‘Beautiful Bright Lights of Hope’ in Bethlehem: Steps From Christ’s Birthplace, Hospital Set to Deliver 100,000th Child
The mothers and babies of Bethlehem are given the best care and love possible at Christmastime — and all year.
The phrase “How precious life can be” is never more real than when you’re standing in a neonatal ward surrounded by premature babies.
The tiny babies lay in their incubators in Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem, and, for some, life is hanging in the balance, holding on by a thread.
The head nurse, Ishraf Farraj, showed me one of the little babies who is laying in a transparent incubator unit. She tells me he only weighs 6.6 pounds and has had cardiac problems but is improving. “He’s going to be alright,” she said with a smile.
Breathing in a fresh stream of oxygen, he silently sleeps, with his eyes peacefully closed. The only sign of movement is when his little fingers twitch ever so slightly now and then.
As I take in the awesomeness of this new life, I’m aware of the sounds around me. The constant beeping of heart monitors in the room reminds me that for other little souls in this ward, the fight for survival is harder in the land where Christ himself was born 2,000 years ago.
Thankfully, dire cases are very rare. In fact, the success rate of this neonatal ward is so high, the hospital has become quite famous throughout Palestine, with women traveling from near and far to have their babies delivered here.
Opened by its founders, the Daughters of Charity, in 1895, Holy Family Hospital is on track to deliver its 100,000th baby this coming January. Today, more than 70% of all babies born in Bethlehem are delivered here. And when you walk through its corridors and meet its staff, you can see why. There is a warm feeling of love and compassion from almost everyone you meet; a feeling that they care so deeply for every expectant mother who comes seeking care. And being a small hospital (in relative terms), you get a sense that this is more like a family.
Upstairs, I’m introduced to a young midwife named Dunya Nizer. She breaks into a beautiful smile when I ask her about what it’s like to work here.
“We always have joy because we have new babies and new life,” she said. “We are with the woman in her pain and then in her joy.” Behind her is a delivery room, where a Muslim woman is waiting to go into labor. She’s anxious and scared, but a young student nurse is there with her, holding her hand tightly and reassuring her everything will be okay. That’s another unique aspect of this hospital: the mix of faiths working together. It’s a beautiful thing to see.
Today, the hospital is operated and funded by the Order of Malta, a global Catholic charity organization. Michelle Bowe is the order’s ambassador to Palestine. We talking together in the hospital’s beautiful courtyard. Her passion shone through when asked about the babies who are born here: “They are just beautiful bright lights of hope for the mothers and fathers of the Hebron and Bethlehem region. We serve a catchment area of about 1 million people, and we’re the only hospital that can care for and deliver babies before 34 weeks.”
And although this is very much a Catholic hospital, it cares for mothers of all religions and ethnic backgrounds. This is even evident in the staff, most of whom are young Muslim women. Ambassador Bowe explained, “This is an ecumenical hospital where Christians and Muslims work together in harmony. And we care for mothers and their new babies regardless of race, religion or creed.”
The location of the hospital is, of course, a highly charged area. Located in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, this region has seen bloody conflict and division for decades. It’s a poverty-stricken region, and most of the mothers who come to the hospital cannot afford the treatment they need, especially those who have complicated pregnancies or babies with severe conditions. This is where the Order of Malta steps in again; not only running the hospital, but then paying for their treatment. No one is turned away. That’s the rule.
To put it in context, some of the mothers come from refugee camps in Bethlehem, densely packed and dilapidated neighborhoods, which more resemble city slums. Ambassador Bowe noted that after a baby is born, the hospital’s care continues, making sure the little ones are well fed and healthy. “We keep them here in the hospital until they’re a little bit plump, and then we send them home with vouchers for electricity.”
But what about the mothers who can’t come to the hospital? Much of Palestine is covered in desert land, where small communities of indigenous Bedouin people have been living for centuries.
For those who can’t come to the hospital, the hospital comes to them.
“This is the clinic inside the van,” said a young male doctor, showing me the technology two hours outside of Bethlehem in a rural, sandy desert community. “Inside, there is a resident doctor, an ultrasound to scan the mother and a mobile generator.” It seems simple, but it’s all they need to be able to properly assess each expectant mother’s situation and make a call if they require any additional or emergency care. If they do, they will be brought to the hospital in Bethlehem.
The mobile health clinic is fascinating to see in action. The modern white van, with the cross of the Order of Malta proudly displayed on the side, brings a line of Muslim women. Each one is covered in black from head to toe, with just a narrow slit to display their eyes. But they don’t make eye contact. Here, they are stricter about the culture of their faith. Men nearby tell the EWTN crew that we are not to film the women.
At the same time, a young teenager, maybe 15 years old, emerges from his house holding a metal tray with glasses and a pot of hot tea: It’s a gift from him to our crew — and a most welcome lovely warm gesture.
The doctor overseeing said, that day, around 13 pregnant women had been seen so far, the youngest being 18 years old. I learn that this is a vital service for the mothers of this community, who otherwise would have no access to this kind of medical care.
‘We Bring Families Hope’
Back at the hospital, I met a young trainee nurse who has just delivered a newborn. She offered a beaming smile and held the baby proudly in her arms. Behind her was the more senior nurse who supervised the delivery. When asked how the baby is doing, the senior nurse replied with a smile, “Look, it is the color pink. It is responding. It is a healthy baby. Every delivery is a magical moment. It’s a unique time for the mother.”
“I feel like we’re making a real difference in Palestine,” explained Ambassador Bowe, adding with a smile: “What we really do is we bring the families hope.”
Indeed, “hope” is such a powerful word in a place like Bethlehem.
Leaving the hospital and seeing young mothers coming and going, I can’t help but think of Mary, who, just like them, arrived in this town looking for a safe place to give birth to her little Baby.
It’s incredible to think that, 2,000 years later, this hospital stands here in her honor, to make sure the mothers and babies of Bethlehem are given the best care and love possible — at Christmastime — and all year.
Colm Flynn filed this report after on-the-ground reporting in Bethlehem.
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