John Kahler describes what he saw in Gaza as being out of a “post-apocalyptic movie.”
Even before co-founding MedGlobal — a Rolling Meadows-based nonprofit launched in 2017 that provides medical aid to vulnerable populations around the world — he had been traveling to places like Ukraine and Haiti, amid war and disaster, for about three decades to help people on the ground.
Last month, he and a “senior advance team” of several doctors traveled to Gaza via Egypt for more than two weeks to help provide care at MedGlobal’s 10 clinics around Rafah, a city on the southern edge of Gaza
“From the beginning of the day to the end of our office hours, there was screaming,” Kahler said, comparing the devastated landscape to pictures he’d seen of Europe after World War II. The team saw crowded tents and rubble where bakeries used to be.
“I know the world is violent … [but] this is the first I’ve ever really experienced the inhumanity that man can have at another man.”
Now he and his fellow doctors want to see a cease-fire and a lifting of aid blockades that would allow outsiders to help address the growing humanitarian crises there.
More than 29,000 Palestinians, mostly civilian women and children, have been killed and 69,000 have been injured in the ongoing Israeli bombardment of Gaza, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. About 1,200 Israelis were killed in the Hamas attack in Israel on Oct. 7, the Israeli government has said.
A graduate of the University of Illinois College of Medicine, Kahler worked as a pediatrician at John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital for more than 30 years. His travels took him to Central and South America, and he later worked near the front lines in Aleppo, Syria, and in refugee camps along the Mediterranean.
He brought that experience and expertise to Gaza, alongside the five other U.S.-based doctors on his team.
The constant sound of war stood out to them. Dr. Chandra Hassan, a general surgeon who teaches students at UIC, said “shock waves” shook the windows constantly.
The lack of beds and shortage of supplies made treating patients injured by missile strikes and bomb blasts difficult, he said. Patients would receive care on the floors of hospitals and clinics. Doctors largely worked with whatever they could bring past the border in personal bags.
The challenges meant they lost patients they could have saved anywhere else, he said.
“You give them blood, try to get them to the operating rooms, but they die within minutes,” Hassan said, noting he had to unlearn the continuity of care that had been drilled into him in medical school because it wasn’t possible there.
Dr. Thaer Ahmad, global health director for the department of emergency medicine at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, said it was easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of patients who needed medical help. COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses spread rapidly, and medicine shortages for those with diabetes or heart conditions added to the number of patients coming through their doors.
“What I quickly began to realize was that all aspects of life were disrupted, this was not just one humanitarian crisis, it was dozens of public health disasters happening at the same time,” said Ahmad, whose family was originally from the occupied West Bank, just outside Jerusalem.
Despite this, he said the determination of local medical staff and displaced people banding together to help distribute medicine and food inspired him. He also said returning to his training and the experience he gained during similar aid missions to Turkey and Syria helped keep him grounded amid the intensity of the work.
“Everyone feels like they’re in this together,” said Ahmad, a MedGlobal board member. “It’s a testament to the resilience of the people.”
Kahler and a few others opted to evacuate the team after Israel’s strikes hit within blocks of the medical facilities Hassan and others were working out of in Khan Younis and Israel Defense Forces ground troops moved in. Kahler said he had made the decision after seeing doctors get stuck farther north in January, after IDF forces occupied the area.
After returning Jan. 25, Hassan slept for three days. The weight he lost after eating one meal a day — due to food scarcity that has left a quarter of Gazans facing starvation — has slowly started to return. He said he was frustrated by the politicization of the crisis and urged people to see the humanitarian need instead.
“There is no level of suffering as a result of this war that is going to bring peace,” Hassan said. “Peace comes from the end of violence and suffering.”
Ahmad said the best way to get aid into Gaza amid the blockades would be to donate to groups like Anera, a relief nonprofit that had a presence in Gaza before Oct. 7, because it works with local healthcare providers and can get supplies in as MedGlobal did. He also said there will be a “war after the war” regarding the crises that will continue even after the bombs stop dropping.
“Restriction and delays on getting into Gaza nearly all types of humanitarian aid are really hampering efforts to feed, treat and keep alive the 2 million Palestinian in need in Gaza,” Sean Carroll, president and CEO of Anera, told the Sun-Times. Where the group was able to provide about $3 million in aid per month before the war, it hasn’t been able to deliver $10 million in aid in the four months since Oct. 7.
The consul general of Israel to the Midwest did not respond to requests for comment.
Kahler plans to return the first week of March, in part to help start a nutrition project similar to the one the group currently has in Syria. A mental health program is also in the works.
He said the job at hand wasn’t just in saving lives, but also in helping to protect a group of people and their way of life, especially as people continue to be forced out of their homeland.
“Gaza won’t be Gaza, it’ll be the stories your grandmother told you, there’ll be only diaspora,” Kahler said. “This is a fight for the Palestinian identity.”
Contributing: The Associated Press