Doctor at Western Galilee Hospital recalls wars hectic days

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When Americans experience “bombs bursting in air” and “the rockets’ red glare” it’s usually during the national anthem just prior to a ballgame. Yet for Israelis, the bombs and rockets are all too real.

And Dr. Uri Rehany should know. He’s the one who pulled the shrapnel out of terrified civilians and soldiers at Western Galilee Hospital, in Israel’s far north. He’s the one who was forced to operate in a dimly lit, subterranean bunker during rocket attacks — one of which blew his ophthalmology clinic to bits.

During the month-long war in Lebanon, roughly 1,800 civilians were treated at the Nahariya hospital in addition to 300 airlifted soldiers.

“We’re talking about war casualties. These are not normal patients,” said the doctor, who recently visited San Francisco at the behest of the Israeli Consulate.

As the hospital’s chief of ophthalmology, Rehany was inundated with daily instances of civilians being struck in the eyes by “intraocular metallic foreign bodies.”

“In many cases, after these kinds of injuries, a patient loses his eye. A piece of metal more than one millimeter can cause such terrible damage to the eye, you cannot regain vision,” he explained.

The Iraqi-born Rehany spoke at an April 17 event put on by JIMENA (Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa) and gave a lecture the next day about mass-trauma events to doctors at San Francisco General Hospital. In recent visits to Los Angeles and New York, he met with potential donors who could help the hospital build a subterranean emergency room and intensive care unit.

The war was an especially bitter experience for Rehany. Western Galilee Hospital’s ophthalmology department was his “baby” — he built it almost literally from the ground up in the 1980s after turning down numerous offers to work in the United States. At one time, a huge portion of his patients were foreign Arabs, many of whom made his hospital a virtual pilgrimage destination.

“People came from Jordan, Egypt, Cyprus, Russia and, of course, the Palestinian Authority. Lots of Palestinian children who were blind regained their vision in our hospital,” recalled Rehany, 60, an average-sized man with a dark, Mediterranean complexion and an impressive crest of snow-white hair.

“Before the year of 2000 when we were, let us say, ‘occupying’ Lebanon, about one-third of the patients in my department were Lebanese inhabitants. The came across the border through what we call ‘the good fence’ and got treatment free of charge. It’s ironic. These same inhabitants had treatment at the hospital they hit.”

The crude rockets that obliterated Rehany’s department were launched only six or so miles away and hit with virtually no warning. At most, doctors, administrators and patients had only half a minute’s warning before a potential strike.

“This is not a normal way for a doctor or surgeon to work,” deadpanned Rehany.

Rehany was the youngest of eight children born into an extremely wealthy and well-respected Baghdad Jewish family. His father owned and ran several banks. But by the time he was 3 years old, his entire family was living in a refugee tent camp in Israel following the Jews’ expulsion from Iraq and virtually every other Middle Eastern nation.

“For me, it was kind of a camp. But I can imagine how it was different to my parents and brothers and sisters. They had to leave work or the university and just think about the bread of tomorrow,” he said.

“This [so-called] temporary stay extended until my bar mitzvah. Fortunately it ended before my chuppah.”

In Nahariya and its surrounding environs, many of the inhabitants are dealing with poverty not unlike that Rehany experienced in his youth. Half are Arabs. But the ophthalmologist turns a blind eye to societal differences.

“When we deal with these medical problems, Arabs, Christians, Jews, everybody gets the same treatment. In this war with so much endless sorrow and pain, we could take cornea donations from the victims of the war and those were mainly from the Jewish population. And we gave those to anybody who needed it, it didn’t matter who. You can be Christian, Lebanese — if someone from Hezbollah came to us, we’d treat him like everyone else.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.