Armenian News Network / Groong


Armenian News Network / Groong
April 22, 2010

By Arthur Hagopian


Steeped in a history that dates back a thousand years, and a tradition as old as time itself, St John's eye hospital in Jerusalem is gearing up for further expansion in a bid to meet escalating demands for its services.

Perched in lone majesty atop a hill in the East Jerusalem suburb of Sheikh Jarrah, which has been making turbulent headlines recently over property rights, the hospital stands as a beacon of hope to thousands of people across the Arab Israeli divide.

Although it is open to all,

regardless of race or creed or even the ability to pay, its clientele remains predominantly Palestinian Arab, mostly from the West Bank and territories under Israeli control, where eye problems are disproportionately high.

According to Dr Humam Rishmawi, consultant ophthalmologist and medical co-coordinator at the hospital, children are particularly vulnerable because the risk of inheriting congenital eye diseases due to the incidence of "interfamily marriages" among Palestinians, is very high.

Since he started to work as an ophthalmologist, he has taken it on himself to concentrate on helping the children, he confides.

Dr. Rishmawi at work
Dr. Rishmawi at work

"I do two specialty clinics, two operating sessions, and one general clinic per week. I take care of all children with squint, congenital cataract, congenital glaucoma, and other congenital anomalies," he says.

He is particularly concerned because if not treated at an early stage, these afflictions can cause blindness.

The day I visit him, to check on a minor eye complaint, the hospital is virtually empty because of the complete closure Israel has imposed on the Territories. Rishmawi gives me a thorough checkup but insists on a retinal examination as well.

"We must be 100 percent sure there is nothing wrong with your eyes," he stresses.

I ask if the hospital follows this same meticulous and time-consuming procedure with all patients and he nods emphatically.

"We have to take our time and treat everyone equally the same, whether they come to us as private patients, or whether they are too poor to even pay for their eyedrops," he adds.

Despite the relentless pressure and the immense difficulties he and other hospital staff members face on a daily basis, the work to improve the lot of patients never ceases. And his onerous responsibilities continue to mount.

His clinic boasts some of the latest state-of-the-art ophthalmic equipment, acquired with the aid of donations and fund-raising activities worldwide. Among the countries pitching in to help are Australia, the US, the UK, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

On average the hospital treats 20,000 children under the age of 12 every year. (Last year alone, the hospital took in over 92,000 patients and performed more than 3,600 operations).

Rishmawi's day starts very early in the morning - he has to commute from Beit Sahur, a village near Bethlehem, and run the gamut of several Israeli checkpoints before reaching Jerusalem. Israel's notorious security wall further exacerbates matters, rendering a 15-minute journey into a two-hour nightmarish detour.

The hospital is tangible testimony to the determination and urge of a group of battle-hardened men to make a difference. The men, who belonged to the Order of St John and who traced themselves back to the Knights Hospitallers, had been distressed by the war and bloodletting that was devastating Jerusalem in the wake of the Crusades.

Their zeal drove them to erect a hospital in the Holy Land, in 1099. The eye hospital in Jerusalem opened in 1882. The current building, within walking distance of the old City of Jerusalem, was inaugurated in 1960.

In the region's volatile political situation, with border closures a regular occurrence, hospital sources concede that the Territories constitutes one of the world's most difficult environments in which to provide access services of any kind.

To make matters worse, the people of the Territories have a rate of blindness that is ten times higher than the rest of the world.

Medical sources note that much of the blindness is caused by poor diet, diabetes and cataracts, but assert that normally 80 percent of all blindness is preventable, when doctors can get to their patients.

"Often, our patients do not come to us, we go to them," a staff member explains.

He is referring to the hospital's mobile outreach program which aims to provide services to people in all parts of the Territories, a region that statistics prove has one of the world's highest growing population, over half under 18.

"The program offers the only available quality ophthalmic treatment for thousands of patients living in remote and isolated Palestinian towns, villages, refugee camps - even Bedouin tents," the hospital says.

Half the people there live under the poverty line, subsisting on between US$21, hardly enough to pay for a KFC family meal, to US$100 per person a week.

The hospital, which has also established a clinic in Gaza, boasts a sophisticated cadre of professionals, including one of Israel's most eminent eye doctors, Prof Saul Merin of the world-class Hadassah Hospital. Merin is renowned for his contributions to retinal medicine and makes it a habit to attend clinics at the hospital one day each week.

Rishmawi finally gives me an all clear. As we shake hands, he is looking over my shoulder at his next patient, a smile of reassurance and sympathy lighting up his features.

But traces of the underlying stress pervanding the hospital atmosphere are clearly evident. And yet you rarely hear a word of complaint or witness any signs of defeatism.

"We have to go on. We have to endure," a staff member tells me.

"Our greatest reward is seeing the look of joy and wonder on the face of a visually impaired person who has regained his eyesight," another adds.

In a region whose denizens face an uncertain future, one thing remains indisputably clear: no matter what happens tomorrow, the St John eye hospital will continue to be "a bridge for peace in a world at war," as its website ( proclaims.

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