Inside Monrovia's JFK hospital
"I would never have believed that surgery could be carried out in such conditions" was the reaction of one of the two members of an American humanitarian mission during a visit to the rambling John F. Kennedy (JFK) hospital in Monrovia.
That morning Raëd Aburabi, an ICRC doctor at the hospital, had received a call announcing the visit: hospital board members and staff from the US embassy would accompany two visitors who were assessing the state of medical resources in Liberia. It was another busy day at the hospital – he had already taken care of a little girl blinded by gunshot wounds and had amputated the arm of a little boy.
The JFK hospital complex in Monrovia, believed to be the largest in West Africa, opened its doors some 20 years ago. If need be it could house 900 patients. But because of the conflict in the country that has lasted almost without interruption since 1989, the hospital had gradually reduced its services, finally closing down altogether.
When the ICRC signed an agreement with the authorities in July 2002 the hospital had not been functioning for more than two years. It was essential to have somewhere to carry out operations and care for the numerous war wounded and civilians who had no means to pay for treatment in one of the few private clinics in Monrovia.
Concentrating on urgent surgery the ICRC set itself up in one of the buildings of the complex that in normal times had served as a pa ediatric clinic that could care for 100 patients.
Working up to 20 hours a day
Since 19 July 2003, the start of the third military offensive in the capital in six weeks, an ICRC surgical team has been working at the hospital, sometimes up to 20 hours a day. The expatriates - two surgeons, an anaesthetist and two nurses – are working with over 200 local employees that include doctors and nurses.
There are currently over 300 patients in the hospital, the only facility which can handle the daily influx of more than 50 military and civilian wounded, victims of the fighting which still rages in the Liberian capital.
Raëd Aburabi did not have much time to spare for his unexpected visitors. As their discussion took place, a seriously injured man arrived, needing urgent help; Raëd had to act, with another doctor. But despite their efforts to ease his pain and breathing, it proved too late to save him and the patient died in the doctor's arms.