When Dr. Yael Mozer-Glassberg, a senior physician at Schneider Children’s Medical Center of Israel, was initially asked to join the team of people who would be responsible for the intake of child hostages returning to Israel, her internal reaction was immediate.
“Oh my God, no,” she recalled saying to herself. “But how could I say no? It’s a national mission.”
She was selected to join a group in Petah Tikva, near Tel Aviv, comprising the first medical professionals to care for a group of children and their mothers returning to Israel. During the cease-fire, which lasted from Nov. 24 to Dec. 1, the hospital admitted 19 children and 6 women who were kidnapped on Oct. 7 in Israel by Hamas and other militant groups.
To the initial surprise of many, the children were quick to speak freely about their experiences. Social workers and psychologists listened intently, as the children told stories with voices that barely reached whispers.
One child said he kept track of time by tearing off pieces of his fingernails and saving the clippings to count the days. Dr. Efrat Bron-Harlev, the director of Schneider Children’s Medical Center of Israel, said another child asked a flurry of questions: “Are we allowed to look out the window? Are we allowed to open the door? Can we walk outside the room?” Another child said she was confused to see people waiting for her because she was told that no one was looking for her, that no one cared for her, and that there would be no Israel left for her.
At times, a social worker or psychologist would step out of the room to cry.
“They spoke about death as if they’re going down to the grocery and speaking about which ice cream they will buy,” Dr. Mozer-Glassberg said.
The war has hit women and children especially hard in Gaza as well. They make up many of the 15,000 people reported killed in Gaza since the war began on Oct. 7, according to U.N. and health officials in Gaza.
Dr. Bron-Harlev had long planned on how her hospital would welcome the children who were held hostage. Just over a week after Oct. 7, she emailed the Ministry of Health: “Let’s think about optimistic days when the children will come back from captivity.”
She began building a team that resembled an entire new ward. She did not know if any hostages had undergone sexual trauma, she said, so she created a team mostly made up of women. She did not know if anyone would return with acute physical trauma, so she placed a team on call that included the head of the intensive care unit, the head of anesthesiology, the head of the surgical team and the head of orthopedics.
Dr. Bron-Harlev then built a small inner circle that included senior doctors and nurses, social workers and psychologists, hospital support staff and kitchen staff. Food could be a big issue, she thought. What would they be able to stomach, and what would they want?
When the children arrived, some with their mothers, they were greeted slowly. They first reunited with their families and were given time together. The medical teams approached each child and mother delicately.
“We took it slowly, one step in, two steps out, to see what their needs were,” Efrat Harel, the medical center’s director of social services, said. Each patient was assigned a doctor, a nurse, a social worker and a psychologist.
They found patients who had lost 10 to 15 percent of their body weight, who had heads full of lice and torsos full of bites, and who had hygiene unlike anything the hospital had ever seen. Many bathed only once during captivity, right before they were set to be released, with a bucket of cold water and a rag.
One patient was especially comfortable with Dr. Mozer-Glassberg, so she spent four days slowly brushing the girl’s hair with a lice comb and quietly crying. Dr. Mozer-Glassberg recalled her asking if she should shave her head because the infestation was so severe. “They will disappear in the end,” Dr. Mozer-Glassberg assured her of the lice. “They will go.”
She had initially feared that the children would have refeeding syndrome, a dangerous condition in which someone who is undernourished begins eating normally again before the body is able to digest larger portions.
However, when given food, many children took a few small bites, only to put the food to the side. When asked why, Dr. Mozer-Glassberg said they had responded, “So the food will last for the rest of the day.”
Despite reassurances that more food was available, many children struggled to eat.
Then, one child, at 1 a.m. on his second night at the hospital, asked for schnitzel and mashed potatoes — a joyful development — and the kitchen staff enthusiastically prepared the food and found a nice plate, silverware and a glass for serving.
Children began speaking in voices louder than whispers and playing with relatives outside of their rooms.
But questions and worries still haunt their parents and caregivers.
One mother told the story of how she and her child were taken to Gaza on the back of a tractor with a soldier who had been gravely injured. Her daughter was covered in his blood by the time they reached Gaza, and the child asked the mother, “What happened to the man who was pouring red?” Dr. Bron-Harlev said, translating.
The child still asks about the man. The mother doesn’t know what became of him.
On Monday, after sirens went off in Petah Tikva, sending the girl and her mother to a hospital safe room, the girl asked her mother if they were going back to the tunnels. When she assured her daughter they were not, the girl then asked if they were moving locations, as they did in Gaza.
The hospital’s work is heartbreaking, and staff members have leaned on each other for support, Dani Lotan, the director of psychological services at Schneider Children’s, said. Many spoke of having to slow down, to realize they could not rehabilitate the children and mothers in a day or two or “compensate them for everything they lost,” Mr. Lotan said.
Like much of Israel, Dr. Mozer-Glassberg is hoping she can treat two more children, Kfir Bibas, who was 9 months old when kidnapped with his 4-year-old brother, Ariel Bibas. Hamas claimed that both children and their mother, Shiri, were killed by Israeli airstrikes, but Israeli officials have not confirmed the report. The Bibas family has said they hope claims will be “refuted by military officials.”
As Dr. Mozer-Glassberg spoke, a blaring siren began ringing outside, and her phone announced “tzevah adom” in Hebrew — red alert.
“Ach,” she said, grabbing her things and walking with the rest of the staff to a nearby stairwell, as Israel’s Iron Dome defense system could be heard intercepting missiles overheard.
Her work and the war were far from over.