For almost two millennia, Christian pilgrims have come to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to pray, remembering the special place where Jesus Christ was born. A half mile away from the Nativity Church, the Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem also strives to be a special place for newborn babies, and their families.
“The doors are open to everyone, regardless of creed or need,” Michele Burke Bowe, a hospital board member who is president of the linked Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem Foundation, told CNA. “The most important thing to know is that it’s a Catholic teaching hospital that’s 1,500 steps away from the manger where Christ was born.”
Beneath the Church of the Nativity is a large cave network, where Jesus Christ is said to have been born. According to the Gospel of Luke, Joseph and the Virgin Mary had to place Jesus in a manger because there was no room at an inn.
“To me it’s the most beautiful Catholic mission: to be able to say ‘yes, we have room,’ and to be able to take care of those babies and their mothers,” Bowe said. Bowe, a mother of five and an economist by training, is originally from Washington, D.C. She also serves as an ambassador of the Order of Malta to the State of Palestine.
The Holy Family Hospital of Bethlehem was originally founded as a general hospital in the 1880s by the Daughters of Charity. It was forced to close in the mid-1980s. Later that decade, it re-opened as a maternity hospital, under the oversight of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. The hospital now helps to deliver close to 4,500 babies per year. Most of the mothers are Muslim, while others are Palestinian Christians.
“The demand is just growing. We’re the only hospital that can care for any baby born before 32 weeks,” Bowe said.
The hospital has a capacity of 62 beds, including an 18-bed Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. It is the only health provider for high-risk pregnancies in the Bethlehem district in Palestine’s West Bank. About ten percent of the hospital’s newborns must go to the NICU, a higher rate than regular hospitals because it accepts all cases with complications or emergencies. At the same time, the hospital has a very low mortality rate.
“The most important thing is that it’s Catholic and a teaching hospital,” Bowe said. And of course, ‘Catholic’ means that it’s pro-life. Every baby is resuscitated.” She recounted seeing dangerously low-weight newborns recover and go home with their parents.
“We’re saving a lot of lives. These babies and their mothers, in many cases, just wouldn’t live,” Bowe said. “It’s just such a miracle,” she added. “Our statistics are much better than you can hope for. I honestly think it’s the Blessed Mother who makes sure that things turn out right.”
At least half of patient costs are subsidized by the Holy Family Hospital Foundation, the Order of Malta and other benefactors.
“It’s very expensive to keep a baby in the NICU for five months,” Bowe said. “It makes no sense economically. But that’s why we’re there: to support people and give hope.”
Partnerships with a refugee camp’s women’s group employs two women to make hats for the newborns, knitted in a traditional Palestinian style.
“They’re very cute white hats,” said Bowe. “The babies are getting a free hat, which this time of year is quite cold. Central heating is rare.”
The hospital’s staff numbers about 20 consultant and resident doctors, as well as 80 midwives, nurses and other paramedical staff. All of these are Palestinian. Another 140 medical workers trained at the hospital have worked in Palestine over the years.
“When you put people together in the hospital, their goals are to provide the best care, the best, life-saving pro-life care, to the mothers and the babies,” she said.