A woman with long hair and glasses wears blue scrubs holding three infants in her arms while talking on a phone in a damaged hospital

Health & Medicine

In Beirut, hospital staff witness ‘total chaos’ after blast

“It was like the doors of hell had opened.” That’s how one doctor described the scene at his hospital in Beirut after a massive blast last Tuesday killed more than 150 people and injured thousands of others.

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Pamela Zeinoun, a nurse in Beirut, takes care of three babies in a damaged hospital after the explosion in the city's port, Aug. 4, 2020.
 

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Bilal Jawich/Xinhua via Getty

The force from the blast that rocked Beirut on Tuesday was so strong, it hurled Pamela Zeinoun outside of the neonatal and pediatric intensive care unit where she works.

Zeinoun, a nurse at Saint George Hospital, was in charge of five babies suffering from various health issues who needed to be kept in incubators that night. 

She passed out on the floor.

“When I woke up, I did not know where I was. I tried to go back through the door, but the door was closed shut.”

Pamela Zeinoun, pedatriac nurse, Saint George Hospital, Beirut

“When I woke up, I did not know where I was. I tried to go back through the door, but the door was closed shut.”

Behind those closed doors were the babies — she had to get to them.

Related: Lebanon declares a state of emergency after explosion 

Zeinoun’s experience is just one example of what all medical staff faced last week in Beirut when they had to treat casualties at an unprecedented scale — all while they themselves were still in shock.

Zeinoun managed to get inside with the help of a father who was visiting his baby at the hospital and another nurse. 

“The father started helping me look for the babies because we could not see them,” she said.

Eventually, they were able to find the babies. Two were saved by the other nurse and the father. Zeinoun scooped up the remaining three. 

“We started running down the stairs. There was no electricity. Blood everywhere, people screaming. We did not even know where the exit was,” Zeinoun recalled.

In the frenzy, Zeinoun got separated from the others. Her heart raced because she knew she had to get the babies to another hospital quickly. Their survival depended on incubators. 

Related: 'Our house is your house': Locals open their homes after Beirut blast 

Zeinoun's hospital was so badly damaged that the babies would likely not have made it. So, she decided to walk to the nearest hospital. She walked for about 40 minutes in the dark with the three babies in her arms.

When she reached the other hospital, the staff told her they couldn’t take the babies. The hospital was also badly damaged, staff suffered injuries and they had no incubators.

“They did not let me in. Because their situation was even worse than ours,” she said. “So, I walked again.”

No cars could get by because of the debris, but as she walked, a doctor who works at her hospital noticed her.

“He held me by the shoulders. He told me, ‘We need to focus. Calm down, we need to focus, we need to get these babies to safety.’”

Related: Lebanon probes blast amid rising anger, calls for change

Surprisingly, through all the commotion, the babies weren’t crying. Zeinoun said she had to check on them to see if they were still alive.

“I checked their color — are they blue or are they pink? They weren’t crying. They were just sleeping, you know?”

In the end, Zeinoun, the babies and the other doctor made it to a functioning hospital. But there was only one incubator.

“I fit three babies in one incubator just to keep them warm and safe,” Zeinoun said.

Shortly after, the newborns were reunited with their parents.

‘Patients were literally bleeding to death’

Following the blast, the staff at the American University of Beirut Medical Center were also in full crisis mode. One video showed a doctor rushing to the entrance as he is pulling on his protective gown.

“It was horrible, basically,” said Dr. Said Tarraf, an anesthesiology resident at the hospital.

Tarraf had just left for the day but rushed back when officials sent out a "code D" alert, which he said stands for disaster and means that every physician around the hospital should report to duty.

Tarraf was assigned to the operating room. Everyone was working at full speed, he said, yet there was only so much they could do.

“There was a shortage of everything including blood products so patients were literally bleeding to death."

Dr. Said Tarraf, doctor, American University of Beirut Medical Center, Beirut, Lebanon

“There was a shortage of everything including blood products so patients were literally bleeding to death,” Tarraf said.

The explosion sent shards of glass and debris flying in the air. Doctors had to treat lacerations, bleeding, injuries to the head, face and neck, broken bones, torn ligaments, dislocated joints and so much more.

Dr. Fred Bteich, a neurosurgery resident at Hôtel-Dieu de France hospital, said some of the injured were patients already in the hospital.

“Some patients were ejected from their beds,” he said. “We had [fallen glass], parts of labs [were] destroyed. It was an absolute mess, total chaos.”

Bteich and the team got to work fast.

“We worked nonstop. We just went out of the operating room to change into new sterile outfits and rushed back to another surgery.”

Bteich said they operated on children as young as 3-4 years old, knowing that most likely they wouldn't make it.

“[I]n these situations, you can’t decide. The heart is beating, you have to do your job."

Dr. Fred Bteich, neurosurgery resident, Hotel Dieu de France hospital, Beirut, Lebanon

“But in these situations, you can’t decide. The heart is beating, you have to do your job,” he said.

Beirut hospitals in ruins

In all, four Beirut hospitals were so badly damaged they had to cease operations.

Four staff died, according to Dr. Firass Abiad, general manager of the Rafik Hariri University Hospital in Beirut, Lebanon’s largest public hospital.

Abiad said some medical staff had to treat the wounded in the streets and parking lots.

Had he ever witnessed anything like this?

“During the civil war, we’ve seen casualties and we’ve seen car bombs and blasts of different magnitudes. ... But what is different this time is the magnitude.”

Dr. Firass Abiad, general manager, Rafik Hariri Hospital

“During the civil war, we’ve seen casualties and we’ve seen car bombs and blasts of different magnitudes,” he responded. “But what is different this time is the magnitude.”

Hospitals in Lebanon were already under pressure from the coronavirus pandemic, Abiad added, and the country was going through a painful economic crisis. Lebanon imports nearly all of its medical supplies, and now the port is destroyed. Abiad worried about how hospitals will manage.

The disaster is likely to also trigger a surge in the coronavirus cases, Abiad said, because it’s hard to follow social distancing during such emergencies.

“The hospitals, all the hospitals, are working at almost full capacity and it would be very hard to see where we can get additional capacity should there [be] an increase in COVID[-19] cases,” he said.

Health care workers in Beirut are slowly recovering from the traumatic experience last week.

Only a day after the explosion, Said Tarraf of the Beirut Medical Center helped deliver 12 babies.

“They give me hope, these newborns,” he said. “I saw happy parents, I saw a new hope.”

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