“1,500 steps” from the believed birthplace of Christ stands the Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem Foundation. Michele Burke Bowe, is the president of the D.C.-based foundation and talks about its work and possibilities for the region and the world over. —Kathryn Jean Lopez
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why is the Holy Family hospital so important doing what it does, being where it is?
Bowe: Holy Family Hospital is the only Catholic Hospital in the area. It is a training hospital teaching obstetrics/gynecology residents and pediatric residents. It embraces its pro-life mission by being the only facility in the region able to deliver and care for very premature babies born before 32 weeks’ gestation. It is located 1,500 steps from the manger where the Christ Child was born. There is always room and the door is always open serving all without regard to creed or need.
Lopez: Is there a powerfully intimate connection between Jesus in Bethlehem and the neonatal haven at the hospital?
Bowe: Yes. The babies are all received as the Christ Child and the parents are treated like the parents of Jesus. Life is sacred in the Holy Land. Abortion is not legal in Palestine. While Jesus was born in a crude stable, the babies of our hospital are cared for by highly trained Palestinian doctors and nurses in a state of the art facility which regularly saves the lives of babies as small as one pound. An icon of the Holy Family keeps watch over the NICU. It was a gift from a grateful Muslim mother who said she needed to know that the Holy Family would help the doctors care for the fragile babies in the NICU. A 16 foot high statue of the Blessed Mother keeps watch over the hospital from the top of the chapel.
Lopez: Why should Americans feel any kind of connection to Holy Family Hospital?
Bowe: The hospital is primarily funded by U.S. donors. St. John Paul II asked the late James Cardinal Hickey from the Order of Malta to open a foundation and support the hospital. Twenty-one years later, our foundation is the single largest supporter. I believe this is because as Americans we champion the underdog and the most vulnerable. Mothers and preterm babies are among the most vulnerable.
I also believe that as Catholic Americans, we grew up with a crèche at the foot of the tree and we could identify with the different roles at different times in our lives. As children, we all loved the baby Jesus and the beasts. As adults we can easily identify with St. Joseph the protector, the Blessed Mother,-Mother of us all, the watchful shepherds or the wise Magi. It’s a very imaginable scenario because we grew up living with the crèche for a month each year.
Lopez: Why should we think of Holy Family Hospital at this time?
Bowe: It is an oasis of peace and a beacon of hope in the City of King David, the Holy Family and the Magi. It’s delivering life, peace and hope all year long. Remember, it’s always Christmas in Bethlehem because Christmas Mass is celebrated daily in the grotto of the Nativity.
Lopez: There has been some controversy involving the Order of Malta. Has that had a harmful effect on Holy Family’s mission and work?
Bowe: The issues involved the government and governance of the Order. Our humanitarian work which we carry out in 120 countries went on without interruption. As members of the Order we pledge to serve the sick and the poor before ourselves. And we are true to our Charism.
Lopez: Has any one person or case made you convinced that this is something God wills?
Bowe: I see so many families come in so anxious. They are worried about their wives, moms and babies. Will the very premature babies live? Will the mothers be ok? They are also worried about medical bills. In no time at all they are put at ease by our social workers and competent doctors and nurses. At least 50 percent of the cost of every service is covered by our Foundation and our social workers help the families with a sliding scale for fees which can even cover the entire cost. One mother who really made a great impression on me was named Amal which means hope in Arabic. She was placed in an orphanage at birth and was raised by the daughters of Charity. In that culture not having a family means not having status. Amal was able to surmount this obstacle, fall in love and marry. She had a beautiful baby girl and a year later delivered a 24-week baby as a stillbirth. Amal was crushed. A year later she was pregnant and in labor again at 24 weeks. At her local doctor, she was told her baby was not viable and would not survive. She looked at her husband and told him that the baby was kicking hard and was very alive.
It was as if the baby was saying, c’mon let’s go to Holy Family Hospital. And they did. Baby Thea was delivered immediately by emergency c-section. She was intubated and placed in a highly specialized incubator, fighting to survive. They named her Thea which Amal told me means Of God. She named her Thea because it was the most powerful name she could think of. Amal visited every single day waiting to be able to touch and then hold baby Thea.
After six months and a short transfer to Jerusalem for a surgical procedure, Baby Thea went home. Healthy and developing normally. She was a true miracle for a family that kept the hope.
Lopez: What has your work with the hospital taught you about people — people in the region especially?
Bowe: Palestinians are very family oriented. Life completely revolves around relatives. Life is difficult in Bethlehem because of the occupation and unrest. The Bethlehemites keep the hope and make the most of it. While the separation wall keeps everyone close to home, the children still go camping, take swim lessons and play soccer. The parents do a wonderful job of keeping the normalcy of daily life. Palestinians are known for their hospitality and they are so warm and kind. Each time I’m there I have many invitations for visits and meals. Families invite me to baptisms and weddings. They appreciate that the Foundation accompanies them on their journey in life as well as providing health care.
Lopez: What do the families who come through the door need most?
Bowe: They need a safe place to come to deliver their babies. Older women need our well women clinic to screen for cancer and to address care needs for women beyond the childbearing years. And the sick and premature babies need our NICU for the best chance of survival.
But there is one group who doesn’t come through our doors. We go to them! Every day our mobile medical clinic goes out to the desert to bring services to the families who cannot access the hospital readily. These are Bedouin and villagers without running water, heat or electricity. The love the Mobile Clinic visits as they receive excellent care, learn about child development and healthy pregnancies and they take the opportunity to sit in our “waiting area” and visit with friends and relatives. It’s a special gathering of only women. When they are ready to deliver they do find a way to come to the hospital to safely deliver their babies.
Lopez: Has your work with the hospital given you a new knowledge or appreciation of the Holy Family?
Bowe: Two thousand years later the families of Bethlehem face some of the same issues of the Holy Family- Occupation, some amount of unrest and difficulty in moving from place to place. The Bethlehem families of today are said to be the descendants of the shepherds who heard the Gloria and paid homage to the Christ Child. They lived the Gospel of St. Luke. Today when I see a newborn and his parents, I often think of the Holy Family who were filled with joy, but also apprehensive about the future for their child. I see so many new fathers who are kind, gentle and humble like St. Joseph. I’ve come to have a special devotion to Saint Joseph after seeing so many fathers modeling his behavior.
I think spending time in Bethlehem and attending Christmas mass in the Grotto regularly has made me much closer to the Holy Family as real people who lived and walked the streets of Bethlehem. This past year, I decided to keep my Crèche on display all year round in solidarity with the holy Family.
Lopez: What can your experience there and the people of Holy Family Hospital teach us about peace in the Middle East?
Bowe: Holy Family Hospital embodies bringing peace through medicine. As Pope Benedict said, those who have hope live differently. We provide hope through the jobs we have created and through saving the lives of the tiniest citizens of Bethlehem and their mothers. Hopeful people consider the future and invest in their lives and this creates peace.
I believe that the individual who will bring peace to the region will have been born at our Hospital. The modern-day manger 1.500 steps from the birthplace of the Christ Child.