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How an ancient Catholic order is saving the lives of Bethlehem’s most vulnerable babies


Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem Foundation | Facebook | Fair Use

Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 12/25/19

The good news of Bethlehem is not finished: The Order of Malta’s Holy Family Hospital is a refuge for Holy Land families.
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When western Christians think of Bethlehem, we most often think of images from over 2000 years ago—a star over a stable; wise men journeying from the east; and a gentle young mother and protective father hovering over a tiny, precious child.

But many of us would be surprised and encouraged to find that this familiar image of a family welcoming and protecting a vulnerable little one is still very much a reality in modern-day Bethlehem, thanks to a Catholic hospital that is saving the lives of premature babies and tending the health of their mothers—the only hospital in the region with the resources to save these at-risk little ones.

“The good news of Bethlehem is not finished,” said Michele Bowe, president of the Holy Family Hospital Foundation that runs the hospital in Bethlehem. “It’s not just a story of 2,000 years ago, but it lives on—and it lives through this Catholic teaching hospital.”

As the only hospital in the region that can deliver and save babies that weigh less than 2 pounds or are earlier than 30 weeks, Holy Family Hospital is a place of hope and comfort for terrified parents desperate to help their precious little ones. But the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit and maternity ward is only part of their critical work. The hospital also offers the following resources:

  • The only gestational diabetes clinic in the region
  • The only Well Woman Clinic in the region, which supports diabetes screening and treatment as well as care for post-menopausal women including gynecological check-ups, surgeries, and cancer screenings
  • A Mobile Clinic serving those in the most desperate regions of the area, including U.N. refugees
  • A developmental clinic to follow up with premature babies and help them meet developmental milestones as they grow up

“When we have a mother who comes in at 23 weeks pregnant in full labor, we don’t tell her the baby’s not viable,” Bowe said. “We tell her we are going to do our very best. We have very good outcomes.” The hospital staff saves over 435 babies annually, while providing postnatal care for mothers and infants for as long as needed.

The Order that makes possible this life-saving work

The hospital is a program of the Order of Malta, a lay religious order and the world’s oldest Christian charity. The Order has been running hospitals for over 900 years, has activities present in over 120 countries, has diplomatic relations with 109 countries, and holds a seat at the United Nations and European Union.

“We use these positions to care for the sick and the poor, as we’ve done for over 900 years,” Bowe said. Besides serving as president of the Holy Family Hospital Foundation, Bowe is the ambassador from the Order of Malta to Palestine.

Holy Family Hospital is a powerful force for good and desperately needed, as families travel from all over the region for its services, but it could not continue to operate without outside support. Support is especially needed at this time, as the hospital is in the midst of construction on long-overdue new facilities.

“Our current surgery theaters are close to 30 years old. They’re absolutely obsolete,” Bowe said, “So we’re adding a small wing with two new ones, as well as a recovery suite, three overnight rooms for residents or for a mother who lives far away with a baby in the NICU and needs a place to stay. We’re also adding teaching classrooms, a proper workshop with an adjacent office for our biomedical engineer, and new administrative offices.”

The classrooms will be especially important as hospital staff seeks to educate patients and their families about best practices for health and wellness, and continue their own medical education.

“Our staff teaches parents about child development and care, young couples about childbirth, and older people about how women’s bodies change in the post-childrearing years,” Bowe said. “We also bring in medical professors from around the world to offer continuing medical education, and we welcome the entire medical community from the West Bank and invite as many people as we can to attend.”

A witness to the world

As though it weren’t enough that Holy Family Hospital saves the lives of over 400 babies every year, the hospital offers a shining witness to the world of the goodness of certain Catholic beliefs: the value of every human life, and the equal dignity of men and women as children of God.

“In Palestine there are a lot of injuries and accidents, and children often die young. When the hospital does everything possible to save a baby at 23 weeks gestation, it shows that, as Catholics, we value every life,” Bowe said.

Women have taken leadership roles in many areas of the hospital: besides the all-female staff of nurse-midwives, the immediate past medical director and the heads of the NICU, pharmacy, social work department, and laboratory are all women. “It quietly shows that women can be or do anything they put their minds to, in a very male-dominated society,” Bowe said.

The hospital is a sign of hope for still another reason: In a region often ripped apart by sectarian conflict, the hospital is staffed by medical professionals of both the Muslim and Christian faiths. “…You’ve got the three monotheistic faiths working side-by-side in support of the most vulnerable babies of Bethlehem,” Bowe said.

This peace in diversity extends to the patients as well. “Our doors are open as wide as we can,” Bowe said. “We never turn anyone away, for need or creed.”

Taken together, the good news of this hospital is nearly miraculous—religious tolerance, the dignity of the human person, and the greatest possible care for every human life—all just steps from the birthplace of Christ Himself. This Christmas, Catholics can ponder the continuing story of Bethlehem, and rejoice and take pride in this Catholic organization doing such critical work to save the most vulnerable.

“Share our story with your pastors, your schools and churches,” Bowe said. “We hear so much bad news, but we can all feel proud of the good work that the Order of Malta is doing and the Church is doing through Holy Family Hospital.”

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