The miraculous tale of the West Bank’s first university hospital and its ‘very Israeli’ CEO

Meet the man who performed Palestine’s first-ever artificial heart transplant

This is the quietest hospital I’ve ever been in, probably also the cleanest and shiniest. Visiting hours ended at midday, and silence now prevails in the corridors. Posters about obligatory washing of hands appear on every wall, with almost obsessive regularity. There is only one patient in the cardiac intensive care unit, who, as a child, had gone to school with Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah, who is now calling to ask how the man is doing, after hearing reports that he may have died. It was also Hamdallah, as chairman of the hospital’s board of directors, who recruited the institution’s CEO, Saleem Haj-Yahia.

Prof. Haj-Yahia’s story, and that of An-Najah National University Hospital, the first university hospital in the territories, is a marvelous, almost miraculous tale, and it’s occurring in Nablus, on the summit of Mount Ebal. When the hospital was dedicated, three-and-a-half years ago, it had 217 beds and a staff of about 100 physicians. Now the bulldozers are at work on stage 4, a 15-story tower that will cost some $100 million. When it opens, hopefully within five years, the facility will have 800 beds.

Currently the An-Najah hospital boasts state-of-the-art medical equipment, from MRI scanners to artificial hearts. The only essential equipment missing is a PET/CT scanner, used in cancer diagnosis and treatment. The funds for its purchase have been raised, but Israel is barring its import.

“The Israelis think that we are so talented that we will use it to build an atomic bomb,” Haj-Yahia quips with an ironic smile.

The story of the hospital, like that of its CEO, shatters stereotypes and preconceived notions, particularly those harbored by Israelis – ultra-sophisticated medical technology in Nablus, and a world-renowned heart surgeon from the town of Taibeh, in central Israel.

Haj-Yahia, a man of about 50, studied law for two years at Tel Aviv University before switching to medical school at the Technion – Institute of Technology in Haifa. His father holds a Ph.D. in criminology; his brother, Samar, is on the board of directors of Bank Leumi. At Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, near Tel Aviv, where Haj-Yahia did his residency in cardiac and thoracic surgery, the institution’s director at the time, Prof. Zeev Rotstein, called him the “Arab prince,” Haj-Yahia relates. He was on the Sheba staff as a senior physician for about a year, until one of the world’s leading heart and heart-transplant surgeons, Egyptian-born Sir Magdi Habib Yacoub, invited him to work with him at London’s Imperial College.

That was the springboard into the international career of the young physician from Taibeh, in the course of which he’s performed heart operations and transplants – using both human and artificial organs – from Riyadh to Johannesburg (where one of his patients was a rabbi).

“I’ve done transplants like you eat hummus,” Haj-Yahia says.

These days he also lectures at the University of Bristol, in addition to his work in the West Bank. His wife, Lana Haj Yahia, an Israeli-Arab stage actress, lives with the couple’s three children in Glasgow, where Saleem established Scotland’s national program for artificial heart transplants. Every 10 days he flies to Scotland to be with his family – he has both Israeli and British citizenship – and returns to Nablus three or four days later. Back at the hospital, where he continues to perform surgery, he usually spends his nights sleeping on a field cot, he says. This week his children, whose English is better than their Arabic, finished up their regular summer visit with their grandparents in Taibeh.

With his elegant demeanor, blue eyes and finely groomed hair, Haj-Yahia looks more like a pilot or a movie star than like a hospital director. He says the inspiration for thinking innovatively and his penchant for technology derive from his life in Israel.

“I am very Israeli,” he acknowledges, “but without the Israeli cheek and lack of manners. It’s sad for me to see how you’ve lost the capacity to see the other side. Peace is possible only if you recognize the existence of another people, who are not inferior to you in any way.”

The marble flooring glistens in the corridors, thanks to the large windows, through which light pours. Nablus sprawls below, a spectacular view. The hospital’s PR man, Samar Rashid, is a young violinist by training from East Jerusalem.

Some of the young patients in the pediatric hemato-oncology department, whose walls are decorated with colorful paintings, are waiting for a bone-marrow transplant; others are recovering from the procedure. The 45 beds in the dialysis unit serve some 260 patients from across the West Bank at present. Photos of Haifa, Acre, Jaffa and Jerusalem in the corridors are probably the only national element visible here.

The funds for the hospital’s construction came from donations, primarily from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, though also from individual donors. The government of Japan donated the MRI scanner. A neighbor from Mount Gerizim, the hill opposite, Palestinian businessman Munib al-Masri, contributed $1 million. As for the Palestinian Authority, it actually owes the hospital money. Its debt for unpaid operating costs it is committed to covering currently stands at 90 million shekels ($25 million).

“Of course there was something ‘national’ about returning here,” he says. “I wanted to prove that yes, we can. My motto is: Don’t look for excuses. Not the occupation and not the difficult economic situation.”

The hospital is situated on a tract of land on Mount Ebal, not far from an Israel Defense Forces facility. In 2006, fearing that Israel would expropriate the land, the not-for-profit association that owns it decided to donate it to An-Najah University for the establishment of a teaching hospital.

An-Najah University has a huge medical and health sciences school, with some 4,000 students – the largest in the Middle East. For some years Haj-Yahia was dean of its faculty. Now the medical students there have a teaching hospital, too, where they can gain clinical experience.

The video clip we see shows the warm response the students gave Haj-Yahia after he performed the first artificial heart transplant in Palestine, in January 2016. Hundreds of them greeted him with balloons and cries of joy from every floor in the building, in a highly emotional display. Palestinian students are clearly delighted with “made-in-Palestine” heart transplants.

“Don’t let anyone tell you that there are better nations than you,” the professor says, thanking the students.

For Haj-Yahia, the hospital’s establishment is part of a nation-building process. Until he arrived, Nablus residents usually received treatment at Rafadiya Hospital, a local government institution, but sought referrals in more complicated cases to Israeli hospitals. Haj-Yahia aims to end that practice: to arrive at a situation in which patients will no longer need to rely on referrals to Israelis specialists for their care.There are economic reasons for this: An-Najah hospital can provide treatment for far less than what the Israeli health system currently charges the PA. And of course, there are national reasons: To prove that, yes, they can.

Haj-Yahia: “I’ve performed surgery in royal houses throughout the world, and I came here to discover that all people wanted from me was a referral to Tel Hashomer or Hadassah [Hospital, in Jerusalem]. It’s been going on for 50 years. I don’t want to say that we’ve established the ‘Palestinian Hadassah.’ My ambition goes even beyond Hadassah.”

National pride is one of the values the professor wishes to instill in his students, and he believes the An-Najah facility gives the Palestinians ample reason for that. The video stresses modesty, humanity and an anti-materialist approach. In a society where medical treatment is mostly privately based, the hospital’s staff are prohibited from engaging in any work outside their teaching at the university.

This year 80 Israeli Arabs are studying medicine at An-Najah; all told, since the medical faculty opened in 1999, there have been about 400. In total, Israeli-Arabs constitute about 3,000 out of An-Najah University’s 20,000 students. For many of them it has taken the place of Jordanian universities and colleges. Through his contact with thousands of students, Haj-Yahia believes he will be able to help shape a generation of young Palestinians. At a time when people want only to leave the territories, he believes that his return to Palestine – and not least as an Israeli Arab – is an example for others. He tells his students that they need to go abroad to study, but have good reason to return here, that change can be fomented here. He also teaches them that the physician is not God and is not the person at the center of everything: The patient is at the center. He has also drawn up a special program to create a network in the territories of family doctors, which he sees as an insufficiently developed field.

“In this society people go to the doctor who’s considered ‘the best’ – it doesn’t matter if he’s a neurologist and they have a leg problem,” he observes.

About a quarter of the patients at An-Najah hospital are from the besieged Gaza Strip. Haj-Yahia hopes to build a small motel on the premises to accommodate families of patients from there and other faraway areas. He also dreams of developing medical tourism from the Arab states and of other new initiatives that will improve the economic situation of the hospital, such as a plastic surgery department and fertility treatments. Laser eye surgery costs one-quarter here of what it does at the upscale, private Herzliya Medical Center, he says. His hospital maintains a network of ties with large medical centers abroad, in addition to Israeli facilities. And there’s even one operation performed at the An-Najah hospital that hasn’t been done at Hadassah: the transplant of two artificial hearts into one patient. Haj-Yahia’s eyes light up when he talks about it. It’s all to show that, yes, we can.