Michele Bowe is a member of the Order of Malta and the president of Holy Family Hospital, a highly regarded infant and maternity hospital located in Bethlehem.
On Aug. 1, following a recent visit to the hospital, Bowe spoke with Joan Frawley Desmond, the Register's senior editor, who is also a member of the Order of Malta, about the hospital’s efforts to affirm the inviolable dignity of its most vulnerable patients — some weighing as little as 1.5 lbs — and to serve both Christians and Muslims in a region that has witnessed decades of sectarian conflict and, most recently, experienced a resurgence of hostilities between the Israeli government and Hamas.
How was Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem founded, and who supports it now?
Holy Family is a Catholic hospital run by the Order of Malta. It delivers more than 3,300 babies a year, and, last December, we celebrated the delivery of our 60,000th baby: a little girl from a Muslim family named Mary.
The hospital was opened in the 1880s by the Daughters of Charity, but around 1989, the order asked then-Pope John Paul II for help with finding another group to run it. The order knew it was important to maintain the Church’s presence in the Holy Land.
John Paul chose the Order of Malta because, he said, it had been caring for the sick and the poor for over 900 years. He contacted the late Cardinal James Hickey of Washington, and a $10-million endowment was raised through funds from members of the Order of Malta, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Congress. USAID provided $500,000.
The Order of Malta conducted a study and discovered that the region was missing a maternity hospital with a neonatal intensive care unit, and so Holy Family Hospital has focused on providing excellent care for mothers and infants. We have 52 beds for women and 18 Neonatal ICU incubator beds.
Holy Family Hospital is highly regarded for its neonatal unit.
The standard of care is so high that infants weighing only 700 grams, about 1.5 lbs., survive. The infant mortality rate at the hospital is lower than what you would see in most U.S hospitals: just two out of 1,000 [babies] don’t survive.
The hospital’s neonatologists and pediatricians are dedicated to resuscitating every baby born, no matter how early or small. It is a beautiful witness to life.
When I was there last week, I met a father, who had two tiny twin girls, one about 1.4 lbs. He is a laborer from the Hebron district; and every day after work, he has taken a shared taxi to the hospital to spend a couple of hours with the babies. He was so tender with the daughter who was big enough for him to hold. I told him, “You are such a wonderful father.”
He said, “This hospital taught me to be a good father. Had my children been born at the government hospital, they would be taken away as dead. The hospital showed me the value of human life by how they so tenderly treated my daughters.”
Also, mothers receive full prenatal care including diabetic screening and treatment. Any mother with a high risk pregnancy is screened weekly or admitted to the hospital where she can be monitored for a slow growing baby or preterm labor risk. Our philosophy is to be as proactive as possible to avoid Neonatal ICU admissions.
Where is the hospital located, and how far is it from Gaza, where shelling has hit schools and other public buildings and services?
It is located in Bethlehem, about 500 yards from the manger where the Christ child was born. The Daughters of Charity run a daycare program, an orphanage and a guesthouse on the hospital compound.
The hospital is across the street from Bethlehem University and about a five-minute walk from the Israeli border, marked by a high wall and a security checkpoint.
The hospital is in the West Bank and governed by Fatah, which is distinct both geographically and politically from Gaza and Hamas. The distance between Bethlehem and Gaza is about 45 miles.
Is there comparable maternal and neonatal care in Gaza?
No, there is not. They have hospitals, but they don’t have a high-level neonatal unit.
I spoke with ANERA (American Near East Refugee Aid), which does wonderful humanitarian aid in Gaza, Lebanon and Jordan, and I said if they had a mother who needed to come to the hospital, we would welcome her.
The situation in Gaza is very desperate. There is little electricity, and the sewage system isn’t working. There are 1.8 million people packed in a small, densely populated area. Because of the wide border perimeter set up by Israeli soldiers to carry out operations to destroy the tunnels, the area where people are living has become even smaller.
Has the recent outbreak of hostilities between Hamas and Israel, as well as past violence, affected your patients’ ability to get to Holy Family Hospital?
In general, any political hostilities make it difficult for the movement of people. Sometimes in the past it was not possible for patients to go to the hospital because of Israeli-imposed curfews. At those times, we would ask for a humanitarian exception and try to escort the urgent cases to the hospital.
When the checkpoint is closed, it is difficult for supplies to get to the hospital, and sometimes the roads are closed, so our mobile clinic van can’t leave.
The hospital is well prepared for all types of emergency situations. It is staffed 24/7, and doctors and nurses can sleep at the hospital if they can’t get home. There are back-up supplies and generators in case the hospital loses power.
Bethlehem has been very safe. When I was there last week, we could see a stray missile in the distant sky, but the town of Bethlehem was peaceful.
In Nativity Square, I saw a peaceful demonstration about the need for humanitarian assistance to the people in Gaza. That afternoon, the boy and girl scouts were out in the square, and a priest and an imam told the children to pray for peace, to go about their business, to do well in school and not let anything jeopardize the safety of Bethlehem: “Don’t burn tires or block the road,” they said.
The hospital is staffed by Muslims and Christians, and it also serves patients of both faiths. Does the hospital seek to make a difference in the broader community, beyond the provision of medical services?
We like to call the hospital “a gift of peace,” because it has the mission of caring for mothers and babies. But it is also an important employer in the region, and 150 Palestinians work there.
The hospital is a teaching hospital, sponsoring medical professors from Europe and the U.S., to train local physicians in continuing education. It is a European-system hospital, so its staff includes nurse midwives trained in Ireland. Now, we have started a joint program at Bethlehem University where nurse midwives can be trained.
Has the hospital expanded its services to cover additional medical needs?
We have set up an “over-45” clinic.
After we realized that there were many young grandmothers who hadn’t seen a doctor since their last delivery, we set up an “over-45” clinic that offers these women screening for cancer, diabetes and thyroid disease and provides additional surgical procedures and medical referrals.
We have a mobile medical van that goes out to the surrounding desert community and refugee camps to provide treatment to women and children. It is outfitted with an ob-gyn examination table and pediatric ultrasound equipment and can provide emergency delivery services.
Is there any Israeli or Jewish involvement with the hospital?
Some [medical] residents, who have permission to be in Israel, are doing their residency at Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem, a top-rated medical institution.
We sponsored a urogynecology conference, to provide ongoing education to medical personnel in Bethlehem, and it was attended by Israeli, Palestinian and European physicians.
If one of our babies is born with brain cancer or needs cardiac surgery, we can obtain permission from Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem for a baby and one parent to go there for surgery.
That kind of collaboration has continued, despite the violence. At the highest levels, doctors care about saving lives, and they are blind to people’s ethnicities and religions.
Holy Family Hospital is Catholic, and it welcomes every patient, whatever their religion, ethnicity or ability to pay. Medicine breaks down the barriers to peace. Borrowing a phrase from St. Francis, “The hospital is an instrument of peace.”
Our work also helps sustain a Christian presence in the Holy Land. That is critical, because while 20% of Bethlehem’s population is Christian, and the mayor is also a Christian woman and the mother of five, Palestine is only 1.9 % Christian.
How has the charism of the Order of Malta inspired the mission and work of the hospital?
The Order of Malta’s first hospital was founded 900 years ago, under the care of Blessed Fra Gerard, ministering to Christians, Muslims and Jews. The first hospital was set up with wards that were long rectangles, with the head of the bed against the wall. In the middle of every ward, there was a niche for an altar, where Mass was celebrated every day. Blessed Fra Gerard wanted Mass celebrated among the sick and the poor. Today, 900 years later, the Order of Malta is committed to giving the highest level of care to each person we serve as if he or she were Christ.
What is Holy Family’s annual budget, and how are its services funded?
Our annual budget is $4 million. We are a Catholic hospital that cares for those in need: Nobody is turned away who cannot pay.
Funding for the hospital comes from a number of sources. The Holy Family Hospital Foundation in Washington, D.C., with the Order of Malta in France, provides about 50% of the funding. A number of other associations of the Order of Malta also provide funding. The remaining funding comes from the United Nations, the European Union, the French, German and Austrian governments, private and public foundations and fees from the patients who are able to contribute a portion of the cost of their care. The Palestinian Authority also contributes toward the care of some patients from the refugee camps.
The Obama administration has not renewed government contracts with some Church-affiliated programs that offer medical and social services to women because they don’t cover contraception and abortion. Has that been a problem for Holy Family Hospital?
USAID is very happy to allow us to do our natural family planning services that focus on the USAID-approved Beads Method. We fully adhere to the teachings of the Catholic Church and do not offer any procedures or give any advice contrary to those teachings. We have an ethicist, a priest form Abu Ghosh Monastery, who gives medical-ethics seminars for all the employees, without regard to their personal religion, including Muslims, so they understand and follow the Catholic teaching on life and medicine.
When our staff, patients and visitors see a hospital use so many resources to save a 700-gram baby, they learn the dignity and importance of each human life. In a country that has witnessed so many periods of strife, our work sends a beautiful Christian message to patients and employees: We care about the smallest life.