A pioneer in cancer treatments for Palestinians
Augusta Victoria Hospital’s Fadi Atrash shares his journey and vision of comprehensive healthcare for all
(LWI) - As a young boy living up in the West Bank, Fadi Atrash decided at an early age that he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. The effects of a prolonged healthcare crisis in his country, provoked by the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, could be seen all around him and he learned in the family home about the importance of supporting those less fortunate than himself. A favorite uncle, who died young, had been studying to be a doctor with this goal in mind and the young Fadi was determined to follow in his footsteps.
After leaving school, he went to Tunisia to study medicine, returning in 2005 to his homeland. The following year, he began training at the Augusta Victoria Hospital (AVH) in Jerusalem, a leading Palestinian hospital that is owned and operated by the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). The hospital was set up after the 1948 war, in partnership with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), as a medical facility to respond to the needs of thousands of Palestinian refugees. Over the past decade, it has developed into a highly specialized institute of medical excellence.
“It takes a long time training to become a doctor,” Dr Fadi Atrash says with a smile, “but I have never regretted making that decision.” He went to the northern Israeli port city of Haifa to specialize in radiation and clinical oncology, returning in 2013 to lead AVH’s radiation department. “In those five years that I was away from Jerusalem,” he recalls, “there were huge changes at the hospital, which had evolved rapidly under the guidance of a highly trained staff and leadership.”
Comprehensive care and community outreach
Before the establishment of AVH’s radiotherapy program in 2005, Dr. Fadi continues, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, who number over five million inhabitants, had to travel to other countries such as Egypt and Jordan for cancer treatment. “The hospital is now a pioneering institution in this field, trying to implement the vision of the LWF to give care and dignity to all people, regardless of their origins or ethnicity,” he notes.
One of AVH’s unique features, Dr. Fadi says, “is the introduction of a concept known as comprehensive cancer care, paying attention not only to the medical aspects but also to the social, economic and mental health needs of our patients. Another pioneering aspect of the work, he continues “is our attention to gender equality and women’s empowerment, especially through our community outreach which includes remote areas of the West Bank. We have had mobile clinics since the 1950s, offering high quality services and promoting health education, screening and early detection of diseases”. The outreach service has enabled AVH to dramatically improve the prognosis for women diagnosed with breast cancer in Palestine.
Our staff is absolutely committed to our vision of holistic care and human dignity.
Despite operating in a challenging environment, AVH continues to be a center of medical excellence in East Jerusalem, providing both radiation therapies and pediatric kidney dialysis that is not available elsewhere. Work is currently underway to establish a palliative care facility, as well as a center for the elderly. The hospital, located on the northern side of the Mount of Olives, is one of six specialized medical centers that make up the East Jerusalem Hospitals Network.
“Our staff is absolutely committed to our vision of holistic care and human dignity,” Dr Fadi notes. “Their salaries and job security, of course that is important for them, but the hospital is more than that – it is their home and during the COVID crisis we felt this in a very particular way,” he says. The hospital responded rapidly to the pandemic, making personal protective equipment available to staff and adapting the work flow so that they could continue to provide life-saving services to patients.
Dr Fadi Atrash, Acting CEO of Augusta Victoria Hospital with LWF General Secretary Rev. Anne Burghardt alongside staff from Geneva and Jerusalem during a visit to the Ecumenical Center. Photo: LWF/A. Danielsson
In 2021, Dr Fadi Atrash was appointed as acting CEO of the hospital. During the last week of February 2022, he travelled to Geneva with LWF’s Jerusalem representative Sieglinde Weinbrenner and other members of his team to discuss ongoing challenges and share his hopes for continuing to develop programs that make a difference to the lives of thousands of Palestinian families.
"It is the details that make the difference at AVH,” Dr Fadi says, adding that the hospital is considered locally as “a role model” and often asked to share its expertise for training and capacity building at other facilities. The feedback from patients is “the most rewarding part of my work,” he concludes, “whether they point out how clean our facilities are, how caring our staff are, or how effective their treatments have been. It is this that gives me the energy and inspiration to continue with my work.”
LWF/A. Danielsson and P. Hitchen
Augusta Victoria Hospital is a center of medical excellence in East Jerusalem, serving all 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Its specialized services include comprehensive cancer and diabetes care, kidney care and dialysis, skilled nursing and long-term care, as well as ear, nose and throat and other specialty surgeries. Augusta Victoria Hospital is accredited by the Joint Commission International for its outstanding quality. Patients are referred to the AVH by the Palestinian Authority.