Yonatan Uziyahu was doing his weekly shopping at a Rehovot supermarket. Suddenly his phone sounded an alert indicating an elderly man had collapsed right across the street. Uziyahu left his packages in the cart, darted to the scene, and administered emergency care, including CPR and defibrillation.
“The man started to breathe again, and his heart started to beat,” Uziyahu recalled. “I saved his life. But this is not just my story – this is the story of United Hatzalah in any community.”
Uziyahu is a Hatzalah volunteer and spokesperson for the organization’s Bat Yam and Holon region chapters. The first Hatzalah chapter was formed in the 1960s in Brooklyn, New York. It started in Israel in 1986 in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood. In 2006, 39 separate Hatzalah chapters merged to form United Hatzalah. Today there are more than 50 chapters and 3,200 volunteers that collectively receive upwards of 700 calls a day.
United Hatzalah trains and empowers community members like Uziyahu to provide emergency medical services (EMS), which save critical seconds at the start of care, before an ambulance can arrive. Hatzalah members take pride in their quick response times, usually between 90 seconds and three minutes.
Receiving initial treatment within three minutes of an incident assures a greater chance of survival in critical situations, and speedier recovery for many other injuries and illnesses. Lower brain death and stopping of the heart occur four to six minutes after cardiac arrest. A victim’s chances of survival are reduced by 7% to 10% with every minute that passes without defibrillation and advanced life-support intervention.
In Israel, United Hatzalah responders receive fully accredited medical training and equipment appropriate for their level of caregiving. All responders have undergone a minimum of 180 hours of classroom-based training spread across a six-month period, as well as an additional 100 hours of on-scene training, as mandated by the Health Ministry.
United Hatzalah has also been known to build community resiliency.
And, equally important, according to Raphael Poch, international spokesperson for United Hatzalah, the organization brings communities together, creating a sense of cohesion.
EACH COMMUNITY faces its own challenges, said Poch. For example, the organization has a maritime fleet in Tiberias on Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and ATVs on the coast to provide faster response time for beaches and areas with large sand dunes, such as Holon and Ashdod. In deserts and areas of Judea and Samaria, United Hatzalah works closely with Israel’s search-and-rescue units and the IDF. It uses “ambucycles” to cut through traffic and electric bicycles in areas with narrow passageways, such as the old cities of Jaffa and Jerusalem.
The volunteers themselves are also very diverse. In the northern region, Druse citizens volunteer alongside their Jewish peers. In the South, Beduin take part. There are four exclusively Muslim chapters across the country, in Kafr Kasim, Taibe, Shibli and east Jerusalem. Jewish volunteers range from haredim (ultra-Orthodox) and religious Zionist to secular. According to Naftali Rotenberg, chapter head of the Carmel and Haifa region of United Hatzalah, this works because all units of United Hatzalah have the same goal: to save lives.
“The message is this: No matter what religion, race or sex you are, if you want to be a part of that goal, then you are a welcomed member of Untied Hatzalah,” said Rotenberg.
The Hatzalah teams stay connected with one another and members across the state through its 24/7 dispatch center. The center has access to each member’s GPS coordinates and can alert the closest volunteer of an incident. Volunteers also carry walkie-talkies.
THE VOLUNTEERS become one big family.
Yisrael Rubinstein, chapter head of the Negev and Gaza periphery, says he has been close with a number of Beduin volunteers, and they share in each other’s family celebrations.
“My children are six-and-a-half and four-and-a-half, and they know and play with the other volunteers’ children,” said Rubinstein.
Rotenberg brings his volunteers together for weekly lunch meetings.
“You look around the table and you can see every type of person,” he said. “Even among the haredim – you have hassidim and ‘Lithuanian.’ So many colors – one family.”
Recently, Uziyahu’s group held a team-building Shabbat. He said sitting and eating together and hearing an interesting lecture helps the group “to feel connected to a higher purpose.”
United Hatzalah also offers support for the spouses of volunteers, who “let the volunteers do this holy work,” said Rotenberg. “Even though the spouse might be at home, he/she is the one who watches the children and maintains the home while the volunteer goes out at 2 a.m. The volunteer responds, but the spouse offers support.”
NON-VOLUNTEERS also become more in sync with their communities and feel more confident knowing their neighbor has the knowledge and expertise to provide emergency care if needed.
“One of the volunteers walked out of his home and there was a man running to him, carrying a young boy,” said Rotenberg. The boy had a balloon lodged in his throat. The Hatzalah volunteer was able to dislodge the object and administer life-saving CPR. The boy was back to himself in a couple of days. Soon after, the father threw a party to say thanks for the “miracle.”
“At the party, the man said that the volunteer could consider himself to have another son – because his son would always be indebted to the volunteer, too,” Rotenberg said.
Another time, a toddler choked on a slice of bread and her mother called United Hatzalah. When the first volunteer arrived, the mom was sitting in the building entrance hysterical; her daughter was blue.
The volunteer swept the baby from her mother’s arms and administered the Heimlich maneuver. Today, a few years later, the volunteer continues to see the young girl, who lives close by. He says he relates to her as if she were his own daughter after such an experience.
“We often feel like these are our own children,” said Rotenberg.
A month ago, one of Hatzalah’s female volunteers in the South had just left a Shabbat lunch with friends when she received an alert that she was needed nearby. She left her husband and children and saved the life of an older man who had experienced a heart attack. Two weeks later, she was at a meeting in Beersheba, and someone in attendance learned she was a Hatzalah volunteer. He told the story about how a female volunteer had saved his father’s life – it turned out it was her.
United Hatzalah has a vision of putting a responder on every street corner, said Poch. There are currently 30 training classes taking place across the country, each one has between 20 and 40 participants undergoing EMT training. An additional 20 classes are scheduled to begin by the end of 2017.
“In this country, people disagree and fight about a lot of things,”said Rubinstein. “United Hatzalah brings people together.”
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