Medical miracles

An insider’s view of working at United Hatzalah in Jerusalem

By MICHA TURTLETAUB
August 15, 2019 11:47
Medical miracles

The sea Yehuda loves. (photo credit: Courtesy)



What is it about United Hatzalah that gives it the power to transcend the social boundaries it does?

From September 2017 until July 2019 I worked in the Jerusalem offices of United Hatzalah in the Donor Relations Department, as a writer, part of their fundraising team.

I heard stories of medical miracles on a regular basis, although they never became mundane or stale. But what really ended up inspiring me about the place was not the selfless dedication to saving lives that Eli Beer and his 5,000-strong volunteer emergency medical family exhibit literally every hour of every day. It was how that selfless dedication transformed the inner politics of every person I encountered while working there, from the top quite literally to the man who cleaned the floors.

Well, to be more precise, the man who was head custodian of the United Hatzalah building. He decided that he too wanted to become an emergency medic, and when I left United Hatzalah one month ago, he had begun training. That man, a Palestinian Muslim, my personal friend, would save a Jew’s life without hesitation, just as would every one of his countrymen who are also United Hatzalah medics.

When it comes to saving a life, the medics see only individuals, not politics. And their Jewish brothers in medical arms are the same. The ideal of saving lives is not an abstract one. It comes down again, quite literally, to flesh, blood and bone. Staring into the eyes of a person suffering, the medic has not one thought of their patient’s religion, politics, “identity,” or social standing. They see a person who is in need, and they respond.

So what is the secret of United Hatzalah in breaking the boundaries of normal social barriers that exist between human beings? What is their Star Trek-like ability to bind together people of different backgrounds toward a singular goal, in this case saving lives? Is that simply it? That it requires the visceral experience of seeing human suffering to allow us break through the barriers of other-ness that we create? Can we only come together across those trenches of blood we’ve dug out of religion and politics when death stares us in the face?

What about the environmental crises? What about human trafficking? What about the myriad of common problems we as societies across the globe share that threaten our well-being, our very survival as a species? Aren’t those cause enough? I think we must look more deeply into the workings of United Hatzalah and see how they achieve this balance.

United Hatzalah is manned by volunteers. I think this is the first key to keep in mind. No one – and I can testify to this firsthand – is in it for the money. No, people are medics because they care about people. Full stop. There is no other reason. They are not paid to do this, so it isn’t for the money. And they get little recognition, save for the thanks of the people they help, which for them is more than enough. They do it because they are good people. You cannot meet a United Hatzalah volunteer who is not a good person. They do not exist. I have met many, I have heard their stories, I have written their stories. They are, man and woman who work and volunteer there, good people.

And perhaps just as importantly, the volunteers are volunteering within their own communities. The people of their towns and neighborhoods know there is an experienced, free-of-charge medic in the community on call 24/7. Quite literally. There are emergency births on an almost daily basis. It is rare that a day goes by when a United Hatzalah volunteer, somewhere in Israel, isn’t helping deliver a baby. You can imagine the other types of medical emergencies that occur.

But this point of volunteerism – the women and men of United Hatzalah do what they do not because of money, power, fame or glory. They do it simply to save lives, to improve lives, to help anyone in need – the infirm, house-ridden elders and others.

I remember a story one of my esteemed colleagues wrote when I worked there. I quote her work:
“For the last two years, United Hatzalah volunteers from the entire area around Kfar Saba have been helping a 72-year-old man called Yehuda. An avid sports enthusiast, Yehuda was a healthy man who used to swim extensively in the sea. However, it all came to an end when an operation for a slipped disk caused severe sepsis that resulted in the amputation of both of his legs. His spine was also damaged, leaving him unable even to sit. All he could do was lie in his bed, confined to his room.

Although Yehuda was lovingly cared for by his wife, Tova, the sudden isolation of this once active sportsman was too much for him to bear. After two years of never leaving the four walls of his home, Yehuda made arrangements for voluntary euthanasia in Switzerland. At around the same time, Yehuda’s plight came to the attention of the director of United Hatzalah’s Tayn Kavod program. The director immediately organized a trip to enable Yehuda to see his beloved ocean once again. A team of United Hatzalah medics carefully transported Yehuda into a United Hatzalah ambulance and drove him down to the sea. The disabled man lay on the stretcher in the open air, looking at the panoramic view with a deep sense of contentment that could not be expressed in words.

The director galvanized the entire regional United Hatzalah team to bring Yehuda some joy and light in his otherwise bleak
existence. Barely a week went by without a visit from rotating volunteers. Dana was one of the many volunteers who gave of their time and energy to visit the elderly man. Every month they picked him up by ambulance and brought him to his favorite spot by the sea. Once, with the aid of a United Hatzalah volunteer yacht captain, they even took Yehuda on a revitalizing three-hour boat trip!

Dana forged a close relationship with Yehuda and was a constant visitor in his home. On Election Day, she and other medics brought Yehuda to the polling station to vote, enabling him to feel like a normal citizen whose opinion mattered. She helped Yehuda to set up a Facebook account and use technology, to lessen his loneliness and enable him to connect to people he loved. She was an encouraging, warm presence in his life, providing him with companionship and support. He and his wife were both indescribably grateful to Dana and the other volunteers’ unparalleled care and concern. “You are a team of angels,” they would say repeatedly, “angels in orange.”

A team of angels indeed. I have worked at many, many organizations, schools, universities, yeshivot, non-profits of all sorts in my professional life, on three continents over a span of more than 30 years, and I have never seen anything like what I witnessed day in and day out at Hatzalah.

So, perhaps in the end what United Hatzalah has is not so easy to copy to other organizations, schools, governments, corporations, or even non-profits. Perhaps what they have really is unique. I leave it to you to decide. ■


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