When Adib Khanafer’s phone rang Friday, he hadn’t yet learned that a gunman had killed 50 people at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques moments earlier, leaving scores more wounded.
He was performing surgery at Christchurch Hospital in New Zealand, and he was the on-call vascular surgeon for the weekend.
The nurse who rang him spoke with urgency.
“Where are you? How far are you?” she asked him. “You need to be here. We need you now.”
The 50-year-old left the elective surgery he was performing and ran to where he was needed most. In the operating room, he was met with a devastating sight: a 4-year-old child strapped to the table, grasping for life. She had arrived at the hospital with no pulse and had spent 30 minutes in cardiac arrest before pediatric surgeons managed to revive her.
A bullet had traveled through a vein in the girl’s pelvis, a potentially fatal injury that is difficult to mend. Surgeons were struggling to control the bleeding. They needed Khanafer.
In an interview Wednesday, Khanafer said he had never operated on a child before. He wept as he washed his hands and prepared for surgery.
Khanafer, a native of Kuwait, lives with his family about three miles from Christchurch Hospital — which is a 15-minute walk from the Al Noor Mosque.
In the operating room, Khanafer was focused on the task at hand. Thirty years of training and experience helped him put his emotions aside.
“She should not die on the table; we need to get her out of here,” he thought to himself. “All I wanted this girl to do was pull through.”
As of Wednesday evening, the girl is in stable condition and doing “extremely well,” Khanafer added. He said he spoke after surgery with the girl’s father, who was being treated in an intensive care unit one room over, expressing optimism about her condition.
Khanafer and his team soon learned about the attack on the mosques. Among those dead are refugees, immigrants, high school students and young children, hailing from a variety of countries. The suspect, an Australian-born white supremacist who has been arrested, made clear in a 74-page manifesto that the attacks were fueled by his disdain for immigrants and Muslim people.
The hospital saw 49 patients in the aftermath of the attacks. Khanafer operated on four of them.
He took a short break to check on his children before returning to surgery later that day.
“I was very keen to go home and hug my kids,” he said.
Even as man of Muslim faith, he said he would not let the attack affect his work or his perception of New Zealand. Khanafer had connections to two victims: One was a colleague, he said, and the other was a former patient.
"It is sad it happened, to any faith, to any color.” he said.
In the moments after completing the girl’s surgery, Khanafer said, he and his colleagues exchanged a knowing glance — they had given it their all.
Choking on his words, he recalled how the other surgeons rushed toward him and embraced him warmly. The tears began to flow once more.