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Surviving the Beirut blast

Medical intern Myriam Ghossein makes her way through debris on the seventh floor hallway of St. George Hospital in Beirut after a terrible explosion shook the city. (Photo by Leen Othman, used with permission.)

What does it mean to experience loss? The prospect, for obvious reasons, leaves a bitter taste in our mouths. Whether sudden or expected, the absence of something or someone you once held dear, or that you depended on, is never an easy experience to go through.

But more than that, it reminds us of the sheer impermanence that we live in – the temporary nature of everything – whatever we know “everything” to be.

Never has this been clearer than in 2020, in which we have lost a sense of normality and stability that we never realized we needed until it was snatched out of our hands. Everyone has experienced this to some extent throughout this particular year, and people in Lebanon are among those who were forced to confront the brunt of that feeling.

When one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history shook Beirut in August, it devastated everything from loved ones to homes to dreams – and no one saw it coming.

The blast, which killed about 200 people and injured thousands more, occurred when a fire reached a storage facility filled with explosives. It displaced 300,000 families and impacted local hospitals and emergency rooms at a time when they were needed most.

“St. George Hospital, up till August 4, had been in functioning for 140 years.” said Leen Othman, a 23-year-old Syrian medical intern at one of Beirut’s major hospitals. “So we’re talking about a very big central hospital that went out of function for Beirut city in a moment.”

Leen Othman in a Zoom interview with YJI.

Othman, who was a reporter for Youth Journalism International from 2014 to 2016 as a high school student in Damascus, Syria, agreed to share her memories of that terrible day in Beirut with YJI.

Othman was at work at the time of the explosion. St. George is only about 550 meters away from the blast site.

She recalled being in a conference room on the seventh floor with fellow medical interns, one of whom was her best friend Myriam Ghossein, and going about their tasks as usual.

“I couldn’t tell the time, but around six something, I heard the first explosion. Now, many didn’t catch it, and many saw just the fire,” she said. “And that was the mistake. They headed over to the windows to see what was happening.”

Othman’s instincts – sharply attuned to situations like this due to her Syrian childhood – proved to be extremely useful.

“When I lived in Syria, I know that when you hear an explosion, when you hear a sound, you actually step away from the windows. You open them if you can, but if you can’t, you step away from the windows and take cover.”

She recounted yelling at the other interns to get under a nearby table and facing reluctance from her best friend, who did not think the situation called for such measures.

“I yelled at her again, ‘It’s not an earthquake, get under the table!’ because usually they don’t happen once. Usually it’s a serial explosion. She said no, by that time I grabbed her and I forcefully put her under the table.” said Othman. “A fraction of a second later, the second explosion happened, and the roof collapsed on us.”

“At the time, here’s what you’re thinking.” she continued. “I have Myriam under me, under the table, I hear the second explosion and we hear the roof collapse, and everything goes dark, because, you know, the dust – everything – the lights went off, electricity went off, so everything goes dark. And there’s like, I don’t know if it’s a fraction of a second or hours – but complete silence. And you’re just waiting and you’re thinking … Something happened. Somehow, I’m still alive. And we have to get out of here now.”

After they had deemed it safe to get out from under the table, Othman and her fellow interns had to climb over fallen ceiling boards and other rubble in order to get to the door, which had become unhinged and thrown out, before they could make their escape.

Setting aside their own feelings of shock, she and the rest of the hospital staff were faced with the challenge of evacuating patients. They were on a surgery floor, she said, which made it even more difficult because most of the patients were unable to move on their own.

This forced the staff to be resourceful.

“We used the fallen [ceiling] boards and then put the patients on it and carried them down the stairs,” Othman recollected. “There was one patient, who was my patient. She was around, I think, 30 or 40 kilograms (about 80 pounds). I don’t know how I managed to do it, but I remember holding her like a baby and then going down with her.”

Amid the chaos of accounting for their own patients and the plethora of people with injuries coming in, many of the hospital staff were also struggling.

Not only were half of the staff suffering from injuries that rendered them incapacitated, Othman said, but St. George Hospital lost four nurses that day.

Othman had someone else to think of besides the patients.

“My own brother is also an intern. [He] was badly injured, he had multiple facial lacerations, and his earlobe was cut in half,” said Othman. “A shard of glass went like this, cut his earlobe exactly in half, and then cut under his eye.”

As St. George was already at full capacity, Othman and her brother had to visit three other hospitals–none of which were better off in terms of space – looking for an ear, nose and throat specialist who could stitch his ear.

The coronavirus pandemic loomed in the background but covid-19 was initially the last thing on anyone’s mind.

Later, resources for fighting the pandemic grew even more scarce as the blast decimated St. George’s intensive care unit dedicated to covid patients, leaving them with fewer options for treatment.

“At the first few moments, I think the pandemic escaped our minds,” said Othman. “It was like, get people to safety, we have people in cardiac arrest, we had people in ORs at the time, people were delivering. But I think we woke up to it a few minutes later and then we started circulating masks, we started to call out to people not to gather. But at the time it was very, very hard to control because everyone was in a panic.”

And with thousands in the surrounding area injured, the hospitals were in especially dire circumstances.

Othman noted that, throughout the entire ordeal, her position as a student no longer mattered–as she and her brother waited in other hospitals, she spent the time stitching up and tending to as many patients as possible.

“In the blink of an eye, everything changes,” she said.

St. George’s methods of operation flipped upside down. While the hospital building itself recovers, Othman and the other staff members are circulating between various locations, mainly working in a field hospital where they provide basic treatment such as imaging, examinations, labs, and medication, free of charge to whoever needs them.

Medical interns Myriam Ghossein and Leen Othman in Beirut last week. St. George Hospital is in the background. (Photo courtesy of Leen Othman.)

In a late September interview with Youth Journalism International, Othman predicted that it could be months before the main hospital building was restored completely, since its underground floors were unharmed and progress has already been made on other floors.

But when it comes to the impact on the surrounding area in Beirut, she is not as hopeful.

“This couldn’t have come at a worse time, because other than the pandemic and the explosion, Lebanon has a severe financial crisis … and it’s exacerbated by the politics of the region,” she said. “Unfortunately, the area most destroyed – they’re having a lot of problems finding the funds to rebuild that area. We’re talking about people who lost homes – I think around 300,000 families lost their homes. And all these places need rehabilitation.”

This is merely the materialistic side of the equation. There is also the traumatic impact on residents’ emotional and mental health, and the uncertainty they may have in themselves and the future.

“I think a lot of people revised where they want to be–a lot of people may have even left medical school,” responded Othman when asked about how the explosion, alongside the pandemic, impacted her passion for medicine.

“But for me, no, it really moved it forward. It really made me more attached to what I’m doing because at the moment, when someone calls to you, and they’re in a critical situation or they have a loved one that’s in a critical situation, and you’re able to help, you cannot unhelp them. You cannot not go there. That’s what I felt [that] night and that’s what I thought I want to do for the rest of my life. I need to be able to help someone when they call me. And that’s the best part about medicine.”

Othman’s passion for medicine is influenced by conversations with her father, who is a doctor.

“He talked a lot about the morality of medicine, and the nobility, and how you should treat patients – how you should look at patients as humans and not just as cases, or just as numbers,” Othman said.

“We never really went into the talk of the technicalities of medicine. But he always used to focus on one side … how you should always be there for your patients. Each person has a family behind them–he has a life and dreams, and it’s not really your right to take that away from him just because you were inconsiderate for a moment.”

This reminder is especially relevant, not only because of the high death and casualty rates from both the explosion and the pandemic, but in light of the internal conflict that Lebanon has faced in recent history. The Lebanese are a diverse population, especially in terms of religion and sects, and these differences have fueled much of the region’s turbulent politics.

“I think, on the population level, you definitely see a little more unity,” said Othman about the impact of the explosion on the divided society. “At the time, no one had the [chance] to think about whether you’re from a different background, or from another sect, or another religion. But, unfortunately, political games are not so kind and the politicians went back to their ploys days later. So I don’t know if they can overcome that.”

Despite this somber declaration, Othman still expressed hope that Lebanon, in light of its shared traumatic experience, would take the opportunity to bridge such gaps in its society.

According to Othman, Lebanese society is currently split in half, between those who are optimistic for the future and those who are feeling hopeless about their country since the explosion.

“I think we’re going to have to wait a little more time to see which one takes over,” she said, in regards to the differing perspectives.

Despite the presence of doubt, however, Othman notes the positive aspects of that fateful day–some specks of light amid the darkness–that might help pave the long and grueling path to recovery.

“A lot of lives were also saved, by very simple actions in fractions of a second–like me ducking under the table and grabbing them with me. You see a lot of people telling you that if it had happened a moment before, I would have been I don’t know where, and I would have gotten badly injured. Although it was a very devastating event, we saw a lot of miracles because, when you think about it – that day, that specific day – all of the neonates were in their mothers’ care. All of the mothers had their babies with them, and that’s why no baby got injured. That’s a miracle in a hospital with a floor for neonates.” she said.

“I know it’s contradictory to say that, but we saw miracles that day, too – and it strengthens your faith. It strengthens your belief in something better that might happen in the future.”

Salma Amrou is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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