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“Their pain is my pain”: Sarnia-born nurse Nick Docktare on what it’s like saving lives in a Gaza field hospital

“I’ve been so fortunate to live in a safe country my whole life — how can I call myself a human being if I have the chance to go, and don’t go?"
Sarnia-born Nick Docktare is pictured with a young girl in a field hospital in Rafah, where he volunteered as a medical aid worker back in March.

It’s the middle of the night, and Nick Docktare is sleeping on the floor in the kitchen of a field hospital — one of the last remaining in Rafah. 

He’s still in his scrubs, following an eight-hour shift during which he witnessed some of the worst carnage of his month-long stint in the southern Palestinian city, where Israel’s attacks on Gaza have left tens of thousands dead and injured, according to the United Nations.

Along with a few other aid workers, Docktare isn’t getting much rest; he hears an air missile strike in the distance; then another, maybe 100 metres away. 

"And then we know we’ve got 20 minutes before all the casualties come in,” Docktare says. “We run back in…get all the blood ready, get the supplies and the machines ready; then we just wait for the patients to start coming in.”

Docktare, 36, spoke to The Journal this week about his time in Gaza back in March, volunteering with a medical team in a field hospital for a 30-day rotation.

The registered nurse, currently living and working in the United Arab Emirates, was born and raised in Sarnia, where he attended SCITS high school, taught at Lambton College and worked at Bluewater Health before moving to the Gulf region six years ago.

“When the war broke out in Gaza, they asked for volunteers at a field hospital in Rafah, right where the fighting is most intense,” Docktare explains. “So I applied, and they took me.”

Docktare, who has been following Palestine and its history, says he didn’t think twice about entering a war zone in the midst of what many are calling the deadliest conflict of the 21st century.

“I’ve been so fortunate to live in a safe country my whole life — how can I call myself a human being if I have the chance to go, and don’t go?

“I had an idea of what I was getting into,” he adds, “but seeing it firsthand, what you see in the media versus reality — it’s absolutely unbelievable.”

The suffering was unparalleled.

According to the Ministry of Health in Gaza, some 35,500 Palestinians have been killed in the strip since October 7, when a Hamas-led terror attack in southern Israel killed 1,200 people, and another 250 were taken to Gaza as hostages. 

Eight months of ‘daily bombardment by the Israeli military’ followed, according to the United Nations, forcibly displacing more than a million people into Rafah.

“What’s happening there is an absolute genocide,” Docktare says. “And the international community — especially Canada — has been very laissez-faire about it.”

When he arrived in Palestine, Docktare was thrown into the hospital’s trauma bay — despite not having a lot of experience in emergency care (he’s currently an oncology nurse) and was performing many procedures for the first time.

“I was inserting chest drains into peoples’ lungs, getting bullets out of wounds…people were coming in with white phosphorus burns — an illegal weapon in warfare,” he says, adding that most of the victims were women and children.

“Limbs missing, decapitated, malnourished children — akin to what you’d see in the death camps in World War II,” Docktare describes. “People would come in carrying a bag and say, ‘this is what’s remaining of my mother or father’…it was horrific.

“The suffering was unparalleled.”

Docktare, pictured with a young patient, says many of the casualties in Gaza are women and children. Submitted photo

Though he put on a brave face — bringing smiles to kids who underwent amputations and lost entire families — each night spent there, Docktare wondered if it would be his last.

“It was incessant; it was non stop,” he says of the daily attacks. “They were dropping these 2,000-lb bunker buster bombs all over Rafah, on civilian homes — and these people are defenceless.”

With no power in Gaza, the darkness was haunting.

“We would see a missile at night, and the sky would turn red, so we would try and gage where it was coming. Some nights they would strike 50-metres away and we’d have to run and take cover because the shrapnel would be raining over the hospital.

“There were moments where I thought, ‘Oh God, this could be it.”

Docktare says he was the only Westerner in his rotation; and many of his patients were surprised to see a Canadian flag on his vest.

“We are seen as this nation of peacekeepers who open their doors to strangers, so I just tried to exemplify that,” he says. “Because, unfortunately the people of Palestine and Gaza think we’ve turned their backs on them.

“Patients would ask me, ‘what are you doing here?’ He adds. “And I’m like, ‘how can I not be?’”

He also brought two suitcases with supplies, toys and clothing for the Palestinian children, whose resilience left him in awe.

“These kids would come out of surgery, with both legs amputated, and they would say, ‘my legs are now with God, I’m going be OK. You’ve come here to help us,” Docktare says, choking back tears. “Their houses were destroyed, they have nothing, and there would be a family sharing one piece of bread, offering me to come eat with them.

Sarnia's Nick Docktare tried his best to keep children in good spirits in war-torn Rafah during a medical mission there recently. Submitted photo

“It was the most heartwarming and the most heartbreaking thing at the same time.”

After leaving Rafah and returning home, Docktare began planning his next rotation. But worsening conditions in May — including strikes on designated humanitarian zones that have left nearly one million people displaced, again — have put those plans on hold. 

Nearly all hospitals in Rafah have been forcibly evacuated, and are either out of service or barely functioning, leaving no possibility for the provision of or access to medical care, according to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) .

“Civilians are being massacred,” said MSF Secretary General Chris Lockyear in a May 28 news release. “They are being pushed into areas they were told would be safe only to be subjected to relentless airstrikes and heavy fighting.”

Officials say Israel’s closure of the Rafah border crossing, blocking the delivery of urgent humanitarian aid, has left medical workers stranded and unable to do their jobs.

“Right after I left, the Israelis started bombing the Rafah crossing, so at the moment, no one is allowed into Gaza,” Docktare explains. “So the team that saw me out is stuck there… as soon as they open the border up, I will be flying back to help.”

While calls for a ceasefire have intensified across the globe, Docktare says many just aren’t paying attention, especially in his hometown.

Earlier this year, Sarnia-Lambton MP Marilyn Gladu said that while she hopes for a peaceful resolution, she supports Israel’s “right to defend itself.”

“Sarnia is a small community and I feel like a lot of people are isolated in this bubble,” Docktare says. “Some of my best friends are like, it’s not your conflict, not your people, why would you go?

“That’s a very small-town mentality,” he adds. “Imagine this was happening in Corunna or Sombra, and this was your family — what would you do?

“It doesn’t matter about religion or race or anything. We’re all human beings,” he says.

“Their pain is my pain.”

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