Lebanon’s Catholic Hospitals Struggle, but Dedicated Staff Continue to Offer Healing and Hope
One of the pillars of Lebanon’s tradition of Catholic-run health care is Geitaoui Hospital, which has a special patronage to St. Charbel, in Beirut.
BEIRUT — As Lebanon suffocates under a collapsing economy, the country’s Catholic health sector is struggling to breathe.
Since the onset of the socioeconomic crisis in the autumn of 2019, the Lebanese currency has lost more than 90% of its value, fueling triple-digit inflation and destroying purchasing power. According to the United Nations, 78% of the population lives below the poverty line, compared to less than 30% before the crisis.
Long known for its exemplary medical care, Lebanon was considered “the hospital of the Middle East.” Catholic hospitals, with a long-standing role of social service to all religions, represent about half of the private facilities in the country.
One of the pillars of Lebanon’s tradition of Catholic-run health care is Geitaoui Hospital in Beirut. Named for the priest who founded the hospital in 1927, Geitaoui is entrusted to the Maronite Sisters of the Holy Family.
Since 2010, Dr. Pierre Yared and Maronite Sister Hadia Abi Chebli have co-directed the nonprofit hospital together, side by side.
Every room of Geitaoui is adorned with a crucifix. About 20% of the hospital’s employees are Muslim, as are a third of its patients.
“This hospital reflects our spirit of peace, love and mercy,” Yared told the Register.
From their shared office, Sister Hadia and Yared tackle the endless obstacles and challenges that confront them in Lebanon’s broken economy, which include electricity shortages, medicine shortages, inability of patients to pay for services, insufficient reimbursements from insurance providers and staff departures due to emigration.
Furthermore, with the dysfunction of Lebanon’s banking system since the start of the crisis, depositor’s savings are trapped, and basic financial services and mechanisms such as loans, lines of credit and overdrafts are no longer offered. Banks are also imposing limits on retrievals from accounts.
“Everything is working against us in this economic situation,” Sister Hadia told the Register. Still, she points out, “I believe God is with us in these hard times.”
The devaluation of Lebanon’s currency has turned everything upside down. Lebanon’s public insurance provider, which covered not only civil servants but also employees in the private sector, is no longer reliable for health providers nor for the insured. Instead of covering 80% of the bill, insurance is, in effect, covering only around 5%.
Even the most basic need of electricity poses an enormous challenge for day-to-day life in Lebanon, and thus, for running a hospital.
Currently Lebanon’s state electricity provider supplies power only for about two hours a day in most areas throughout the country. Private generators must fill in the gap.
“Our generators are running for about 22 hours a day,” Yared said. “The hospital is currently spending $6,000 to $7,000 a day for the generator fuel. It’s a big burden for us. We can’t stop the electricity. It’s vital for the hospital.”
In Lebanon, employees in all sectors who get paid in Lebanese currency have seen their salaries become worthless, such that earnings previously equal to $1,000 are now worth $50.
That has resulted in a dramatic “brain drain” in which professionals have left for jobs in other countries.
According to the World Health Organization, nearly 40% of Lebanon's doctors and almost 30% of nurses have left since October 2019.
At Geitaoui, 150 registered nurses and 50 doctors have left.
“It’s very painful,” Sister Hadia said of their departure. “What we are living now is very hard; no words can describe” the hospital’s challenges. “We can’t see the end of the tunnel we’re going through.”
“We are living day by day, hour by hour, to solve these problems. It is a critical situation,” Yared emphasized.
As the Lebanese become more and more impoverished, people are neglecting their health. Yared and Sister Hadia estimate that less than 20% of the population now has the means for preventative care.
“While living day by day, while treating patients as best as possible, we are saving lives of patients coming in with advanced stages of disease,” Yared pointed out.
Like so many of the faithful in Lebanon, Sister Hadia — whose name means “gift” in English — said that the crisis is “pushing me to pray more than before, to put my hope and trust more in God to send us help.”
Yared, a Melkite Catholic, added: “Faith in God is everything. It gives us a big power to work, to fight for every patient, to fight for the continuing work of this hospital and to fight to survive.”
Geitaoui survived the horrific explosion at Beirut’s port on Aug. 4, 2020.
The disaster — one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history — destroyed large sections of the capital city, mostly in Christian areas. More than 200 people were killed, with more than 6,000 injured and more than 300,000 displaced.
Located about a half mile from the port, the force of the explosion ripped through Geitaoui like a tornado, blowing out windows and doors, collapsing ceilings and sending debris flying.
The hospital sustained more than $7 million in damage.
The doctor and the nun point to the intercession of Lebanon’s beloved St. Charbel, considered the guardian of the hospital.
Despite the devastation of the explosion, Sister Hadia stressed: “Not one of our employees, patients or visitors had any injury. It was a miracle. This is why we felt protected by St. Charbel.”
Sister Hadia recounted how, on a Sunday, two days before the disaster, she went to the monastery of St. Charbel in Annaya, Lebanon, to plead the saint’s intercession for the hospital, which was struggling due to the economic crisis, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I prayed a long time at his tomb and felt a great peace. When I came back to the hospital, I told Dr. Yared that I felt St. Charbel heard my prayer,” Sister Hadia recalled.
Reflecting on the explosion, Sister Hadia said, “For me, it was the end of the world. It was like we were in front of a big wall, impossible to go through. Our first impression was that it would be impossible to restart.”
Soon after the explosion, the Holy See’s Congregation for Eastern Churches charged the New York-based Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) and the Paris-based l’Oeuvre d’Orient with coordinating worldwide Catholic aid to the country.
As part of that relief, in the health-care sector, CNEWA concentrated its efforts on rehabilitating Geitaoui Hospital, along with the nearby Rosary Sisters’ Hospital, also severely damaged, as well as two Catholic dispensaries.
Thanks in part to the support of donors to CNEWA, Geitaoui was put back fully into service.
“Without them, our hospital would still be destroyed, not functional,” Sister Hadia said.
The Church, through two papal aid agencies, is also currently providing some short-term “oxygen” to Lebanon’s Catholic hospitals.
CNEWA is managing a program of nearly $444,000 in collaboration with and financed by Aid to the Church in Need, aimed at needy patients of five Catholic hospitals in Lebanon, in which a portion of the hospitalization fees is covered. That six-month initiative, which concludes in October, so far has assisted 746 patients and may be extended for another six months.
CNEWA also began a yearlong $1.2-million program in June, whereby 1,500 doctors and nurses in five Catholic hospitals, including Geitaoui, receive a cash boost for their salaries in order to encourage them to stay in the hospital and not to search for employment outside the country.
“Without Church-run hospitals, the entire health sector of Lebanon would collapse,” Michel Constantin, CNEWA’s regional director in Beirut, told the Register.
In recognition of St. Charbel’s intercession, Geitaoui dedicated a chapel to St. Charbel in the lobby level of the hospital as a way of “thanking God for everything: for protecting us and helping us to rebuild this hospital,” Sister Hadia said.
Maronite Archbishop Paul Abdel Sater of Beirut consecrated the St. Charbel Chapel in August, preceded by a Mass celebrated at the hospital’s St. Joseph Church.
In his homily, Archbishop Abdel Sater said: “We thank God for the salvation he gave us during and after the explosion, for the life he gives us every day, and for the grace he gave us and will give us, despite all circumstances and challenges.”
“Lebanon’s real face is, first of all, the humanity of its people,” he said, encouraging the hospital’s administrative, medical and nursing staff “to be the light and hope in these difficult and dark days.”