'They were exhausted, depleted. Strong in spirit, weak in body'

‘Some of them didn’t see daylight’: Top doctor says freed hostages ‘went through hell’

Sheba Medical Center’s Prof. Itai Pessach speaks of moment hostages realize who is not in the room to welcome them, says many didn’t realize the scale of the Oct. 7 onslaught

Moran Stela Yanai, 40, embraces family members at Sheba Medical Center after being released on November 29, 2023 from Gaza, where she was held by Hamas terrorists for 54 days (courtesy)
Moran Stela Yanai, 40, embraces family members at Sheba Medical Center after being released on November 29, 2023 from Gaza, where she was held by Hamas terrorists for 54 days (courtesy)

A top Israeli doctor treating hostages freed from the Gaza Strip over the past week spoke with Channel 12 on Friday about his team’s experience treating the abductees, who he said “went through hell.”

Pessach said that his department at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan has been taking care of 29 of the 105 civilians released from Gaza in a Qatar-led temporary truce with the terror group. The 29 freed hostages range in age from three to 84, including 12 children.

“This has been the most harrowing week of my life, certainly my professional life,” said Prof. Itai Pessach, Director of Safra Children’s Hospital at Sheba Medical Center.

The professor said that the hostages arrived at the hospital in varying physical conditions.

“They were exhausted and depleted. Strong in spirit, but weak in body. Some had injuries from their abduction that they suffered with through their captivity,” he said.

Pessach said that psychological and emotional treatment was top priority. The Health Ministry and Welfare Ministry began preparing medical and mental health protocols for treating the released hostages as early as October 7.

Prof. Itai Pessach, Director of Safra Children’s Hospital at Sheba Medical Center (Screenshot: Channel 12, used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

“The medical care, though it’s important, is somewhat pushed aside at first. When the hostage returns — and we prepared for this for weeks and developed a treatment protocol — we do a quick check that there’s no urgent treatment needed and then we focus on emotional and psychological care,” he said, adding that the specially curated team is also careful not to overwhelm or trigger patients as they recover.

The hostages and their families were received in separate, specially designated areas of the hospitals for privacy. All medical evaluations were also carried out in this area, away from other patients and staff.

While he couldn’t go into specific details, so as to protect patient confidentiality, Pessach said he heard numerous harrowing stories.

“Most of them don’t stop talking, they want to share… At first it’s trivial things, what we ate, what we drank, and slowly details start to come out in stories as they talk to their families,” he said.

Mia Schem alongside her family at Sheba Medical Center after being released from captivity, December 1, 2023. (Courtesy)

Many of the hostages kidnapped from the Israeli communities on the Gaza border that were attacked on October 7 only found out that loved ones had been murdered or kidnapped once they returned to Israel.

Clearly emotional, Pessach spoke of the moment the released hostages look around the room and realize who’s not there.

“That’s something we’ve prepared for as well,” he said.

Similarly, he said that some hostages were unaware of the scale of the October 7 attacks, in which some 3,000 terrorists stormed across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,200 people and seizing over 240 hostages of all ages.

“Some of them didn’t even know that there was something happening in Israel. They just knew something was happening to them,” he said.

The most emotional moments are when children reunited with their mothers, he said, specifically mentioning Hila Rotem, 13, who was released two days prior to her mother Raaya, 54, and Yarden Roman-Gat, 35, who was separated from her husband and their three-year-old daughter when she was abducted by Hamas terrorists from Kibbutz Be’eri.

Emily Hand (second from right) reunites with her father, Tom Hand (right) while Hila Rotem (second from left), whose mother is still held hostage, reunites with family members in the early hours of November 26, 2023. (Courtesy; clause 27a of the copyright law)

Pessach and the predominantly female hospital staff attending to the hostages have been working around the clock since last Friday when the first group of hostages was released. He said that in fact a woman should have been interviewed instead of him, given that most of those involved in treating the hostages were women.

“It’s important, meaningful work, and we’re coming out of it stronger. We get inspiration from the freed hostages,” he said, adding a note of admiration for the elderly women who “insisted on walking, so their relatives would see them standing on their own two feet.”

“I heard hostages saying things like ‘I didn’t cry for 50 days, don’t you cry now. Because we are strong,'” Pessach shared. “How can I break down when these are the people I have the honor of treating?”

Pessach said the released hostages he has treated were kept in varying conditions: “Some that were given food, and others didn’t see the light of day. Some had space to move around, others didn’t.”

Israeli soldiers wait for the arrival of released hostages at the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, November 25, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“All of them went through psychological abuse that’s difficult to describe,” he said, adding, “I think the whole country has gone through a trauma. I think we’re all victims of psychological terror.”

Israel believes that at least 130 hostages are still being held in Gaza, over 100 of them men, civilian and military, in addition to roughly 17 women and two children, including the youngest hostage — Kfir Bibas — who is 10-months-old.

Hamas issued an unverified claim this week that the mother and children were killed in an Israeli bombardment and offered to return three corpses to Israel this week in the sixth round of hostage releases, but it was unclear whose remains it was referring to.

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