Nurse of Israel's first coronavirus fatality: 'My heart is broken'

She emphasized it is important for the public to know that there is no lack of hospital beds.

JERUSALEM’S Shaare Zedek Medical Center (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
JERUSALEM’S Shaare Zedek Medical Center
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
When 88-year-old Holocaust survivor Aryeh Even was hospitalized at the newly established coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem on March 19, the staff and other patients immediately took his case to heart. On Friday, Even became the first victim of COVID-19 in Israel.
Rachel Gemara, one of the nurses who work in the ward, published a deeply moving tribute to his memory on her Facebook profile.
 “My heart is broken. On Friday night my worst fears were realized as I watched my beloved patient, Aryeh Even, take his last breaths on earth. By the grace of God, two patients *angels* rush to his side. With tears in my eyes, I watch them instinctively place their hands on his eyes and recite the ‘Shema’ prayer. They comfort him and say goodbye as his holy soul enters the gates of Heaven,” she wrote on Sunday. “You’ve touched my heart, the staff and the patients that surrounded you. I know your life will inspire the rest of Am Yisrael as well. Go in peace. Go to your resting place in peace. Look out for us from above.”
Gemara, 32, was born in Israel, grew up in Toronto and moved back to Israel when she was 19. She went straight to nursing school at Shaare Zedek. After graduating, she started working in the oncology department, where she has been ever since.
“I love it there,” she told The Jerusalem Post. “But because of the coronavirus outbreak, they had to open a new ward, and they needed staff from other departments.”
Gemara volunteered for the job. It was the beginning of March, and the situation in Israel, as in most of the world, was not yet clear.
“At the time, nothing had really started,” she said. “We didn’t know what would happen, but we knew that we needed to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.”
“I became a nurse because I want to help in times of crisis,” Gemara said. “And seeing what was going in Italy and in different countries, I felt that we were called for something greater, like in a time of war where everyone has to do their part. This is not a war where we have soldiers on the front line, but healthcare professionals instead. I saw it as a mission.”
About a week later, the ward, called “Keter Unit” from the Hebrew world for crown (corona in Latin), was up and running.
“I was blown away at how quickly Shaare Zedek was able to come up with a completely new department from nothing,” Gemara said. “I saw people working through the night in order to complete its construction. People often tell me that they are impressed with my work, but I feel that I’m just a small part in an entire system, working together to do it for the patients.”
Currently, the ward has 20 beds, but it is in the process of expanding. Beds in intensive care are also available if anyone needs them, but so far, nobody has, she said.
The staff works in 12-hour shifts from 7 to 7. The morning shift has three nurses and two doctors, and two nurses and one doctor work during the night. In addition, several doctors cooperate to give consultations, but they don’t go into the unit.
GEMARA SAID the number of patients changes every day, but it tends to grow. The Health Ministry is gradually moving those who are in less serious condition to makeshift hospitals set up in hotels. That makes more hospital beds available in her ward and means the patients are increasingly in more serious condition, she said.
It is important for the public to know that there is no lack of hospital beds, Gemara said. Lack of equipment is not a problem either, including ventilators and intensive-care beds, she added.
“The only thing that I personally see as a potential issue is whether there is enough staff [and] healthcare workers,” she said. “Israel has a very good healthcare system, and we have been trying to learn from other countries’ mistakes. I don’t think equipment is going to be an issue, and we are very fortunate because I know that in many other nations this is not the case.”
The corona ward’s staff works in a completely new way, Gemara said.
“We really had to adapt to a new system that nobody knew before,” she said. “For instance, I haven’t seen some of my patients face to face yet. We communicate through a video-intercom system.”
The medical staff tries to minimize in-person contact with infected patients to what is absolutely necessary, she added.
Each room in the unit has two beds. Cameras were installed in the common areas, except in the case of four beds for patients who require more monitoring that have cameras on them.
The patients are not isolated from each other but are allowed to be together.
THE ASSISTANCE of the other patients was crucial for Aryeh Even, Gemara said.
“He came in walking with a cane, a very sweet man originally from Hungary,” she said. “I really connected with him right away, also because my grandparents were from there, too. He was a very special person. We managed to communicate with him, and all the staff and the other patients loved him a lot.”
“The other patients knew how difficult it was for him not to have his family around, and they took on the role,” she said.
Everyone worked to help Even with his small needs that did not require a medical professional, such as water and food, and to talk to his family on the phone, Gemara said.
“The family was in touch with us constantly,” she said. “In addition, they video-chatted with him because other patients could help with that. It wasn’t ideal because they weren’t with him physically. But he did have the chance to say his goodbyes through the phone.”
THE CORONAVIRUS outbreak has hit medical personnel hard. According to the latest update from the Health Ministry, 42 professionals have been infected with the virus, and more than 3,000 are in isolation for potential contact with someone diagnosed with the disease, including at least 1,600 doctors and nurses.
Gemara said she is not worried about getting infected at work.
“I know that my patients have the virus, and when I go in, I wear my protective gear and I feel very safe,” she told the Post. “The real danger is the patients who are positive and we do not know it. This is why the quarantine is so important, and we tell people to come to the hospital only if it is absolutely necessary.”
Gemara said she basically has entered a voluntary self-isolation in her daily life outside work to make sure she does not get infected. If that would happen to her or any other member of her team, they could not go to work and take care of the patients.
“The only way to really stay safe is to stay at home,” she said.
The government has taken the right measures so far, Gemara said.
“I 100% support all the restrictions and the regulations,” she said. “When you look at what happened in other countries, I think Israel’s response was the right one, and I can see firsthand that it is saving lives.”
“I know that we have heard this message a lot, but it is essential for people to stay at home,” Gemara said.
“We want this to be over as soon as possible,” she said. “We know it is going to end, but we don’t know how quickly, and it really depends on what the public does. If people are strict with the quarantine, if they maintain their social distancing, it correlates on how much the virus is spreading. I know it’s hard. I’m a very social person; it’s hard for me not to see my friends. But this is what is helping us. Listen to the regulations. Nothing is there for no reason. Even what sounds extreme is important.”
“We can only do our job if everyone else does theirs, which is to stay at home,” Gemara said. “It saves lives.”