Treating Wounds, Removing Bullets: This Student Is Saving Lives in Gaza

This article was written by Rawan Sabah, a pharmacy student in Gaza.

Never did I imagine I would be writing today, nor did I anticipate learning the practical aspects of my studies before the theoretical ones. Nor did I ever expect to find myself living in a tent in such a desolate land.

I am 20 years old and a pharmacy student at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. Seven months ago, I had a quiet, beautiful life with my parents, sisters, and brother. We had a home we loved, recently built, in the north of the Gaza Strip.

On Oct. 15, everyone in Gaza received a warning, and all residents in the North were ordered to flee to the South. Initially, we didn’t take it seriously and chose to stay home, until the bombings commenced. Fear quickly engulfed us, especially when our neighbor received orders from the Israeli army to flee because they were preparing to bomb the area. Both our homes were targeted and destroyed.

Subsequently, my family was displaced to different places until we finally decided to go to my grandmother’s house in the south of the strip. Initially, we thought it would only be for a maximum of two weeks, as we had done in previous wars. Unfortunately, we ended up staying for four months. Tens of other relatives and close family friends sought refuge at my grandma’s house.

Thinking we would return home soon, we had left all our belongings behind; I only took three summer pajamas with me and packed them in my laptop bag. In my grandma’s apartment, there were 21 people crammed together. We had no water or electricity. Food was scarce, and there was no privacy. I witnessed a fatal altercation over access to water — one person was killed. We only had one meal a day, eating solely to survive, not for enjoyment. Despite being displaced, we received no aid.

I began providing medical care for my aunt, who required a diclofenac injection for severe flu. As a second-year pharmacy student, this was beyond my level of training, as it hadn’t been taught at university. However, I took additional practical courses to enhance my skills during my studies, including first-aid and basic medical courses. Soon I was helping other patients in their houses. I administered the injection and was able to sew injuries and administer insulin injections. When my aunt cut her hand deeply while washing dishes, she needed stitches. Despite the severe bleeding, due to her diabetes, I managed to provide her with the necessary medical care.

Later, the majority of the wounded in the area started coming to my grandma’s house asking me for necessary medical care, especially after Nasser Hospital was targeted. I cleaned wounds and sutured cuts. The practical courses I have taken at university saved people’s lives here. When I first took them, I did not know they would ever be important — pharmacists don’t usually find themselves in warzones.

On Jan. 23, 2024, Israel instructed that we evacuate Khan Younes, plunging us into survival mode. Inside our house, a civil war of sorts ensued, with everyone focused on their own survival. My uncle, along with my grandma and his family, had a tent, but my family and my aunt’s family had nowhere to go. With only the bare essentials, we began our journey on foot.

We fled Khan Younes and stumbled upon a random place along the way. I was terrified; this day will be etched in my memory forever. Along the path, we discovered blocks of empty, unfurnished rooms with no windows. Desperate for shelter, we sought refuge in one. It was a harrowing experience; the biting wind seemed to penetrate our very bones, and the rain soaked our mattresses and clothes. However, at that moment, food and clothing were the least of our concerns.

That night, my mum and my aunt exchanged silent, tearful glances. My aunt and her eight children huddled together on one mattress, while my family crowded onto the other. The mattresses were cold and damp; we placed the wettest part on the ground and the least cold part on top. We had no extra clothes or food; the children were starving, and we were emotionally drained. Tears flowed freely in that bleak room.

At 8 a.m., I awoke with my mum, while everyone else was still asleep. We left the house trying to find someone to help. My dad had a heart attack last summer. Since then, he has been suffering complications and his medical condition is deteriorating. My mum was trying to find somewhere safe for him.

While walking, my mother was crying. We trudged on for over half a mile or so, when a man in his car stopped in the middle of nowhere. He asked my mum where she was heading. She replied, “I do not know,” while wiping her tears. I wanted to justify her answer but it was so accurate that I stopped. We truly didn’t know where we were going.

The man offered us a ride. He was not a taxi driver. For a moment I thought he was a psychotherapist, at least from the way he was talking. He was very calm in the midst of all this chaos.

The stranger man informed my mum that the place where we were staying was extremely unsafe. He explained that everyone had already fled their homes, which explained why homes were empty. He warned us that Israeli tanks were nearby and could block our escape. He said we were lucky to survive and added that if we do not leave, we will die from either bombing or hunger. With no network available, we were completely cut off from the world. My mum pleaded with him to take us to a safer location. He agreed and called someone he knew to arrange for a tent. We were instructed to return by 4 p.m. to pick up the tent.

Upon our return to our room, our family was stressed and anxious, not knowing where we had been. We had been promised tents before, but when we went to pick one up, we realized it had either been given to someone else or was just another false promise. This time, we decided not to take our belongings with us but to check if a tent was available with my father and brother before making any decisions to move. We had no other place to stay in, apart from this room. Leaving everything with my aunt and her children, who stayed behind, we set out to verify the existence of the tent.

Arriving at the location, the man said the tent was available but not in this location. We also realized that it needed many tools for setup, none of which were available. My parents, being elderly, stayed with some locals, while my brother and the man who helped us with the tent went to pick up the necessary tools. I was left to safeguard the car they used to move us. Night fell at 10 p.m., and I found myself alone, a night I will never forget. Finally, around midnight, the tent was set up, and we slept on the floor inside, with no covers, no mattresses, and no food at all.

The following day, on Jan. 25, we managed to get my aunt settled in the tent. We washed our clothes with seawater; we had no access to a stove or wood to make a fire. We relied on canned food for sustenance. Some kind-hearted individuals took pity on us and offered tea, especially for my sick father.

Using seawater for bathing was challenging, as it was dirty and contaminated with sewage. I soon realized I had developed an allergy from bathing in the sea. Fortunately, being a pharmacist, I was able to identify my medical condition. With no toilet facilities available, we refrained from eating or drinking to avoid needing to use the toilet. At night, we had to stay awake until morning to use the neighbor’s toilet, which was a source of embarrassment.

On Jan. 26, I fell extremely ill with a severe bout of the flu and fever, exacerbated by sleeping without covers. As I lay there, unable to move my body, news of an accident on the highway reached us: A car had collided with a 10-year-old child riding a bicycle.

Despite my own condition, I faced a critical decision. I had two choices: to muster the strength to try and save the child’s life or to leave him to his fate.

Summoning all my willpower, I administered first aid, stabilizing the child’s head to prevent further injury. I stopped his skull bleeding. I engaged him in conversation, ensuring his memory was intact. For a moment I thought he had a concussion. Thankfully, he remained conscious as I wrapped his head and tended to him until the ambulance arrived.

From that day on, I became known as “the doctor.” The following morning at 6 am, there was a knock at the door. I rose to find a child with a fever and a cold, accompanied by his worried mother. My father and brother graciously left the tent to give them privacy.

The mother, displaced and without proper clothing or cover for her baby, was desperate. Lacking medications, the situation was dire. To make matters worse, she was giving cold water to her 4-month-old baby, Younus, with no wood to make a fire. I quickly measured the baby’s temperature and instructed my cousin to heat water. I had baby formula someone had donated. I warmed the water and provided it to the baby. Soon, his condition improved significantly in the following days.

Following this, tens of patients and wounded began arriving daily, prompting me to convert my parents’ tent into a medical point. It was essential to ensure privacy for women, men, and children seeking treatment. I found myself dealing with complex cases such as deep wounds requiring stitches, young men and women with bullets that I needed to remove, and children requiring respiratory treatments.

Furthermore, I provided aid to women who had recently given birth, ensuring their wounds were thoroughly cleaned and dressed to prevent inflammation. Each day, I made rounds with my medical tools, visiting every woman in her tent to provide medical assistance and change their bandages.

In February, tragedy struck when a sniper shot young men who tried to fill in a tank of water next to my tent. A woman was shot in the arm. I performed emergency intervention to remove the bullet and staunch the bleeding. Unfortunately, I ran out of supplies to close the wound properly, so she had to be sent for further treatment in Rafah.

Later, the camp’s administration informed the Red Crescent that I was running low on medical supplies. Previously, I was using my own supplies that I purchased while I was in Khan Younes. Consequently, the Red Crescent’s medical team contacted me, conducting a thorough assessment of my capabilities to ensure reliability.

After reaching an agreement on a systematic approach to documenting cases being treated, they provided me with essential first-aid tools. They supplied me with suture kits, iodine, ointments, bandages, and pain relief medications, including specially formulated options for the elderly.

While these tools were crucial for preventing fatalities, they were insufficient for treating the broader medical needs of the community. They instructed me to try to save people’s lives and wait for the ambulance but there is no guarantee that the ambulance will arrive.

The most daunting part of this predicament was the scarcity of medications. Many patients in the camp had no alternative health care options, lacked the means to travel to Rafah, and had no financial resources to purchase medications. I urgently needed anti-inflammatory drugs, cold syrups for children’s fevers, and basic medications like paracetamol, panadol, and others for gastroenteritis. Living near the sea, I would receive 20 to 30 people suffering from pneumothorax, colds, and flu, necessitating medications to alleviate their symptoms and eliminate infections in the displacement camp. I also needed a sphygmomanometer and glucometers, but unfortunately, the Red Crescent did not have enough of them. They gave me two glucometers but with no batteries so I could not use them. We do not have batteries at all here. These basic tools are essential for any medical point.

People were hesitant to take medications they were not accustomed to. Additionally, the medical point supplied some vitamins, but it resulted in allergic reactions among people, eroding their trust in the medications provided.

The most horrifying moment I witnessed was when a sniper shot at the neighboring tent while its occupants were filling the water tank. I rushed to check on the wounded, but the sniper continued firing. Despite people shouting at me to take cover, I didn’t hesitate and immediately went to assist the woman who was shot. While everyone else was lying on the floor, I focused on reaching her, acting purely on instinct without considering the consequences.

Another challenging situation arose with Menna, a 1.5-year-old child, who developed a high internal fever, causing her temperature to rise to 41 degrees Celsius, resulting in muscle spasms. In a desperate attempt to prevent her from swallowing her tongue, her father placed his finger in her mouth, leading to the child inadvertently biting down and almost severing his finger. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, I intervened immediately, carefully flipping her body. I succeeded in getting his finger out of her mouth. I spent two hours by her side to gradually lower her temperature. With no medications available, I resorted to placing her in a bowl of cold water, continuously monitoring her progress. She did not appreciate the cold water and harbored resentment toward me for saving her life, avoiding eye contact whenever she saw me.


The most harrowing experience I faced personally was when my dad fell critically ill. My dad had a heart attack last year which necessitated a coronary stent. During the war, he developed a severe chest infection that compromised his ability to breathe, exacerbated by the lack of oxygen available for inhalation.

His medical condition deteriorated rapidly, leading to him losing consciousness. Urgently, we rushed him to the American Hospital, but due to the severity of his condition, he was transferred to Abu Yousef Al-Najjar Hospital in Rafah. While my mum and brother accompanied him to the hospital, I remained behind to assist others in the tent. I was between the hammer and the anvil. While I wanted to be with my father, I had to stay to save other people’s lives in the camp.

Abu Yousef Al-Najjar Hospital, however, was ill-equipped to handle complicated cases like my father’s. Being a small clinic serving 1.5 million people, they lacked essential equipment, such as an echocardiogram for assessing heart conditions. The doctors were under immense pressure, particularly because my dad had multiple allergies to medications, and they didn’t have allergy testing capabilities. Despite their best efforts, when they administered injections, my dad fainted once more, necessitating allergy medications and a three-day stay in the hospital before he was discharged.

My dad relies on the medication Forxiga for his heart condition. We had to embark on a journey across the Gaza Strip to find his medication, eventually locating it in Deir Al-Balah. However, it’s no longer available. We are trying to help him get out of Gaza to Egypt, but it is too expensive for us — $5,000.

My message to the world is that the situation here is catastrophic, unbearable, and costly. We resort to bathing in the sea. Food is scarce, water is polluted, and the conditions are dire. For a family of 21, we were provided with only 2 potatoes, 5 tomatoes, and 2 cucumbers, after waiting in line for six hours.

I long for this war to end so I can complete my studies and contribute to my community. Despite being only a year into university and having taken a few practical courses, I’ve been able to save lives through my experiences here. I’ve learned vital steps and interventions that I was only supposed to learn in my fifth year of university. These people have put their trust in me, and I’m determined to continue helping them.

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