from any direction … makes you literally jump all of a sudden and constant bombing one after another. Some so strong it’ll literally shake the building of the safe house where we were staying or the hospital itself.

"You see people around you who were hungry for days and some of them telling you they haven’t had a meal for a week, and to have one meal in a week was a blessing to them. And they have no access to clean water for drinking or daily use and many other necessities."

Dr Junaid Sultan (centre) is a consultant vascular surgeon. Credit: FAJR Scientific

Dr Junaid told us there are thousands of patients that need treatment and that they fall into three categories:

Those who have just been injured because of the conflict. Those who were injured in the last six months, but are without access to antibiotics, medical supplies, clean dressings, or specialist care and have now developed complications. And those with chronic illnesses – such as diabetes, kidney disease, or cancer - who cannot access regular healthcare.

But it is the trauma cases that Dr Junaid cannot get out of his mind.

"We had a lot of women and children who presented to A&E with that sort of trauma. And the worst thing was the gunshot wounds in kids which makes absolutely no sense.

"I had to remove shrapnel from a six-year-old boy from his thigh which was stuck there for the last three months. He was unable to walk with that … it was pressing on his nerve and his vessels. So I had to retrieve that and do the repair.

"Likewise, we had kids with gunshot wounds to their different parts of the body and we were just treating them everyday."

He shares with me photographs - too graphic to publish - of a 10-year-old boy called Yaseen Alghalban, brought in after refugees returning to Northern Gaza were bombed.

"He was basically a victim of the bombardment. And he had multiple injuries, but the most devastating which you could see were both of his feet were completely mangled, and they were just hanging by a small amount of tissue, and there was absolutely nothing that we could have done to save them.

"This was just a ten-year-old boy who was screaming because of the pain and he did not have any painkillers because of the lack of medications. When he arrived, we had no other solution apart from to offer him the amputation which my orthopaedic colleague did to save his life - because otherwise he could have bled to death.

"But when I saw the ten-year-old … I cannot just take that out of my head, I literally cried watching him screaming and asking for help. It was very painful.”

European Hospital, between Khan Younis and Rafah, is one of the few medical facilities remaining in Gaza. Credit: FAJR Scientific

The emotional and psychological effect of working in a war zone is something Dr Junaid is still processing.

"I will be very honest with you, you see this so many times everyday, and you hear the story of everyone. It's so painful. So you have to really compose yourself and you have to keep on working because if you don't, you will not be able to work.

"I was in the blood donation lab, and I heard the story of a person who was working there as a volunteer, and he is a young guy in his late twenties, who had moved as a refugee from north.

"He told me that his wife, three-year-old son, his parents, his brother, his brother's wife, and their three children and few other family members were all bombed and killed. He was the only sole survivor.

"And this is just one of the stories, and he was showing me the pictures of all his family members. They were just gone in one minute, and his life was changed, like completely upside down in just one minute.

"Sometimes you run out of the words to even say to them, of how to console them. But I really admire their endurance and patience and their faith - and they don't complain. They will share the story and they will just say that 'it's fine, it's okay'. But it is a lot to sink in and a lot to take in."

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The European Hospital is described as Gaza’s only remaining functioning medical facility. But the reality is far removed from the clean, clinical settings of the hospitals Dr Junaid has worked in back in Britain.

More than 20,000 displaced people are sheltering in the relative safety of the hospital corridors. Their homes destroyed, they’ve created makeshift cubicles out of sheets and blankets where whole families are living.

I am shown one photograph where two patients are being treated in a medical bay with no privacy, while a family prepares flatbreads in the kitchen they’ve set up in the corner. It is chaotic, unsanitary and distressing.

Many of the staff who work here are also now refugees – the hospitals where they used to work in other parts of Gaza have been destroyed.

Dr Junaid Soltan filmed a video to show the conditions in the European Hospital, which is one of the few medical facilities remaining in Gaza

Dr Junaid tells us at least 500 medical staff have been killed in the past six months.

"The local staff are absolutely exhausted. Some of them have been working 24-hour shifts and they have divided it into three 24-hour shifts, or on an alternate day basis. They are absolutely exhausted," he says.

"First of all, their family members have been killed or they have been displaced. They have nowhere to go home. They’re living in a small camp within the hospital with no sufficient needs, no salary, and worried about their remaining family members.

"The constant working and the workload, like clinical work is just non-stop. It doesn’t give them any sort of a break. They are exhausted.

"They need more and more support, they need more medical clinicians to go there and give them some sort of relief as well.”

Dr Junaid (fourth from the left) worked for European Hospital, which is one of the few medical facilities remaining in Gaza. Credit: FAJR Scientific

The situation with medical supplies is no better, Dr Junaid explains. "You name it, and that thing is just short. There is not a single thing, which I could say in that hospital or within Gaza, is in sufficient kind of numbers."

He reels off some of the many items they need. Specialist stitches to repair blood vessels, grafts for blast injuries, wires, catheters, suction tubes, swabs, orthopaedic nails to repair bone fractures, painkillers, antibiotics. But also cancer medication and immunosuppressants. The list is seemingly endless.

The pressure on governments to get humanitarian aid to the population has been growing over recent weeks.

Dr Junaid and the FAJR Scientific medics were some of the last people to see the members of the World Central Kitchen team alive.

President and Chief Medical Officer of FAJR Scientific Khaled J. Saleh outlines the conditions currently facing doctors who are working in the Gaza Strip

Their paths crossed as they waited to enter Gaza. Just days later, seven aid workers were killed in a targeted attack by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), who have since apologised for the attack, calling it a “grave mistake”.

And then, I am shown a video of a youth called Akram al Hajori lying in a coma on a hospital bed. His father is speaking to the Intensive Care Unit doctor. As aid was airdropped into Gaza, he was struck on the head.

He died 24 hours after the video was taken. The very same parcel intended to save his life, claiming another victim of this conflict instead.

Now Dr Junaid is back in the UK, he is managing to sleep a few hours at a time at night, still woken by any loud noises.

He is urging politicians to act. Calling on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, US President Joe Biden, and other world leaders to send in their own ambassadors, to make it possible for the mainstream media to see what is happening for themselves.

Dr Junaid Sultan has been helping children and injured people in Gaza. Credit: FAJR Scientific

"We, as doctors, mission after mission, are coming in, and we are trying to highlight the situation to you guys (the media and politicians), and we are trying to give you the ground facts, and we are sharing the facts.

"We are showing you the pictures, we are showing you the stories, we are showing you the ground facts, what we have witnessed and what we have gone through. But we feel that no one is listening to us.

"So what I want you to do is that, please, if you don't trust us, just send your own ambassadors and establish the facts. Then you will realise what is being not reported and what more and the high amount or the huge scale of work is needed.

"So, please do that and bring the peace process, start the dialogue and communication, and that's the only way forward. That's what would be my message to all of them.”

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