Alan Kerr: Frontline surgeon

By Catherine Masters

Seventy-two-year-old Alan Kerr retired from a stellar career in cardiac surgery at Green Lane Hospital, but not to play golf or potter about in the garden.

In 2001 he joined the Palestine Children's Relief Fund, and spends part of every year operating on Palestinian children who have heart defects, saving hundreds of young lives.

Initially, he worked in Gaza where the Palestine Ministry of Health had wanted to set up a paediatric heart unit. But the area was so dangerous the unit had to be moved.

"We did, I think, 42 cases there," he says, "but it was a huge struggle. The staff had very poor basic training and there was constant warfare. At that time the Israelis were destroying houses and killing militants almost every night."

He recalls the night a car carrying the head of Hamas was attacked only 400m from the hospital.

"That's the closest it got, but that was a huge blast. The power went off, I was operating at the time, everybody was screaming in the dark."

So it was decided to shift unit to Makassed Hospital, on the history-drenched Mount of Olives in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem.

The hospital is run by an Islamic charitable trust and is the referral hospital for the people of the West Bank and Gaza.

Kerr returns each year because he loves surgery. But just as important, he says, is the warmth of a people he finds incredibly generous and highly civilised, with a profound knowledge of their history.

His wife Hazel goes with him and helps children in refugee camps.

"It's been a huge interest for me and a big opportunity to get to know another culture and hopefully it's doing something to diffuse the political situation there and make at least some people in the Arab world realise there are people in the West who are interested in what's happening to them, people who do care."

More than 600 children have been operated on at Makassed Hospital and that's helped a lot of families, he says.

He makes no judgment on the political situation, but says it's hard not to feel sympathy for ordinary Palestinians in a desperate and deteriorating situation.

"Even getting a child to the hospital is a huge ordeal. They have to go through multiple check points which are manned by Israeli soldiers and they tend to be often abused and humiliated as they go through, so it really is a sad situation."

Last year, he and Hazel stayed six months but they usually go for six to eight weeks two or three times a year.

They are off again in March but Kerr says at his age he might not be able to keep going for much longer. But that's okay because the heart unit is expanding and soon all the Palestinians will need is a qualified cardiac surgeon of their own.

He has been working with a young Palestinian woman, and hopes to bring her to New Zealand to complete her surgical training.

He has also set up a trust fund to help pay for Palestinians to come here for training, or to help with airfares to send Kiwi health staff there.

* Anyone wanting to donate can write to: The Palestine Children's Relief Fund, c/o Craig Griffin & Lord, barristers and solicitors, 187 Mt Eden Rd, Mt Eden, Auckland.

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