Rula Bandak, a Palestinian nurse standing in an examination room

Rula, Miracle Worker

A nurse nurtures preterm Palestinian babies in Bethlehem

Life and death

Every day that she goes to work, matters of life and death rest in the capable hands of Palestinian nurse Rula Bandak.

Rula operates a respirator for a baby born prematurely
Rula walks outside of a hospital in the West Bank
Rula washes her hands before she attends to her patients
Rula takes care of the medical needs of a baby born prematurely in Palestine

Holding onto hope

The 30-year-old nurse works at a hospital in the West Bank that is known as a lifeline for Palestinian women experiencing high-risk pregnancies.

“We have extremely premature babies, around 500 grams (1.1 pounds), whose parents have lost all hope that they would come out of the intensive care alive,” Rula says.

At Holy Family Hospital in Bethlehem, the 18 incubators in the neonatal intensive care unit pulsate with fresh life. Some of these babies were born before term, and others are critical cases who cannot yet breathe or survive on their own.

“Working in this division allows me to help babies whose lives would have ended without any medical involvement,” Rula says.

An ultrasound of a baby
Medical equipment provided to the hospital by USAID
A picture of the West Bank

The hospital receives cases from all around the West Bank, including mothers who had been told by other hospitals that their babies would not survive being born so early. Some travel from faraway places like Ramallah or Jericho, enduring hours-long journeys to reach the hospital.

It’s a high-pressure environment.

“We have a lot of alarms here for monitoring the babies, so I feel like I’m constantly hearing the alarms ringing in my ears,” Rula says.

But Rula is driven by a higher purpose. “I wanted to become a nurse because I love helping people,” she says. “I feel like I can put myself in their shoes when they are in tough situations.”

Rula gathers equipment in order to treat one of her patients
A baby in an incubator

Seeing a premature infant for the first time can be traumatizing. Some mothers are even afraid to touch their babies.

“We walk with her step by step, so that she can understand and be able to cope with it,” Rula says.

Rula assists doctors in ensuring that a baby receives the proper medical treatment

Rula has worked at Holy Family Hospital since 2009. USAID gave her a scholarship that allowed her to study for two years at Bethlehem University to earn her formal accreditation as a neonatal nurse specialist. “The training made me capable of training others, including the new nurses,” Rula says.

Now, Rula manages the NICU.

“If Rula is around, she will take control and everything will be just fine,” says Dr. Michline Qassis, the head doctor of the NICU. “She has a great way of teaching and advising her colleagues. I rarely find people like Rula.”

A nurse adjusts the settings on an incubator
Rula (right) goes over a patient’s medical information with a doctor (left)
Doctors provide care to a baby in an incubator
A cabinet full of medical supplies
A baby sleeping in an incubator
Medical equipment provided to the hospital by USAID
A doctor uses a stethoscope to measure a baby’s heart rate
A heart rate monitor
A baby attached to monitoring equipment resting in an incubator

Rula lives not far from the hospital with her husband, who owns a restaurant, and their three daughters. She gave birth to their 4-year-old twins, Lourd and Lamar, at Holy Family Hospital. Her oldest, Bernadette, is 9.

“I feel very proud of her,” says her husband, Johnny Bandak, 40. “My wife is very smart.”

Johnny hopes his daughters will one day grow up to be as successful as their mother.

Rula’s daughter, Lourd (left), her husband, Johnny Bandak (middle), and her daughter, Lamar (right)
Rula’s oldest daughter, Bernadette

For Rula, her work makes her realize how precious life is.

“Observing life and death at my work in the neonatal department makes me try to spend as much time as possible with my daughters and family,” Rula says.

Rula and her daughters eat breakfast enjoy tea and crackers in their dining room
Rula reads her daughters a story in their living room
A doctor plays with one of the babies in her care

Part of our family

“We become really connected with them and consider them as part of our family,” Rula said, of the babies that stay for 100 days. “We even celebrated some of the babies’ birthdays in the unit, and brought them presents, and they constantly come and visit us.”

A baby snuggles with a blanket the doctors provided him for his birthday

An achievement

Rula remembers one case where she helped nurture a baby born at just over 1 pound grow to a healthy weight.

“When a baby leaves our intensive care unit, after his parents had lost hope for his survival, makes me feel very happy, because I consider it a personal achievement, as well as an achievement for my team,” Rula says.

Rula standing outside of the hospital she works at in the West Bank
An exterior view of the West Bank from Holy Hope Family Hospital

About this story

Holy Family Hospital provides maternal and child health services in Bethlehem, specializing in neonatal care and high-risk deliveries. The hospital largely relies on donations, and patients pay what they can afford.

The hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) opened in 1998, the first in the southern West Bank. The quality of care is similar to that of the United States, with a mortality rate of less than 2 percent.

USAID has supported the hospital since 2005 with a $6 million project, expanding access to neonatal and gynecology services; training doctors, nurses and midwives; and procuring critical medical equipment.

In 2007, with support from USAID and the Belgian Government, a new floor was added for a labor and delivery ward and a larger NICU.

The hospital has grown to include outreach clinics to serve low-income families in remote areas.

Holy Family Hospital is one of at least 274 public and private health care facilities that USAID supports throughout the West Bank.

Photos by Bobby Neptune for USAID / Narrative by Nic Corbett, USAID