'Hope turns into reality' as ill and injured Gazans arrive in UAE for treatment

Sixth special flight carrying dozens of patients and their companions landed in Abu Dhabi early on Tuesday

Gaza's injured and cancer patients arrive in Abu Dhabi on UAE flight

Gaza's injured and cancer patients arrive in Abu Dhabi on UAE flight
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Dozens of cancer patients and wounded Palestinians have arrived in Abu Dhabi from Gaza for medical treatment.

An Etihad plane converted to carry hospital beds and stretchers landed in the Emirati capital on Tuesday morning. The National was on board.

The flight carried 61 people "in the most urgent need of medical assistance, accompanied by 71 members of their families", state news agency Wam reported.

Earlier, at Al Arish military airport in the north of Egypt, adults and children arrived at a hangar having made the journey over the border from Gaza.

The Etihad plane, which brought volunteer medical staff from Abu Dhabi hospitals, had 10 stretchers suspended over seats, blankets and hot meals. But the most important thing the plane is carrying is hope.

I can't describe the feeling in words, when I stand on top of these steps on the plane and look across to see all these people who had hoped to be on board this flight land to safety
Joe Coughlan, flight medical commander

At the hangar, the patients were tended to by a team of about 40 people from different UAE government departments, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, the National Emergency Crisis and Disasters Management Authority, and the Department of Health, as well as Etihad cabin crew.

Seeing “hope turn into reality” for the people being brought to the UAE is a reward in and of itself, flight medical commander Joe Coughlan told The National on board the plane.

“I can't describe the feeling in words, when I stand on top of these steps on the plane and look across to see all these people who had hoped to be on board this flight land to safety,” he said.

“The distance between hope and reality then becomes the distance between their seat on the plane and the door.”

This is the fourth UAE evacuation mission Mr Coughlan has flown. So far, the UAE has conducted six flights to bring sick and injured Gazans out of Al Arish, with the aim of flying out 1,000 cancer and 1,000 paediatric patients.

On the sixth mission, the level of preparation seems a lot higher than previous ones.

The teams ensure patients sit in aisle seats so they are easily accessible. Patients suspected of having infections are clearly marked using two wristbands, while people who need wheelchair assistance are placed in the emergency exit aisle.

There was a minor incident on board when an elderly patient with prostate cancer began behaving erratically and resisted attempts by the medical crew to place him in a more comfortable position, repeatedly saying, "I'm tired".

His wife said they had been living in Nuseirat with relatives after being displaced from their home in Gaza city and forced to move nearly 10 times.

"We took a risk coming from Nuseirat to Rafah because the road was closed due Israeli shelling," Esmat Abu Aqlan said.

"We only learnt that our names were on the list of people approved for evacuation the night before."

Doctors eventually determined that her husband's sodium levels were low and listed him for immediate admission to hospital on arrival instead of first going through triage to assess his condition and treatment needed.

From Abu Dhabi to Al Arish

“While you're in the midst of it all, you don't get to see the impact that the mission is having on the patients, but when it's all over, you go home feeling so, so fulfilled,” Mr Coughlan said.

On the way to Al Arish military airport, Mustafa Ezzeddin, a doctor who has served in intensive care units for 15 years, appeared emotional.

Dr Ezzeddin's role is to examine patients alongside a medical team from other hospital networks in Al Arish, in North Sinai governorate.

He said he volunteered when the opportunity arose at NMC hospital, where he works.

“This is a humanitarian mission, and I felt I needed to help out. I really care about this,” Dr Ezzeddin told The National.

“We will be performing triage on site and determining the kind of medical attention each person will require.”

On the other side, Mr Coughlan says there are a lot of moving parts, which makes the mission complex.

“The situation is so fluid and dynamic from the Gaza side, to the border, all the way here. The process could look good on paper where there's no resistance,” he said.

Mr Coughlan says the flight encapsulates what the UAE is about “in a snapshot”.

“This type of multicultural and multi-nationality approach to doing the right thing describes everything that I know about the UAE,” he said. “It shows that this is not a job, but a purpose.”

Patients will be brought for treatment at hospitals in Abu Dhabi, including Sheikh Shakhbout Medical City, a doctor there told The National.

The final list of evacuees was revealed upon arrival at Al Arish. The UAE was not involved in the selection, a communications official said.

Palestinian resilience

Mr Coughlan described a mother accompanying her child, a cancer patient, on one of the previous missions.

Upon arrival in the UAE, a routine medical check-up on the mother showed that “she was four months pregnant and had a fractured hip”.

“We can only imagine the pain and suffering she was experiencing,” he said, marvelling at the resilience Gazans have displayed.

“But she kept quiet about it so that she makes sure her child gets the help she needs.”

Updated: December 19, 2023, 12:19 PM