Saturday 24 August 2019

Dr Eve's life-changing gift to Gaza burn victims

Dr Eve Bruce is carrying out life-saving plastic surgery in the war zone, writes Wayne O'Connor

Iman, 3 years old
Iman, 3 years old

AS the country sits down to Christmas dinner, one doctor from Co Kerry will be busy in the Holy Land, thousands of miles from her family.

Dr Eve Bruce is a 62-year-old plastic surgeon who will spend Christmas Day tending to men, women and children in need of life-changing, and often life-saving, operations.

She left her home outside Dingle at the end of last month and headed for Gaza.

As she shut the door behind her, she waved goodbye to any hopes of a Christmas alongside both of her sons, her two daughters and four grandchildren.

It is her fourth trip this year to a war-torn land after previous visits to Afghanistan and Gaza.

All going well, she may get home for New Year's Eve.

Specialist: Dr Eve Bruce (left) with colleagues at a Medecins Sans Frontieres’ hospital in Helmand Province, Afghanistan
Specialist: Dr Eve Bruce (left) with colleagues at a Medecins Sans Frontieres’ hospital in Helmand Province, Afghanistan

Despite being so far from home, she insisted being apart from her family and friends was nothing compared to the challenges she sees others struggling with every day.

"They do (worry about me) when I am away in a conflict zone but they know I will look after myself," she said. "I was brought up in Kenya and my mother was a doctor there, so I was very aware of underserved populations and their needs and a lot of suffering.

"It would be a lot easier and a lot more lucrative to do something else. This is something I just want to do."

Dr Bruce volunteers with Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders and has a speciality in treating burns victims.

During her last trip to Gaza over the summer, she had a few spare minutes away from surgeries and consultations. She decided to use her free time to take a trip to the beach. As she looked out over the Mediterranean, she realised she could have been in Greece, Cyprus, or on the heel of Italy, before she was disturbed by a woman screaming her name.

The pair last met a few months earlier when the woman's toddler daughter suffered severe burns after coming into contact with a cable on an appliance at home during a power surge.

In Gaza, electricity only runs intermittently throughout the day. Wires tend to have been unearthed during previous conflicts, posing a danger to curious children and protective parents.

It is a symbol of the toll three wars in six years takes on any country.

"Dr Eve," shouted the woman, grabbing her daughter's tiny hand. "Look, she's all better."

Dr Bruce said: "She had one of these electrical burns that fused her hand, so she was unable to grasp."

She had worked on the girl in April fearing the worst. Amputations are all too common on the Gaza Strip, but this girl was well on the mend.

"The more I go back, the more I see people like that - and there's your job satisfaction right there," Dr Bruce added.

After a career working in private practice in the US, she knows it would have been much easier to settle in Dingle with her husband and enjoy a quiet life in retirement. But she insisted that was not in her nature.

As well as treating wounds brought about by conflict, Dr Bruce will have to help people who have been injured while trying to go about their everyday lives.

Some patients will have been caught up in conflict situations, while other injuries are commonly received during accidents on the roads. However, Dr Bruce said it was working with children that was most upsetting and difficult to handle.

Her work is broken up into days of consultations or surgeries. Today, she will either see more than 60 patients, or perform numerous surgeries.

"Most people are just caught up in it," Dr Bruce said. "You get young girls with burns and their mothers are begging you to do something cosmetic, because the scars are going to prevent them from getting married.

"And there are so many more women than men in a war-torn area that it's a huge problem.

"We get a lot of electrical burns from kids just grabbing on to appliances and wires that are live and it will burn right through. Sometimes there's not much more you can do but amputate." Mental health issues are also rife among a war-torn population and treating these patients is difficult, as people carry numerous scars from a variety of conflicts.

"Every two years, Gaza has had a major war, with the last one being really major. You have a whole population of kids with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Pain management is a big issue. And after burn wounds start to heal they get smaller, so you get contractures of the skin where you can't raise your arm or you can't spread your fingers.

"But life goes on for these people. Weddings and parties are huge affairs. People find lots of joy in every day and are so welcoming."

Medecins Sans Frontieres is an independent international medical humanitarian organisation that provides emergency healthcare to people affected by war, conflict, and natural and man-made disasters. It delivers emergency aid in nearly 70 countries worldwide. To learn more, see msf.ie.

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