Voices from Abroad part two: views from the hospital on Palestine, Israel, the U.S.

In continuing my mission to put a human face to countries that seem far away from our daily lives, I sat down last week with two Pittsburgh doctors, one from Palestine and one from Israel. While these two men work incredibly long hours, overseeing surgeries and completing fellowships, their families live in the midst of turmoil abroad. Practically a world away, they live double lives as the doctors who heal us and as first-hand witnesses of a conflict that needs to be healed.

Nael Althweib

After he insisted on buying me coffee, Nael Althweib, 28, clad in baby blue scrubs with scholarly-looking glasses, sat down and smiled widely, ready to tell his life’s story. Born in Bethlehem, Althweib was one of six children. “It was a small town, so with a large family, we had small

adventures,” Althweib said. When it came time for him to study at a university, he accepted a scholarship to study medicine in Syria because that was all that his family could afford at the time, especially with so many children. By the time his fifth year of study rolled around, he “realized [he] needed more than that” and applied to do his rotation in the United States at Cornell University. He later returned to Palestine to finish medical school before coming back to the States to “enhance and practice” his medical training. It was then that Althweib found himself in Pittsburgh.

“In Bethlehem, there is no medical system in place. We lack simple stuff.... There are no X-rays, the hospitals are small, and if we lack it, we cannot do [surgery]. Our ICU was seven beds in a large room, all jammed in. It was like, ‘How can I pursue and learn anything there? I can’t.’ ”

Althweib described the stark differences in the medical systems, most of them heartbreaking and all seemingly-hopeless: “Most of the doctors there finish medical school in Eastern Europe and come back to practice to get experience, which they don’t have from real training. Some of them do procedures that they have not been trained to do,” he said. Althweib said that the state of the medical system in Bethlehem made him even more persistent in coming to the United States to study.

That determination carries him further than just the present in Pittsburgh. “The plan is for me to go back there. I feel that if I went back, I could achieve something and help those people in a better way,” Althweib said. “I have no one here — no family. I would miss the small things, like having a car. You don’t know how good those things are until they’re gone. But I want to go back to help my family.”

“My family is supportive even though they had difficult lives. Financially and through every aspect, their life was difficult. In five years, I can help my family. They were supportive when my sister went to France and when my sister went to the U.S. and when I did, and they are still supportive. They would like me to come back,” Althweib smiled. “But I’m addicted to the medical lifestyle. You feel that you are self-rewarded because you achieve something or at least, by trying to treat people, [cure] diseases. And you would feel it better if you went to somewhere like my country, where lots of people who are really sick feel abandoned. They are so thankful for you helping them; imagine when you give them something small.”

Though the struggles that his family and friends encounter are in his mind everyday, Althweib remembers tougher times in 2001–02. “There’s lots of fighting. But my family — they’re used to it. They say ‘What can we do? This is our life, and we can’t change it.’ ”

Althweib said that growing up in Palestine is tough. “A lot of people back there are waiting to have such an opportunity, because their routines are so troubling. Getting transportation, going to school — it’s not easy to do. It would take a lot of fortitude to do this stuff, and it would be nice if people can just realize how difficult our life is in that part of the world. I think we have a long way to go.”

Yaniv Shilo

Tall and serious, Yaniv Shilo is a urologist at UPMC McKeesport. When I met with him, he was on his way home from work to spend time with his wife and three children, Ido, Yali, and Mika. Born in Israel in Ra’anana, a suburb of Tel Aviv, Shilo did what every 18-year-old man in Israel does: served with the Israel Defense Force (IDF). He spent four years within the IDF’s intelligence units as an officer. He spent one year studying biology and then the next few in medical school, where he found his true calling. After a residency in Israel, he applied to do a fellowship in the United States and came to UPMC.

Being a doctor in both countries, Shilo noted that insurance is a key difference: “In Israel, everyone has welfare. Whenever you need a treatment, it is done. Anyone can get any kind of treatment. Here, it is hinged on who has what insurance,” Shilo said. “And the sheer volume of operations that I am exposed to or that I help with is much, much larger.”

In the midst of all of his medical work and chasing after three children under the age of ten, Shilo keeps up with Ynet, the Israeli news channel that he watched back
home. That’s where he gets most of his news, he said, because as far as he can tell, U.S. channels are fairly biased. “I knew that even back in Israel, that U.S. news usually only shows one side of things. So I’m not really following everything from the U.S. news.”

All the same, Shilo finds that people, especially in Pittsburgh, are curious and happy to discuss Israel with him. “Pittsburgh is a paradise for Israelis and for Jews. It is so easy to be here because the community is so large,” Shilo said. “My family has made the decision to stay here, and my family back in Israel is very happy for us. They have visited and they are very happy with the success we have found here and the place where we live.” Shilo admitted, “I worry about my family, but not because I’m here. I worry about them because I am worried about them.”

Shilo, his wife, and their family, travel back to Israel once a year. Though their youngest is the only one of their children who was born in the United States, they are
all well-connected to Israel. Shilo said that his children consider it the better place, because the time they spend there is usually on vacation, being spoiled by family and friends. Shilo considers Israel one of the most beautiful places in the world: “Israel is a small country, but despite being small, it’s gorgeous. It’s sometimes unbelievable ... the extremes you can find within such a relatively small place. In the north, it’s very green with lots of water and in the south, it’s more of a desert.”

“We as Israelis are proud of how much we know every little piece of the country,” Shilo said. Beginning early in childhood, he, his siblings, and their friends would explore “every little bit” of the country and get to know it intimately. “There are so many great places — rivers, mountains, just so much,” Shilo said.

Shilo encouraged people to look beyond the media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and explore Israel. “It’s unfortunate that the entire area is implicated. It’s a lovely country to visit, and the entire region has so much to offer. I wish it was more peaceful and safe and the energy was tunneled into showing the good things rather than the bad.... Most of the time, I think it’s important to mention that things are not as bad as they look according to the media,” Shilo said. “It’s true that there are a lot of things going on ... but the media is not always showing the real picture.”

Co-existence, he said, is not such a far-fetched topic as the media makes it out to be. “There’s a lot of work that [is] being done together. There is co-existence in a very beautiful way that both sides are trying to achieve. It is sure that there is not great love, but it is certainly not as bad as it seems.”