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An Oasis of Compassion

St. Louis Hospital cares for Jerusalem’s diverse residents

text by Judith Sudilovsky with photographs by Debbie Hill

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It is the start of the day at St. Louis Hospital in Jerusalem, and Ataf Muhammad Abu Shakra cradles his daughter’s head in his broad hands, as he does every morning after the nurse has bathed and dressed her.

His daughter, 34-year-old Manal, lies immobile and uncommunicative, strapped into an electric gurney used to transfer her from the hospital bed to a wheelchair.

For the past four years, the once-vibrant young mother has been in this state. While undergoing a Cesarean section to deliver her sixth child, Manal received generalized anesthesia from which she never fully awoke.

Soon after, the family brought her to St. Louis Hospital. Run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition, the 131-year-old facility provides hospice care and palliative care for chronic illness.

“Manal was like a mother to her brothers and sisters when she was younger. She was so gentle,” reminisces Mr. Abu Shakra, as he arranges pillows around his daughter’s arms, legs and neck. “Now we take care of her.”

Manal is never alone. During the day, either her brother or uncle, both of whom work in the neighborhood, stop by. Her sisters, too, visit her when they can get away from their housework and children. In the evening, her other brothers come to the hospital after work to relieve their father. Her mother, however, does not visit as often as other family members because she gets emotionally overwhelmed when she sees Manal.

“When I am not here, I can’t sleep,” says Mr. Abu Shakra. “I worry about her. Maybe her arm is crooked; maybe she is coughing. I feel better when I am here.”

With calm efficiency, Manal’s father cleans out the mucus from her tracheal tube.

He then turns his attention to her feet and legs. He straightens her atrophied feet, washes them and expertly massages her toes before slipping on socks. He bends her knees and places her feet on the wheelchair’s footrest.

“She is my daughter. What if she wakes up and no one is here?”

Now that Manal is seated, Mr. Abu Shakra brushes her thin hair, pulling it back in a ponytail. In keeping with Muslim tradition, he then covers her hair with a brown hijab, the Islamic headscarf.

For a moment, Manal leans toward her father and opens her mouth as if about to say something. But no words form on her lips and she blankly stares into the distance.

The family has learned to adjust to Manal’s condition, says her father, by keeping faith and hoping God will one day bring her back. Until that day arrives, the family continues their unfaltering vigil.

In the next bed, Sarah, an elderly Orthodox Jewish woman suffering from dementia, demands a cup of tea. Originally from an Arabic-speaking country, she shouts in Arabic.

Mr. Abu Shakra smiles, walks over to her and kindly points to the cup of tea already on her tray. She then asks him for more sugar.

“How much sugar do you want, auntie?” says Mr. Abu Shakra. “I am your son. Tell me how much sugar you want.”

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