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In Asylum, Another Kind of Casualty

A hospital in Lebanon's south has been deserted by most of its staff, and patients are cut off from family. Medications and food are running out.

August 05, 2006|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

ZEFTA, Lebanon — The war closed in. The doctors fled the asylum. The patients took over.

At the Fanar Hospital for Psychiatric Disorders, 250 patients are languishing through this hallucinatory summer of war. The phone lines have been bombed to silence. Family members can't get here. Food is running out. Only a few nurses remain.

And the drugs that hold the patients' shattered psyches together will be gone by the time this newspaper is in print.

At night, Israeli jets scream through the stars and missiles thunder down onto nearby hilltops of this village northwest of Nabatiyeh. That's when the patients howl and scream. They crouch under their cots, race wildly through the hallways. They cram themselves into corners.

"It's very heavy and the pressure, you know? We can feel the pressure," says Mounir Jamal Eddin, a 60-year-old patient in dark, baggy clothes nervously hanging around the front gate. "The whole place starts to shake and we can't do anything."

Beyond the hospital gates, the landscape is scarred and empty. Shutters are rolled down tightly over shops. Only a few men affiliated with the Islamic militant group Hezbollah loiter in the ghostly streets. As afternoon wanes toward evening, explosions begin to rumble anew across the valleys.

Laila Hashem doesn't seem to notice. She sits cross-legged on the linoleum floor in her nightgown and sings a love song in Arabic. A pale, chubby young woman, her eyes probe the room impatiently.

"Make a party for me this evening," she entreats nobody in particular. Then she begins to sing again. "I will fall in love with you," she trills.

A heavyset woman with dark hair and a fleshy face flops stomach-down on her bed and kicks her feet in the air like a schoolgirl. "Elvis Presley, Elvis Presley," she chants. The room is packed with women, curled together on the mattresses. They pick at their hair, stare at the walls and giggle into the empty air. Somebody is moaning. "Let's twist again ... ," one of the women sings.

With a quarter of the population driven from their homes and the death toll inching toward 1,000, Lebanon has sunk into despair. At the Fanar, the desperation is more pointed. They painted an enormous red cross on the roof in hope of protecting themselves from warplanes. But below that crude shield, the patients need medications.

Three exhausted nurses in a panic sift through the dregs of their psychiatric medicine. Straining to make the drugs last a little longer, they carefully sliced each pill in half Friday.

Everybody had been getting a little less than needed. Fights already had begun to erupt among under-medicated patients.

"This is all the medicine we have," 26-year-old nurse Hossam Moustapha says, showing off a tray with a paltry collection of halved pills arranged in paper cups. "Without the medicine, they will be completely lost."

Driven half-mad himself by the relentless bombing and his battle to keep the hospital afloat, Moustapha acknowledges that he has begun to dip into the drug supply -- antidepressants and sleeping pills.

The nurses spoke by phone with the Red Cross, explaining their needs and asking for help. The Red Cross promised to send drugs, they said. But nothing came. Nurses warned that the patients would soon be harming themselves and others.

"It will be a disaster," head nurse Youssef Zarora says. "I cannot begin to describe the situation 48 hours from now."

In a long, beige room with wooden tables for eating and a lone television, men mill in restless circles. Metal bars stripe the large window looking out into the hallway as if the men were in a cage; they press curiously against the window to stare back at unknown visitors. Moods spread through the room, as contagious as a yawn. Sometimes all of the men yell; sometimes they fall silent.

"Why are you here?" a man named Mohammed Ali Hamoud demands anxiously. "Go to your own country."

At Hamoud's side, a man with thick glasses and a crooked baseball cap says he hasn't seen his doctor for a year. That is to say, he explains gravely, since before the fighting with Israel erupted -- three weeks ago. He doesn't seem to have any sense of time. Mostly, he just wishes the people around here would start calling him by the right name. They're always getting it wrong, he gripes.

"Every now and then I change my names and change my personalities," says Faisal Younis Rashid, flashing a mouthful of tobacco-stained teeth. "They keep calling me Faisal. I want to be called Younis. We don't have enough medicine."

Nearby, a patient named Mouaim Berro wraps chubby fingers around the window bars. He has lived 27 of his 44 years in the psychiatric hospital, he says.

"I'm stable because of the medicine, but now I don't have the medicine," he says. "I'm afraid now I may be aggressive." He is quiet for a minute, staring out through hooded eyes while the other men jabber around him.

"I'm tired," he says. "I feel something in my head."

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