'I didn't write a will - I only cared about who would get my match ticket if I didn't return'

-Credit: (Image: Dr Ana Jeelani)
-Credit: (Image: Dr Ana Jeelani)

A surgeon who flew out to Gaza to save children caught up in the conflict says she didn’t write a will before she went – she only cared about who would get her match ticket if she didn’t return home.

Dr Ana Jeelani, a consultant paediatric orthopaedic surgeon at Alder Hey Hospital, took on a two-week volunteer placement at Al-Aqsa hospital back in March.

The 38-year-old, from Didsbury, kept the trip a secret right until she left in fear her loved ones would try and stop her from going.

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And while the surgeon didn’t organise a will ahead of heading into the warzone, she did make arrangements for one thing – her sought-after Liverpool FC ticket.

The avid fan says she wanted to ensure her ticket to see Liverpool play Wolverhampton at Anfield on Sunday (May 19) in Jürgen Klopp’s final match as manager.

“People asked me if I had made a will,” she said. “The only thing I made provisions for in case I didn’t come back was my ticket to Jurgen Klopp’s final match at Anfield. I got it for about £47 in the ballot but then it was worth something like £20,000.

“Only one person has access to my account apart from me – I told him ‘If I die, my ticket can’t be sold,’ and I gave him a list of true supporters who could take it.

“Beyond that, I didn’t really think about whether or not I might come back from Gaza. You just don’t know – there’s no pattern to this conflict. I just thought, if my time’s come, my time’s come. I’ve done something worthwhile, and equally you could die being hit by a bus in Didsbury.

“If you’re going to go, you might as well do something you’d be proud of. Wherever you stand on the conflict, 15,000 children are dead and we’re children’s doctors. We can’t ignore that.”

Ana says she didn’t tell her family she was leaving right until she was set to depart – her parents begging her not to go in fear she wouldn’t come home.

“I only told my parents I was going shortly before I left,” she said. “In fact, I got my sister to tell them.

“They pleaded with me not to go. My mum rang me in floods of tears saying, ‘Don’t go, why are you doing this to us?’

“But they also knew that I had the resolve and I was going to go. They were frantic with worry, but they’re also very proud.”

Dr Ana Jeelani in Gaza
Dr Ana Jeelani in Gaza

Ana says she witnessed the atrocities of what was happening in Gaza in the media and wanted to help in any way she could.

Ahead of flying out with MAP, Medical Air for Palestinians, she underwent two days of security training in Egypt, learning skills including what to do if she were taken hostage and how to escape under rubble.

“The hospital was chaotic,” she said. “There were 166 beds and around 800 inpatients. Families would tend to their injured, basically living in the hospital, some would bring in stoves to cook food, and all this is in the ward or the corridor, all mixed up together.

“There’s no nutrition, no specialised mattresses for pressure wounds, some of the beds don’t even have mattresses. The wounds are contaminated and most of the wounds become infected.”

Ana says the lights would randomly go out in the middle of operating – forcing them to use head torches they carried in their pockets.

The trauma she witnessed left Ana suffering from insomnia for two weeks upon her return to the UK.

“Alder Hey were really supportive of me going,” she added. “Giving me humanitarian leave to go and arranging counselling when I got back. I had very bad insomnia for about two weeks afterwards but what has really helped, as well as the counselling, is staying in touch with the team.

“We had such a good team and all get on really well. We speak most days on WhatsApp. It really helps to speak to others who have been through the same thing, who have that shared experience.”

Ana Jeelani -Credit:Dr Ana Jeelani
Ana Jeelani -Credit:Dr Ana Jeelani

But among the horrors she saw, Ana says there were moments of joy, from waking to the sound of children laughing to the first time she was able to wash her hair.

"There were always moments of simple joy to be had. We felt like a proper family. I never felt homesick. I have left my heart there. I don’t think I can ever fully mentally recover from it until the situation is over.’

“The children are brilliant – there was this little kid who would follow me around in his wheelchair and say that the fact that I didn’t give him any money was a humanitarian issue – he didn’t know what it meant - it was just something he’d learnt.

“He was so cute. His family had been killed and he was being looked after by the people in the next beds to him. They all look after each other.

“And then there was a Ziko – a child of about 11 who hung around A&E and would help out when there were mass casualties, passing plaster and dunking it.

“He kind of found us and latched on to us so we made him some little scrubs. He was such a good kid but seeing things he shouldn’t be seeing. We don’t know much about him – he lived in a tent and was always hanging around the hospital.

“When we left, we gave them everything. We gave them our suitcases, our shoes, some gave their phones. We arrived with 52 suitcases in as a team of seven full of supplies, we left with one each. Anything we had on us, we gave.”

Ana says there was no fresh food during her time in Gaza, with all produce arriving into the city going rotten before it had the chance to sell.

“I heard about a colleague’s wife who queued for half an hour and paid $35 for six eggs,” she said. “When she cracked them open, they were all rotten. They’re living on canned food.”

The surgeon says there’s one thing she noticed that doesn’t come across in the media – the hope that the conflict will soon come to an end.

“The resilience that the Palestinian people have,” she said. “They just want to get on with their lives. It’s a beautiful place, people are so loving and lovely.

“When we were leaving, a guy said that even if we hadn’t operated on a single patient, the fact that we came here and let them know that they’re not alone means more than anything.

“Everything on social media depicts the horrors, but it doesn’t depict the heart.”