On The Road With Israel’s Angels of Mercy
The sirens wail. Adrenaline pumps through our veins as the call comes in. We rush to the scene, weaving in and out of traffic.
Some motorists heed the siren and move swiftly out of the way, others don’t, making it difficult to navigate through the long lanes of Jerusalem traffic.
Some drivers are not accommodating and make it difficult for the United Hatzalah ambulance to get through.
Eventually, the United Hatzalah ambulance partially mounts a pavement to beat the traffic and a race against time to get to a patient in need.
TPS recently spent a day with United Hatzalah discovering the ins and outs of how these angels of mercy respond to medical emergencies across Israel.
The organization has volunteers from all walks of life, Jews, Arabs and Christians working in harmony to save lives.
United Hatzalah spokesman Raphael Poch explains that the organization has 65 chapters across the country with volunteers from all religions and backgrounds.
“Each chapter is made up of the people who live there, so places like Umm al-Fahm [in northern Israel] or in East Jerusalem, which are more Muslim chapters, are not going to have the same makeup as a chapter in Gush Etzion or Tel Aviv.
“That’s an interesting thing for a national organization to have because you end up with a bunch of people with their own identity feeling proud of who they are – which is something unique and conceptualizes United Hatzalah,” Poch says. “We’re an organization that really brings people together – people work hand-in-hand…ultra-Orthodox, Muslim and Christian volunteers can be proud of their identities without stepping on each others toes. There’s a real comradery between members.”
Poch adds that in the dispatch center there is a break room “and there have been many times where we have a Muslim bowing down on a carpet and a Jew saying their Shemona Esrei [a central Jewish prayer], praying at the same time in different directions in the same room together.”
As we race on the highway, in minutes, the team makes it to the the first patient, an infant who was injured after a fall. Medics Poch, Nissim Yadzi and Yonaton Atkin jump out the vehicle as it grinds to a halt, ready to deal with their little patient.
They handle both baby and parents with empathy and tender care doing everything to keep everyone calm – a difficult fete for the devastated mom. A large bump is visible on the infant’s head and a decision is made to take the child to the Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center.
Poch and his crew succeed in keeping everyone calm as the ambulance heads to the hospital, keeping a close watch on the baby’s condition, movement and vitals.
As we make it to the hospital, which doesn’t have an ambulance lane, it’s met with a major traffic jam. A security officer signals to the ambulance to move through and as it tries to cross over, sirens blaring, a car filled with passengers cuts it off, refusing to move or let it through despite the fact that it’s an emergency.
Shock spreads throughout the medical crew and Yadzi tries to implore the car to move, to no avail.
Finally, the ambulance makes it to the ambulance bay and the patient is off-loaded and admitted to the hospital.
We leave the hospital and begin chatting about the role that women play in the organization.
“We have about 600 women in the organization. Certain chapters have women fully integrated and they do the exact same thing as the men, in some places there’s a lot more leniency to have women and men interact regularly and generally, but it depends on the makeup of the chapter,” he explains. “Chapters that have an ultra-Orthodox makeup will have only women to treat women and men to treat men.”
In Jerusalem, Gitty Beer – the wife of United Hatzalah’s founder and president Eli Beer- started a women’s unit specifically for the ultra-Orthodox community.
“Women from these communities were not volunteering because they didn’t feel it was appropriate… she created the unit where the women trained by themselves one night a week for a year, making it a lot more lenient for women who are working, taking care of children and running households, to take part. They will go to any call, but primarily attend to women’s needs as their are medical issues that they would prefer women to attend to instead of men,” Poch says.
During the shift, we head to a kindergarten where Yadzi’s son attends.
“We’re going to teach them about Rosh Hashanah and the shofar – we will blow the shofar for them,” he says, as we pull up to the colorful school.
The teachers and children greet us excitedly and Poch takes out a shofar and tells the children why we blow the shofar in the Jewish month of Elul, which comes just before Rosh Hashanah.
Poch blows the shofar and teaches them about each of the sounds. They watch fascinated and some imitate the sounds together with Poch as he blows the shofar.
There’s a realization that United Hatzalah doesn’t just focus on the medical well-being of Israel, but also the communal outreach aspects as well.
As we bid farewell to the children, a call comes in about a car accident. We respond, the adrenaline kicks in again and the sirens wail.
We attend to three more accident-related calls and a woman who collapsed near the Machane Yehuda market as the shift progresses – the teams incredible professionalism and genuine passion for the job becomes more and more apparent as the day wears on.
Taking care of large cuts, bruises, bumps, stemming serious bleeding and watching vitals closely are just some of the injuries the team faces throughout the day.
Asked about some of the more difficult aspects of being a volunteer, Atkin, who is originally from Chicago, says that everything they do is volunteer-based. “It’s all on our own time, so we can be at the Shabbat table in the middle of the Shabbat meal and if I get a call, I have to leave my wife and three kids, which can be hard… also for me, seeing deaths is difficult.”
What he loves most about his job – which is something we witnessed first hand – “is being able to calm the parent and patient down, and successfully treating the patient.”
He did the course with his father, which for him is inspiring. Together, three weeks ago, father treated a religious Muslim woman who had gone into cardiac arrest and managed to resuscitate her.
“I think it’s really important for us as Jews to be a light upon the nations and myself being a religious Jew, going to this call and being able to help this Muslim woman successfully shows this.”
For Yadzi, being able to save lives is what keeps him going as a volunteer. “Just knowing that we’re helping people and making a difference is worth it.
“The most difficult aspect on the job is taking care of children,” Yadzi says, alluding to the difficulty of seeing children in pain. “When we arrive to treat children, I feel helpless – it breaks my heart.”
As the shift comes to a close, we all take a deep breath as the ambulance pulls into the United Hatzalah parking area.
These brave men and women are a patients first port-to-call.
They are the angels of mercy, protecting the country’s beating heart one life at a time – without a second to spare.