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American Doctors Struggle to Leave Gaza Amid Escalating Conflict

Medics’ Uncertain Future as Conflict Intensifies in Rafah, Gaza


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  • Several injured individuals are in critical condition

As the Israeli military intensifies its operations against Hamas in and around Rafah, southern Gaza, thousands are being forced to evacuate, and numerous U.S. citizens are caught in the turmoil following the Israeli military’s takeover of the Rafah Crossing on May 7. Among those uncertain about their departure from Gaza is a group of medics volunteering with the Palestinian American Medical Association (PAMA) at the European Hospital in Khan Younis.

Monica Johnston, a burns nurse from Portland, told ABC News in an interview, “The U.N. has been working to secure safe passage, but we don’t know when that will be. We keep getting tentative dates, but they keep getting pushed back. We have a team in Cairo waiting to relieve us.”

Johnston and her 18 colleagues were scheduled to leave on Monday, but with the Rafah Crossing closed and increased Israel Defense Forces (IDF) activity in the area, the exit route was deemed too perilous. Johnston expressed a desire to stay until the replacement team arrives. “I want to continue providing help because I don’t want these people abandoned,” she said, visibly upset. “I want the world to know that there are so many innocent people being affected.”

Johnston explained that the longer her team has to wait for replacements, the harder their job becomes due to dwindling hospital supplies. “We’re running out of basics like soap, hand sanitizer, paper towels, medicines, and equipment,” she said. “We’re rationing pain medications, and that’s extremely hard. There’s such a lack of infection control. There are bugs, flies, and dirty linen everywhere. Most dressings should be changed daily, but some we are spreading out to every other day. Sometimes, the wounds are very contaminated, even with maggots.”

The Rafah Crossing into Egypt has been the main access point for the Gaza Strip since the conflict began when Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing at least 1,200 Israelis and kidnapping over 250. On May 7, Israeli tanks entered the crossing, and the IDF now controls it, blocking access as they escalate their efforts to confront Hamas in the area. Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant announced a ramping up of troops in Rafah on Thursday. “Additional troops will join the ground operation in Rafah,” Gallant said.

The increased military activity has made the journey in and out for the PAMA teams more complicated and dangerous. “The situation since May 7 has gotten even more dire than you can imagine,” Johnston said, noting that many hospital staff have fled following the Israeli military’s evacuation orders for nearby Rafah, adding further strain on the remaining staff and volunteers. “There have been lots of fights among people here over things like the use of water,” she explained. “I am concerned I don’t know how much longer our bottled water supply is going to last.”

Johnston described the rising tension in the hospital among both patients and staff. “Last night, I was quickly ushered out of the ICU due to a gunfight and knife fight in the ER. The tension, stress, and anxiety here are palpable.”

While Johnston has not previously worked in conflict zones, her colleague, Dr. Adam Hamawy, has. A former army medic, Hamawy served in Iraq and saved the life of Sen. Tammy Duckworth. Sen. Duckworth has been in regular contact with Hamawy, posting on X (formerly Twitter) on May 14, “I’m in direct contact with Dr. Hamawy and am working hard to secure his group’s immediate evacuation. Aid workers and innocent civilians should always be protected. The Netanyahu administration must work to open the Rafah crossing, support evacuations, and allow much more aid in.”

Despite his experience, Hamawy is distressed by what he has seen in Gaza. “Every patient I have has a story of suffering and loss. Many are children who have lost both parents,” Hamawy told ABC News. “It’s not just the patients; it’s the nurses, doctors, and staff as well.”

He recounted a conversation with a nurse who had evacuated his family to a supposedly safe area. “The place had nothing – no water, food, shelter, or bathrooms. They lived like animals, digging holes for toilets. It was freezing at night and scorching during the day,” Hamawy said.

Both Hamawy and Johnston expressed deep empathy and admiration for the patients they have treated and their Palestinian colleagues. “I feel very grateful to be here and provide that little level of comfort and safety for them,” Johnston said. “The amount of trauma everyone has suffered here is heartbreaking and will have lifelong impacts.”

The situation remains dire as these dedicated medics continue their work under increasingly challenging conditions, hoping for a safe passage out of Gaza and relief for those they serve.

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