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‘We don’t sleep … I would call it fainting’: Working as a doctor in Sudan’s crisis

<i>CNN</i><br/>In the deluge of gunshot wounds and war injuries at the small Alban Gedid hospital in Khartoum
In the deluge of gunshot wounds and war injuries at the small Alban Gedid hospital in Khartoum

By Sarah El Sirgany, Ghazi Balkiz and David McKenzie, CNN

In the deluge of gunshot wounds and war injuries at the small Alban Gedid hospital in Khartoum, Dr Howida AlHassand distinctly remembers the family killed in their house.

“The kids were playing when a mortar hit their house,” she says over the phone after she shares three pictures of their lifeless bodies wrapped in blood-soaked bedsheets.

One shows a boy with a severed leg, his muscles and bones pouring out of the skin that once held his thigh to the hip. In the second photo, the brain of a young boy is visible through a gaping hole in his skull that extends from his forehead to the top of the head. And in the third, another boy lies in a red T-shirt darkened by the blood from wounds that pierce his jaw.

“They were two brothers and their cousin. The rest of the family have various injuries,” she says almost mechanically.

Most of the other injuries she treated and saw are the result of bullets. “People are not just shot once or twice. Every injury we get has multiple gunshot wounds — bullets in the chest, stomach, leg. Each surgery takes a long time,” she says, stressing how dangerous it is for civilians to walk down the streets of the capital.

The staff at the hospital have been working around the clock since the fighting started in Sudan.

In a series of videos, photos and messages Alhassan shared with CNN, she provides a glimpse into the life of Khartoum residents during two weeks of gun battles, shelling and airstrikes as Sudan’s Armed Forces and Rapid Support Forces battle for control of the country. They reveal what the doctors and nurses in the two dozen operating hospitals are doing to keep the injured alive, with little and dwindling supplies.

Only 23 hospitals are open out of 82 in the capital and other states witnessing fighting, according to the Central Committee for Sudan Doctors on Wednesday. Nineteen hospitals were directly hit and evacuated, while others were shuttered for various reasons, including security threats, power cuts, and the inability of the medical staff to safely reach their hospitals

CNN spoke to several physicians and hospital staff in Khartoum, who described their frustration with not being able to serve those most in need. “The biggest challenge facing medical staff trying to reach hospitals is the lack of safe passages. Even ambulances are not let through,” Abdel Moniem Al-Tayeb tells CNN. The hospital he works at in central Khartoum was shuttered on the first day of the fighting. He said the staff was willing to keep on working if they had electricity.

“The biggest challenge is that there is no fuel. That there is no continuous electric power at hospitals,” he adds.

“Medical services collapsed on the first day of the fighting. Right now, there are no medical services at all. We are only focusing on gunshot wounds and injuries,” one doctor tells CNN, asking not to publish her name or her hospital because of safety concerns.

She fears the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) soldiers would raid the hospital to force the doctors to treat their wounded, as doctors said happened at other hospitals. If the army learns about the presence of the RSF there, they could strike the hospital, she says, referring to the two warring parties.

Supplies at her hospital are running dangerously low and like AlHassan’s hospital, they too are relying on donations and the protection and support of their neighbors. When there is a brief lull in the fighting, they see an increase in looting and criminal activities around them, leading to even more injuries.

In one video shared by AlHassan, her phone camera shows medical staff tending to wounds of a man stretched on a surgical bed as she decries the ceasefires that collapse hours after going into effect.

“They talk about a ceasefire but there is no ceasefire. The wounded keep on coming,” she says in a video recorded on April 25. “It’s the same staff that has been working for 11 days,” she adds.

Her videos show busy halls with continuous movement of staff, patients and families.

One video shows a doctor stitching a wound cutting through the calf of a woman. The doctor’s scissor and bandages rest on the same bed she is sitting on, as a family member hugs her and a man holds down her hand. In another, the medical staff are slumped over a patient with a gaping wound in the upper thigh. Curtains do a poor job separating patients stretching on gurneys in a different room. In another video, a man carrying a backpack is mopping the blood covering the hospital floor.

The staff and the volunteers are doing multiple jobs, AlHassan says. She is an obstetrician-gynaecologist who for the past two weeks has been treating gunshots and other battle wounds, and when needed once queued for four hours at a nearby bakery to get bread for the team.

“We try as much as we can. We are working with very scarce capabilities, and we’re not working at the standard that we would like,” she says, turning her camera goes past a squeaky wooden door to show the medical equipment near the operation room. “There are issues with sterilization. We use the equipment and the instruments more than once … Even with medication, we give smaller doses.”

As her camera whizzes through squeaky doors and people clogging the corridors, it quickly skims over walls with chipped paint and worn-out furniture.

In another video, she shows her colleagues resting their heads on their folded arms on a table. One man dressed in scrubs is startled by the movement, opening his eyes for a second before going back to sleep.

“We don’t sleep. I wouldn’t call what we do sleep. I would call it fainting,” she says. And it is full of nightmares, she adds. When she is awake, she worries about her elderly mother, who lives nearby. AlHassan considers herself lucky that she’s able to check on her every now and then.

Her fatigue shows in the videos she recorded. She starts every video stating her name, the hospital name and then sometimes fumbles the date and time, asking her colleagues for guidance. “Is it Monday or Tuesday now?” she asks in one video.

AlHassan shared the videos with CNN over several days, as the evacuation of foreign nationals were underway. She worries that the fighting will get a lot worse once the evacuation is over. And it would be made worse by the food shortage they are already experiencing.

“I call upon all humanitarian organizations and all the countries in the world to make the two sides of the conflict to stop the war immediately. And I call upon the sides of the conflict to stop the war. Sudanese blood is one blood. I beg you to silence the sound of the rifle,” she says in a final voice note. Calls and messages were repeatedly cut short by the disruption in phone and internet services.

“Hospitals of Sudan are under fire, medical supplies have almost run out, medical staff is exhausted. Now, the Sudanese citizen is dying, not just because of bullets, but because of other illnesses that they can’t go to hospitals for. I beg you, I beg you, stop the war.”

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