Dr. Yael Mozer-Glassberg, director of Israel’s pediatric liver transplantation service at Schneider Children’s Medical Center, has seen some difficult things in her 25-year career. However, nothing in her experience prepared her for treating Israeli hostages freed from Gaza after nearly two months in captivity.
“From the medical point of view, this was a terrible event. Reports that everyone is giving that the returnees are in more or less stable condition are not true,” Mozer-Glassberg.
Without breaching privacy about the conditions and experiences of specific hostages, she divulged in an online press conference Monday some new details.
Mozer-Glassberg is part of a team of six female physicians, as well as nutritionists, psychologists, and social workers who have attended to the 19 children, and seven women who were brought to Schneider after being released from Hamas captivity in a deal brokered by Qatar and Egypt with American backing.
On October 7, Hamas breached the border with Israel and attacked more than 20 towns, kibbutzim, and IDF bases. The onslaught resulted in terrorists murdering more than 1,200 people and taking some 240 hostage to Gaza.
Like dedicated teams at several other Israeli hospitals, Mozer-Glassberg and her colleagues began preparing as early as October 8 to provide initial treatment to returnees, using protocols created by the Health Ministry and the Welfare Ministry.
Mozer-Glassberg confirmed that the hostages Schneider received had lost 10-15 percent of their body weight. The statistic was similar to one shared by Prof. Itai Pessach at Lily Safra Children’s Hospital at Sheba Medical Center, where other freed hostages were brought.
“The hostages shared with us stories about how limited the food they were given was. If they were given food at all, it was sometimes only a cup of tea and a biscuit or a single dried date in the morning and rice in the evening,” Mozer-Glassberg recounted.
In cases where siblings were alone without their parents, the older sibling would not eat until the younger one did. For all the hostages, access to drinking water was limited.
“The captors would inflict psychological terrorism on them by forcing them to eat everything given to them after their stomachs had shrunk and hunger pains diminished after having eaten nearly nothing for days,” Mozer-Glassberg said.
As a result of deprivation in Gaza, some hostages exhibited unexpected eating habits when reintroduced to proper nutrition at the hospital. The staff had been primed to prevent the undernourished returnees from overeating and succumbing to the dangerous Refeeding Syndrome. But instead, they ate very little of the wide variety of foods offered, some of them only consuming crumbs they pulled from pieces of bread.
“It wasn’t like what we prepared for,” Mozer-Glassberg said.
The doctor reported that with access to water so limited in captivity, the hostages cleaned themselves only a few times during their 50-plus days in Gaza. Some did not bathe at all.
“They returned with extremely deficient hygiene. I have never seen hygiene this bad,” Mozer-Glassberg said. “Their head lice was the worst I have ever seen. Even with five or six treatments, the lice were not gone.”
The freed hostages also returned with skin rashes and lice bites on their bodies. They also had infected wounds that had not been properly cared for.
As has been reported from other hospitals, it took three or four days for the returnees — especially the children — to speak at a relatively normal volume. Mozer-Glassberg said the designated area for the former hostages was “painfully quiet” at first as the children either did not speak or spoke only in a low whisper.
According to the physician, adjusting to life back in Israel will not be easy for most of the former hostages after having been locked in small spaces, forced to be quiet, and with all personal agency stripped away.
“They had to knock on the door and wait for who knows how long for someone to come ask what they needed. They needed permission to go to the bathroom. Can you imagine having to deal with telling a toddler or young child that they have to wait to go to the bathroom?” Mozer-Glassberg said.
She reported that the terrorists psychologically tortured the children and teens who were on their own, telling them over and over again that nobody cared about them, was looking for them or fighting for their release. The terrorists threatened that they would be in captivity for a year, or even forever.
“A lot of the kids we received had a skewed sense of time. They didn’t know how long they were in Gaza and when we said they would stay with us in the hospital for four to five days, they confused that with a month,” Mozer-Glassberg said.
The former hostages can stay in the hospital for as long as they want. When they return to their community, they will receive ongoing medical and psychosocial care coordinated by the hospital and their health maintenance organization.
For many of the returnees, the recovery will involve assimilating the fact that members of their families and communities have either been murdered or are still held hostage in Gaza.
The journey back to some sense of normalcy will be different for each individual, but Mozer-Glassberg said she was particularly concerned about the adolescents, whose agency was traumatically stolen from them at the developmental stage when personal identity formation is key.
Mozer-Glassberg said that she has been crying for the last 10 days as she treats the freed hostages. With some still hospitalized, she will continue to shed tears over what she sees and hears.
“We teach our kids that monsters aren’t real, but they are,” she said.