Saudi hospital offers small steps of hope for Gazan amputee girl

10 -year-old Wiam Al Astal lost her leg after an Israeli missile rained down on her neighbourhood during last summer's 50-day war on Gaza. But now she is learning to walk again with the help of a hospital in Saudi Arabia, Samar Al Sayed reports.

Jeddah // Wiam Al Astal was ready for a break. Wearing a prosthetic is a gruelling task no matter how happy she was as she tread carefully through the rails at a Jeddah rehabilitation facility that is sponsoring her treatment.
With only one leg that is barely functional, the 10-year-old from Gaza is one of hundreds of Palestinians whose fate was altered during Israel's 50-day war on Gaza last year.
Wiam lost her leg after an Israeli missile rained down on a busy neighbourhood in Khan Yunis, a city south of the besieged strip, on July 21. More than 100 were killed across Gaza that day, described as one of the bloodiest during that incursion.
Wiam had been on the roof of the family's home, helping her father to fix the television so that she and her siblings could have some form of entertainment while confined to the house with the offensive raging outside. They were on their way back inside when the missile hit.
"I was on the floor as I heard my daughter shout: 'my leg is gone', but there was nothing I could do for her since my leg was also shattered from the shrapnel," said her father, Naser Al Astal, whose bones in his left leg were left broken in many places.
Wiam, however, was left disabled from the shrapnel and suffering osteoporosis in her right ankle.
On August 4, two weeks after the air strike, Wiam's parents took her to the West Bank city of Nablus for hospital treatment after receiving a referral from the Palestinian Authority's health ministry. She was allowed to leave Gaza on the basis of having urgent medical needs, with the health ministry covering her travel expenses.
Wiam stayed in the Al Najah National Hospital in Nablus for two months with her mother. But, as is to be expected in the impoverished city, there were no facilities to help the little girl manage her new disability.
Wiam returned to Gaza in October. Little did she know that seven months later she would be travelling to Saudi Arabia to have a prosthetic limb fitted by a family-owned rehabilitation hospital in Jeddah, through the Palestine Children's Relief Fund (PCRF).
A PCRF representative who had heard of Wiam's condition in Gaza had travelled to Nablus to follow up on her case. After originally trying to have her sent to the United States for further treatment, the representative eventually found sponsors willing to help in Jeddah.
Wiam's journey from Gaza to Jeddah after the missile struck was an unlikely one and the first time that a Gazan amputee had been sent to the kingdom to be fitted with a prosthetic through such an organisation. The formalities required to get out of Gaza through the notorious Erez border with Israel, on the one hand, and the difficulty of getting a visa to enter Saudi Arabia, on the other, made for a long and complex journey.
Her visa was eventually issued by the Saudi embassy in Jordan, the nearest to Gaza. Despite local PCRF members having connections with high-ranking government officials, who promised a visa within three weeks, their efforts coincided with Riyadh imposing a freeze on the granting of visas due to the launch of Saudi-led air strikes in Yemen.
Wiam's condition, meanwhile, was getting worse due to immobility and lack of rehabilitation facilities and resources.
"Being fitted with a prosthetic has prerequisites," said Loulwa Bakr, PCRF Jeddah treasurer. "The muscles have to remain viable and we were working against the clock to ensure that she would still be a good candidate for a prosthetic leg by the time she arrived."
But Wiam and her father both needed security clearance to enter Jordan, from where she would fly on to Jeddah, and an Israeli permit - for which the PCRF was responsible - to leave Gaza.
Luckily, they received these within 10 days, and left Gaza on May 7, but the journey to Amman was a gruelling one.
"The Israelis kept moving us from bus to bus every time we would get somewhere," Wiam said, using the full force of her arms to pull herself upright in her chair, before shyly covering her severed leg with her Ramadan dress.
"We travelled 10 hours before we got to Amman."
She smiled graciously as another child gasped at her story, asking if there were restrooms at the checkpoints.
After reaching the Allenby bridge, which connects the West Bank with Jordan, those trying to cross the border must first pass through numerous checkpoints, both Palestinian Authority and Israeli-manned ones.
A volunteer from the Jeddah chapter of PCRF travelled to Amman to meet Wiam and bring her back to Saudi Arabia. It was the 10-year-old's first time on a plane.
Wiam was fitted with a prosthetic leg at the Abdul Latif Jameel Rehabilitation Hospital and Specialty Clinics, the first such clinic in the kingdom, and has spent the past two months between host families while undergoing rehabilitation.
She received physiotherapy to shape the stump before having the artificial leg fitted and then spent 10 days being trained in how to walk on her new leg.
In addition to receiving rehabilitation for her left leg, Wiam also underwent physiotherapy for her right knee and foot and has to wear a protective medical shoe to enhance circulation.
The doctors decided to leave lodged shrapnel remnants in her legs for fear of aggravating her fragile bones.
When Wiam eventually returns to Gaza, the road to rehabilitation will be a challenging one. Physiotherapy is hard to come by in Gaza, and she will need yearly monitoring of the prosthesis as she outgrows her current one. Fortunately, however, the PCRF has pledged to care for all of her follow-up needs.
More than 3,000 children were wounded in Israel's invasion last year. An estimated third of these children have permanent disabilities.
Despite being inundated with support in Jeddah and Amman and her last memory of Gaza being one of carnage and despair, Wiam is excited at the prospect of going back.
"I will still play on the street," she said. "We don't hide from them (the Israelis), they hide from us."
salsayed@thenational.ae

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