BEIRUT — Nearly a year after the blast at the Beirut port, the memory of that night is still so vivid.
Lebanese Hospital Geitaoui, located about a half-mile from the site of the explosion, suffered extensive damage the night of Aug. 4.
The disaster — one of the biggest nonnuclear explosions in history — destroyed large sections of the capital city, mostly in Christian areas. More than 200 people were killed, more than 6,000 injured and more than 300,000 displaced. Of the 350 injured people taken to Geitaoui, 15 could not be saved; some died before arriving at the hospital.
“We felt the people’s misery and their desperation,” said Sister Hadia Abi Chebli, a member of the Maronite Sisters of the Holy Family and one of the hospital directors-general.
“That night, I cried like a child,” recalled Dr. Pierre Yared, her co-director of the 260-bed hospital for the last 11 years.
“It was like an Armageddon scene from a movie,” Yared told Catholic News Service. “We were in a catastrophic situation. No electricity.”
The injured were treated in hallways and the hospital’s parking lot with limited illumination from cellphones.
“The coordination between the nursing and medical staff and all the workers in the hospital was outstanding,” Yared said.
At the time of the blast, there were no injuries among the patients, medical staff, employees or visitors inside Geitaoui, despite the magnitude of destruction in the building.
“Not one was injured. It’s a miracle,” Sister Hadia told CNS.
“It was the hand of God,” added Yared, a Melkite Catholic.
At the window of their shared office, Sister Hadia points to the Beirut port, its collapsed grain silos, like melted candles, a constant reminder of the disaster. “Look how close we are.”
She reaches for an icon of Lebanon’s beloved St. Charbel. Sister Hadia shared how, two days before the blast, on a Sunday, she went to St. Charbel’s tomb.
“I stayed for many hours, praying, crying, asking him to help the hospital,” which had been struggling amid Lebanon’s severe economic crisis. At that time, Geitaoui was also in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic.
After her supplications to St. Charbel, Sister Hadia recalled, “I felt a tremendous peace.”
“When I came back, I told Dr. Yared, ‘Don’t worry. St. Charbel is with us, because I invited him to come to our hospital to help us,” she recounted.
“I pray to him daily and he’s still here with us. This is my belief,” Sister Hadia said.
“He’s the guardian of the hospital,” Yared added.
Geitaoui — a nonprofit Catholic institution that encompasses more than 4.7 million square feet, sustained $7 million in damages from the blast.
“That’s a big figure for a hospital like ours,” Yared said.
Despite holdups due to pandemic lockdowns and economic struggles related to the dramatic devaluation of Lebanon’s currency by 90%, the reconstruction of Geitaoui began. The hospital is now fully operational.
Soon after the blast, the Vatican’s Congregation for Eastern Churches charged New York-based Catholic Near East Welfare Association and the Paris-based L’Oeuvre d’Orient with coordinating worldwide Catholic aid to Lebanon.
While L’Oeuvre d’Orient focused on Lebanon’s Catholic schools, CNEWA concentrated its efforts on rehabilitating Beirut’s two damaged Catholic hospitals, the Geitaoui and Rosary Sisters’ facilities, as well as two dispensaries.
“It was a desperate situation,” said Michel Constantin, CNEWA’s regional director based in Beirut. “Thanks to all our generous donors, we were successful in putting back Geitaoui Hospital fully into service.”
“Without the help of CNEWA, it would be impossible to rehabilitate the hospital,” Yared said. “This was a salvation for us.”
Named for the priest who founded the hospital in 1927, Geitaoui is entrusted to the Maronite Sisters of the Holy Family.
Every room of the hospital is adorned with a crucifix. About 20% of the hospital’s employees are Muslim, as are a third of its patients.
Although Geitaoui endured the catastrophic blast, it faces increasing challenges continuing its mission as Lebanon sinks deeper into economic misery, which has plunged more than 50%of the population into poverty.
Historically renowned for its outstanding health care as “the hospital of the Middle East,” Lebanon is on the verge of a serious health crisis.
“We are in such a difficult time. We are fighting to survive as an institution and to survive as a country. It’s a daily fight,” Yared said.
“We are bleeding. Help is needed,” for the hospital, Sister Hadia said.