Hajj 2019: Inside one of the eight temporary hospitals preparing to treat sick pilgrims

Hajj is a gruelling experience for most pilgrims but for those who have pre-existing conditions, there is a solution to completing it in a healthy and safe way, Balquees Basalom reports from Mina

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From a child tightly clasping the hand of a parent to an elderly man being wheeled through the crowd, Muslims of all ages and backgrounds descended on the holy city of Makkah this week in preparation to perform the mandatory fifth pillar of Islam: Hajj.

All who are financially and physically capable of making the gruelling journey must. But for some, the decades needed to save for the pilgrimage have taken ar toll on their health and while determination is key to completing Hajj, physical health is too.

Travelling between the holy sites in temperatures of up to 40°C takes its toll on all pilgrims, but for those with pre-existing conditions, there is a solution to completing Hajj in a healthy and safe way.

The Saudi Arabian government provides free health care to all pilgrims from the moment they enter the kingdom until they complete Hajj.

On standby to help the two million pilgrims are 30,000 doctors and nurses. Brought in from hospitals across the country, for the next few days they will serve at medical centres in Makkah, Taif, Jeddah and Madinah.

We must be prepared for anything and everything. They are the guests of God at the end of the day.

Eight hospitals and 93 clinics were set up at the holy sites of Mina, Arafah and Muzdalifah to help sick or hurt pilgrims. These will remain open for three weeks from the first day of Hajj.

At Mina Emergency Hospital, in the heart of the tent city, doctors work around the clock to prepare for a potential influx of patients.

“We started preparing the hospital three months ago,” Dr Faisel Nassar, director of the hospital, told The National.

Staff at the temporary hospital began by servicing all the equipment and, a month before Hajj, doctors organised the layouts for the wards.

Preparations reached a peak on Dhu Al Hijja 1, a week before Hajj begins.

“We have 550 medical staff in this hospital, which can accommodate 230 beds,” Dr Nassar said. A special unit is dedicated to heat-stroke patients, by far the most common infliction the hospital deals with.

Heart attacks and strokes are also common, particularly among the elderly, Dr Nassar said.

The hospital is also equipped to cope with diabetic patients, cases of high blood pressure and influenza.

This year the ministry introduced a translation programme that allows pilgrims from around the world to comfortably communicate with the medical staff.

For Muslims with chronic illnesses, the hospitals are able to provide treatment and support while they complete their Hajj.

“Some Muslims worry about being able to perform Hajj while on regular dialysis treatment for kidney failure but they don’t know that we offer that service for free,” Dr Nassar said.

Pilgrims with kidney failure can receive treatment at any of the hospitals for the duration of their visit to Saudi Arabia.

Should a hospital reach full occupancy or a patient still require treatment beyond Dhu Al Hijja 25, when the temporary hospitals close, they are transferred to another medical centre to continue care.

“We must be prepared for anything and everything,” Dr Nassar said.

“They are the guests of God, at the end of the day.”

The hospitals also provide transport for pilgrims in their care, taking them to each of the holy sites in medical buses or ambulances to perform their rituals before returning them to the hospital.

“The staff board with them and we take them to Arafat then to Muzdalifah, then we drive them back here to Mina,” Dr Nassar said.

Dr Iman Ashgar, who became the first female medical director of Mina Emergency Hospital this year, said it is the joy of helping a sick pilgrim complete their Hajj that drives some of the staff to volunteer each year.

“We once had a patient who needed an IV but refused to receive medical help. He wanted to leave to go to Arafat. We finally made him board the ambulance, along with other patients, to start the journey. On board all the people in the Qafila were chanting the talbiyah,” she said of a special prayer recited by pilgrims to show they intend to perform Hajj only for the glory of Allah.

“We gave him the moment to feel it and to live in it. When we reached Arafat, all the crew continued with him, so he lived the moment totally the way he wanted and after that, he felt he achieved what he came here for and cried tears of happiness.”

Although the work is rewarding, it is also challenging. Three days before Hajj, all staff must live in the hospital’s residences full-time.

Their shifts are meant to be 12 hours but Mazen Abu Jaab says it is rarely possible to finish on time.

“It can be up to 17 hours when we have a lot of cases,” the head nurse of the intensive care unit said.

“It is tiring. Sometimes you don’t rest, you don’t eat, you delay your prayer. You sacrifice a lot but we love it. There is something very rewarding about it, the prayers you get from the Hajjis.

“When you do your best, they will really appreciate your work. If you succeed in that and the patient goes on to perform their duty, trust me, they would never forget you and you will never forget that you helped them complete their Hajj.”