The Bad Disease

Inside Egypt's Children's Cancer Hospital

Yousef Saber, 10, is being treated for cancer at 57357 in Cairo, September 14, 2011. Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Courtesy Reuters

Not far from Tahrir Square sprawls Sayyida Zeinab, an impoverished district named after the patron saint of Cairo. It’s a working-class neighborhood. Many of the residents are butchers who sell raw cuts of meat on open tables to passersby; goats amble through the narrow alleyways, red Xs on their hides marking them for future slaughter. 

But behind the ancient mosques, apartments, and historic coffee shops is something new and unexpected: a children’s cancer hospital built on the old bones of a defunct slaughterhouse. The gleaming and modern hulk might have been rejected by the district’s conservative populace, especially since the Mubaraks had supported hospital fundraising efforts. But it wasn’t. During the unpredictable weeks before and after Mubarak was ousted, looters set fires, overturned cars, and broke windows in the streets of Sayyida Zeinab. But they drifted away from the hospital, as though its surrounding gardens were a hallowed ground. And one night, when a small crowd did rush the hospital, the butchers—those who had lived in the neighborhood for generations—gathered with their cutlery to protect the hospital gates.

One person who wasn’t there that night was Leslie Lehmann, an American doctor who spends weeks at a time each year at the pediatric hospital in Sayyida Zeinab. “I was in Rwanda when the revolution began in Egypt,” Lehmann, who, in her late 50s, is still as fiery and passionate about medicine as when she started her training decades ago, tells me. “I was standing in the sun, on this peaceful hillside, trying to imagine the tumult in Cairo.” Lehmann, clinical director of the Stem Cell Transplant Center at Dana-Farber/Boston Children's Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, is just back from a visit to Egypt. Many of her colleagues, reading the frightening reports in the newspapers about journalists illegally detained in jails, women groped in public squares, and roadside bombs that detonate in crowded streets, worried about her safety. 

They were right to be. During any

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