It was the 101st Palestinian suicide bombing in the 35 months of violence in Israel, and the too-well-practiced emergency teams were immediately in action. But there was a different feeling about this latest atrocity, at least in the Hadassah Medical Center, which took in more than half of the 100-plus injured.

For the first time, pediatricians and pediatric surgeons dominated the Emergency and Trauma Units, with casualty after incoming casualty turning out to be children, toddlers, infants. Stoic veterans of the aftermath of terror, Hadassah doctors, nurses and social workers alike were stricken by the youth of their patients. The frantic relatives, who always converge on the hospital after an attack desperate for information about the missing, were absent, the bomber having blasted entire families with his lethal payload of explosives, bolts and nails.

New questions faced medical teams who have unhappily seen it all these past three years. A nurse rushed a baby weighing-scales down the corridor, so doctors could gauge the ages of unidentified infants. What about the hepatitis B vaccination routinely administered to bleeding victims: should it be given to infants, as well? And, as time went on, were the children the doctors were fighting to save destined to live as orphans?

A two-and-a-half-year-old girl admitted at 9.39 p.m. lay unclaimed hour after hour, unconscious and unclaimed. The heads of seven doctors and nurses clustered round a baby boy, probably a month old, turned every time anyone walked past, hoping someone had come to claim and comfort him.

Neighbors from the close-knit Har Nof community, where most of the victims lived, trickled into the hospital. They had doubtless attended the little boy’s brit mila, they said, but none of them could identify him, he was too young. As he was taken off to CT, his bloodied clothes were collected into a bag. The neighbors would take the tragic bag to bus victims in Jerusalem’s other three hospitals. Perhaps someone there would know who he was.

CT scanning showed the baby’s pelvis had been fractured, his ear drum pierced and his chest and abdomen blast-injured – and that he had been born with a single kidney.

And then news reached the Ein Kerem team of a couple and three children hospitalized elsewhere in Jerusalem. They had been on the bus, returning home from the Western Wall, with their five youngsters. The mother had been nursing her month-old baby boy when the explosion blasted him out of her arms. She was certain he was dead. And, oh yes, the child had been born with only one kidney.

At 1.45 a.m., the unclaimed baby at Ein Kerem was identified as Elhanan Niria Cohen. The unconscious two-and-a-half-year-old girl was his sister Shira. Doctors who had long since stabilized the bus victims but had been unwilling to leave the hospital until the baby had a name, packed up and went home. And the neighbors were excused the task of showing bloodied children’s clothing to shocked and injured parents.

Fourteen hours after the blast, the baby and his mother, Ora, are doing well. His father and siblings remain critical.

Thirty-three victims of last night’s bomber were taken to Hadassah’s Mount Scopus hospital, and 30 to Ein Kerem. As well as a larger proportion than ever before of young victims, there were also five who were unidentified for many hours. Midwives Nava Braverman and Michal Liebergall of the Family Information Center set up following terror attacks, worked through the night to provide names for the injured. In addition to the two Cohen children, three other victims lay unclaimed for several hours.

With one, a little girl of eight, heart-shaped earrings with a blue stone in the center of each unlocked her identity. With a second, a middle-aged woman, orthopedic surgeon Prof. Meir Liebergall thought he recognized his own work in a healed fracture of her knee. Two different families were searching for a woman in middle years, but the X-rays of her earlier surgery clinched her identity.

THE MORNING AFTER…

It was with trepidation that Hadassah staff returned to work the morning after the attack on the No. 2 bus. Trauma chief Prof. Avi Rivkind, his head nurse Etti Yaakov and pediatric surgeon Eitan Gross, who spent much of the previous night in the ER, headed straight for the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit the next day.

“I’m still trying to deal with what I saw last night,” said Prof. Rivkind. “When we heard the first ambulance sirens, we had no idea of the number of injured children coming in. In charge of triage, I went out into the forecourt to direct the stretcher-bearers. I’d never imagined seeing medic after medic emerging from ambulances carrying not stretchers, but babies in their arms. I could never have guessed how this would feel. And I would never have expected most victims of
a terror attack to end up in a PICU.”

PICU head Prof. Ido Yatziv led Rivkind, Grossman and Yaakov from crib to crib, holding up X-rays of each tiny patient which showed glass damage to little lungs, blast injuries to diminutive organs. The tiny occupants lay still for the most part, breathing shallowly, the skin of their faces and still hair-less heads seared by the force of the explosion.

“We’ve absorbed the shock by now,” said Yaakov, “and the adrenalin surge has gone. Now, without the cushioning effect of the emergency of yesterday, seeing these badly injured babies is almost too much to bear.”

Leaving the PICU, the trio ran into Pediatric Surgery head Prof. Raphael Udassin. Rapidly reading their mood, he said: “I know what you’re feeling. I was at Hadassah-Mount Scopus last night, and we all battled the same emotions. But, you know, what happened at Hadassah yesterday is what makes this medical center great. Despite our human reaction, our shock, our grief and our disbelief, we still pulled together and did the job we’re trained to do — and did it well. And that’s why so many of these children are still alive this morning.”

ESTHER WAKES UP

It was several hours before anyone came to claim six-year-old Esther Zargary in the confusion and agony that followed the attack on the No. 2 bus in Jerusalem, August 19. The reason emerged as the anguished night wore on: her father, Yaakov, his head and lungs badly damaged, was fighting for his life in Hadassah’s Intensive Care Unit. Esther’s mother Nava, less seriously hurt, was coping not only with the fact that Yaakov, the father of her seven children, may not live, but that their youngest child, Shmuel, less than a year old, was already dead.

Unaware of the disaster unleashed on her family, little Esther has remained deep in unconsciousness, day after day. With her clothes torn and bloodied, it was by her heart-shaped earrings that she was at last identified in the small hours after the attack. Alive but unresponsive, she was moved Hadassah’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) soon after she had a name. Since then, her mother Nava has moved from her bedside, to that of Esther’s three-year-old sister Avigayil in Pediatric Surgery down the corridor, to her husband Yaakov, still in Intensive Care.

Yesterday, almost a week after this terror attack wrought on children and their families, Esther woke up. Pale and fragile, the six-year-old is nonetheless alert and coherent. She recognizes her mother — and, despite her youth, perhaps recognizes too the love, relief and gratitude in her mother’s eyes. Her long, black hair was washed yesterday for the first time since she was hurt, but despite several soapy rinses, soot makes new stains on her white pillow whenever she moves her head.

Esther’s PICU nurses, the ER personnel from the bloody night of the explosion and the Hadassah personnel who, for desperate hours, sought a name for the injured child, look in on her regularly. Despite themselves, their eyes fill with tears when they see her awake.

“I can’t believe you,” says Nava, still moving between her two badly injured daughter and her critically ill husband. “You see so much in this hospital. It’s expected that you do your work well, but what I can’t believe is that you feel so deeply for your patients.”

Report by Osnat Moskowitz, Director of Donor, Visitor and Tourist Services at the Hadassah Medical Organization.

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