'Corona, Cancer And A Blast': Beirut's Hospitals Struggling After Port Explosion

Aug 15, 2020

Beirut continues to reel in the wake of last week's port explosion that destroyed much of the Lebanese capital, killing more than 200 people and wounding thousands more.

The World Health Organization says that over half of the 55 health care facilities in the city that WHO assessed are now unable to function, and care for those who have been wounded and will continue to suffer.

Dr. Eid Azar, an infectious disease expert and the chief of staff at Saint George Hospital University Medical Center in Beirut told NPR's Weekend Edition that when the blast went off, "everything was just destroyed in one second."

Azar's hospital is located a little more than a mile from the blast site at the port of Beirut. He said hundreds of people in the hospital were injured by the blast, and four nurses were killed.

"Then, minutes later, we start to understand that something is happening in the city, and then after that we activated the evacuation plan," he said. "You're talking about a facility with 300 plus inpatients, 1,800 employees, everybody in the hospital grabs themselves whatever he can or she can from the floors and they started an evacuation."

Dr. Peter Noun, the head of the pediatric hematology and oncology department at Saint George, told NPR's All Things Considered that the hospital was devastated by the blast.

"All the hospital is completely destroyed, even the ER. So the ER is not functional," Noun said. "We took the patients — all of them — outside the ER to the whole outside and to the parking [lot]. And we started treating patients outside."

Noun said the scene after the blast looked like "a disaster, an apocalypse."

"This reminds me about the Titanic when they arrived to New York, and they didn't find their parents," Noun said. "Everyone was looking for someone. My patient is looking for his father or her mother, and the parents are looking for their children."

Many of the patients forced to evacuate were sick with COVID-19, cancer or other emergencies, according to Noun. Three people were giving birth, Azar said.

"Unfortunately, it was one of my patients who has cancer, has a severe lymphoma — he had also coronavirus," Noun said. "And he was in the ward of the coronavirus, so he was not in the pediatric oncology floor. He's doing fine, but you can imagine — corona, cancer and a blast."

Both doctors say they worry for what will come next.

"Now not only have we lost our centers that dealt with [COVID-19], but we are waiting to see the impact of the blast because you know once we have that, we have funerals, people gathering again, social distancing is impossible in situations like this," Azar said. "So we'll see how the numbers will be next week."

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Beirut continues to reel after last week's port explosion that destroyed so much of the city, killed more than 200 people and wounded thousands. The World Health Organization conducted an assessment of 55 health care facilities in the city and says that half are now unable to function and care for those who've been wounded and may continue to suffer. Dr. Eid Azar is the chief of staff at Saint George Hospital and an infectious disease expert. Dr. Azar, thanks so much for making time for us at this most busy moment.

EID AZAR: Thank you. Thank you for having us.

SIMON: And I gather your hospital was badly damaged in the explosion. Can you tell us what happened and what you saw?

AZAR: Yeah, actually, our hospital is just facing Beirut seaport. We're probably less than 1 kilometer, 1,000 meters. I was in second floor, just finished my clinic, ready to do the rounds. And everything was just destroyed in one second. The ER, the laboratory, the electricity was cut. The staff was injured. We had four nurses that lost their lives, 317 different casualties inside the building.

First thing you do in a situation like this, because we didn't know what we were dealing with, we did run away to the outside with my team. Then, you know, minutes later, we start to understand that something happening in the city. And then after that, we activated the evacuation plan. You're talking about a facility with 300-plus in-patients, 1,800 employees. Everybody in the hospital grabbed with himself whatever he can or she can from the floors, and they started evacuation.

SIMON: I understand, Dr. Azar, that a little baby boy was born at the moment of the blast.

AZAR: Yeah, we had three deliveries at this time happening. Two of them already happened a few minutes before the explosion. And one - she was in labor. And it's bizarre because, you know, I was walking those stairs of evacuation to go through the delivery suite, and you had this woman in full labor. And you just - you know, I passed by her a couple of times saying, it's weird we cannot give you this privacy that you need, but stay calm, and then once we can find you an evacuation plan, then we will take you downstairs. And it happened, you know, within two or three hours from the explosion.

SIMON: And your hospital must've been very busy with COVID-19 patients already.

AZAR: We were one of the hospitals that's leading the fight against corona. And we had 18 patients in the intensive care units intubated. We had the COVID-19 floor and the COVID-19 ICU totaling 18 other patients. So Lebanon is around 7 million inhabitants, so were around 50 to 100 new case per day. Last week were a little bit more. And then we had the blast. So now, not only we lost our centers that dealt with corona, we are waiting to see the impact of the blast because, you know, once we had that, we had funerals, people gathering again. You know, social distancing is impossible in a situation like this.

SIMON: Oh, gosh, yeah.

AZAR: So we'll see how the numbers will be next week.

SIMON: Doesn't sound like there's enough to take care of people in Beirut right now.

AZAR: Yeah. You know, it's not only the idea in Lebanon about, you know, the resources issue. It's about how you manage your resources because the health care system has been suffering for the last couple of years, like all other Lebanese institutions, from the financial issues. Going forward is going to be a very challenging time, especially now here that nobody wants to help the - maybe rightly, they should not help too much the Lebanese government because of the level of corruption that we have. I'm very skeptical about a national plan because they are not easy to execute in the political and financial atmosphere that we have now in the city.

SIMON: I'm sure there are people listening to us who will be moved and want to help. What can people do?

AZAR: This time, and it was clearly said, at least by the French president who visited us the next day of the explosion, that all aid now is going to go directly for the people. And if this model actually is better worked out, it may be one of the ways that can help Lebanon avoid doing the mistake of the '90s where all this international help went to a corrupt government. So now we established on our website a donation site. And anybody, you know, who's listening can just go to Saint George Hospital Beirut donation. We are ready to provide all the transparency needed and making sure that the people that we care for receive the aid directly.

SIMON: Dr. Eid Azar is chief of staff and an infectious disease expert at Saint George Hospital in Beirut. Dr. Azar, thanks so much for being with us.

AZAR: Thank you, sir.

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