M*A*S*H

The IDF gives immigrant doctors an opportunity to join a battalion on late-night missions in the West Bank and Gaza while integrating into Israeli society.

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January 29, 2009 10:50
M*A*S*H

idf doctor 248.88 idf. (photo credit: IDF)

 
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Reuven Dressler walked away from an assistant professorship at the University of Maryland; Leandro Keselman passed up a prestigious internship at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan; and Erik Baltaxe left behind fascinating genetic research he was leading in Colombia. Besides being doctors and Jewish, the three don't have that much in common. Dressler is from Baltimore, Keselman from Buenos Aires and Baltaxe from Bogota. The thread that links the three of them is that they all left behind prestigious and promising careers to make aliya and serve as doctors in the IDF. Not a simple task for someone like Dressler, who is married with three kids. But simplicity is not what the three are looking for in their lives. "Some family members thought I was crazy," says Dressler, 37, who now lives in Ma'aleh Adumim. "What brought me to do this was a combination of ideology and Zionism... I think Israel is where Jews need to live." The average Jew who makes aliya at 37 and with three children would not have to serve in the IDF. But with a shortage of doctors in the IDF, there is no longer an age limit for olim doctors to do military service. The track for olim doctors is fairly simple. Once drafted, the doctor goes to the Tzrifin base near Rishon Lezion for a 14-week training course. In most cases, the doctor will then serve for 18 months, some in combat battalions, others in army clinics. Keselman, 34, made aliya in 2002 after completing his medical studies in Argentina. He came here without knowing a word of Hebrew but quickly caught on and began his internship at Poriya Hospital near Tiberias. Like many new olim, Keselman initially fell through the bureaucratic cracks and wasn't called up for service. However, he wasn't willing to pass up the opportunity to serve and voluntarily contacted the draft office, enlisting for a year and a half. As the doctor for an armored battalion, he joins the troops on operations in the West Bank and along the northern border. "Forty percent of the time I am a doctor and 60% of the time I am an administrator and officer," he explains. "Someone who thinks about coming here needs to ask himself what he wants out of life. Not everything is about money. It's not easy, but I'm proud of what I am doing." Baltaxe adds: "Israel is the security deposit for the entire Jewish world and we need to take care of it." PRIDE, IDEOLOGY and a chance to serve in the Jewish army is basically all OC Medical Corps Brig.-Gen. Nachman Ash has to offer doctors when recruiting them in the Diaspora. Ash admits he cannot compete with the private sector, particularly overseas, but what he can give is an opportunity to join a battalion on late-night missions in the West Bank and Gaza and to properly integrate into Israeli society by joining the IDF - the country's melting pot. "You have to love it," Ash explains. "And there are a lot of olim who come and love every moment they are here." Ash makes no secret of his interest in this article. He is hoping that it will draw the attention of doctors around the world, particularly in North America, England and Australia who will consider the option of making aliya and serving in the IDF. He even gives his office fax number - 972-3-737-6333 - so doctors thinking about aliya can contact him directly. "We need doctors and we are in a difficult period right now, since as we speak we are missing close to 100," he says. The causes for the drop in the number of doctors in the IDF - there are battalions and training bases that don't have permanent doctors - has mainly been caused by the drop in the number of post-high-school Israelis who joined the Medical Corps' scholarship program in which the student's draft is deferred until after he completes medical school at the army's expense in return for a commitment to several additional years of service. This has forced the corps to look for alternative resources, such as Jewish doctors in the Diaspora. Ash is in contact with the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B'Nefesh regarding potential olim and is personally in touch with several Jewish doctors by e-mail. He is also in the preliminary stages of opening the first private IDF medical school. "We are willing to do our best to accommodate the needs of the doctors," Ash says. "There are basic requirements since this is, after all, the military, but we are willing to be flexible." While the pay is not that great, its also not that bad with the IDF paying olim doctors around NIS 10,000 a month. In addition to enticing new olim into service, Ash is also trying to get Israelis who have already completed their service and are almost done with medical school to come back to the military as combat doctors. These doctors are offered a one-time grant of NIS 50,000 and a car if they sign on for two years. Ash also promises to help with finding a prestigious residency following their service. The same applies to young olim doctors. There are two basic tracks in the Medical Corps. The first is to be a doctor in a clinic, basically a 9 to 5 job. The second track is in the battalions, where the doctors not only treat sick or wounded soldiers but also, if needed, fight alongside them. The second track is where the IDF is hurting most. In the battalions, the doctors undergo a special course, called military trauma life support, where they are trained to treat gunshot and shrapnel wounds. "I am sure that that we can get between 10 and 20 olim doctors a year," Ash says. "This will make a huge difference, especially if a percentage of them go to the battalions." KESELMAN GREW up in Buenos Aires and vividly remembers the two terror bombings there - in 1992 and 1994 - against the Israeli embassy and the AMIA Jewish community center that killed more than 100 people. "The attacks made me realize that I need to be in Israel and that there is no other place for Jews," he says. It took him almost a decade, but in 2002 after completing his medical studies and even trying out for a prestigious residency at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, Keselman made aliya. He began his residency at Poriya Hospital in obstetrics and gynecology. "There isn't a doctor who doesn't dream about working in the United States," he replies when asked how he passed up working in New York, "but in the end being in Israel and serving in the IDF was more fulfilling." Once, he says, his unit was on patrol in the West Bank and came under a rain of rocks. The next day, one of the rock throwers was seriously wounded in a car accident. Keselman was the first doctor to arrive on the scene. "One of the questions I found myself asking was whether I am first a soldier or a doctor," Keselman says. The answer, he says, he discovered last May in Nablus where he participated in a raid on a terror suspect's home. Clashes ensued and the troops opened fire, wounding the suspect they had come to arrest. Keselman found himself treating a suspected terrorist. "Despite the dilemmas, at the end of the day I am a human being and need to do what I think is the right thing," he explains. This is in fact the IDF policy, he adds, to treat terror suspects even if they are wounded after opening fire at the troops. Baltaxe was born and raised in Bogota, Colombia. He came here in 2005 following his medical studies and after abandoning a successful genetic research project. "It was important and interesting work," he says, "but I wanted to come live in Israel." Despite the difficulties and the leave that included every other weekend, Baltaxe doesn't regret serving in the IDF. "The IDF is part of life here in Israel," he says. "If you are going to live here, then it is important to also serve in the military." Dressler, the oldest member of the group, is also the only one married. He was an assistant professor at the University of Maryland Medical School as well as a practitioner and is a certified specialist in family medicine. Not your run-of-the-mill IDF doctor. "There is no doubt that I was on a good track back in the US," he says. But that track came to an end in August 2007 when, together with his wife, Elana, and three children - six, four and two - he decided to move here. The IDF, he says, was "wonderful" and "considerate" with his family situation. The military also recognized the fact that Dressler was not your average medical school graduate but had years of experience practicing and teaching. The training, he says, opened for him a whole new world of medicine. "There is much more of an emphasis on trauma," he says. "It also takes some getting used to the hierarchical system and communication across ranks... They teach us how to work within the system." If asked, Dressler says, he would advise people not to push off aliya because of military service. "The army will work itself out. To serve in the army is a big thing and is the opportunity to be able to contribute to something special." Medical innovations In the recent Operation Cast Lead in the Gaza Strip, the Medical Corps incorporated two new life-saving products which were instrumental in saving soldiers' lives. One is called "combat gauze" and replaces the "personal bandages" that every soldier receives the day he is inducted. Manufactured by Z-Medica, the QuickClot Combat Gauze will be supplied to medics and field doctors. While the old bandage stopped bleeding by placing pressure on a wound, the combat gauze uses a hemostatic agent that coagulates blood and prevents blood loss. Each bandage costs about $30 in comparison to the old personal bandage that costs only a few cents. For that reason the new bandages will be given only to medics and field doctors. The gauze is in use in the US military. "We have learned a lot from the Americans," OC Medical Corps Brig.-Gen. Nachman Ash said. "And we have decided to follow in their footsteps and experience when it comes to products for trauma cases." The other product is called combat application tourniquet (CAT), a small lightweight one-handed tourniquet that completely stops arterial blood flow in an extremity. CAT uses a band and buckle, combined with a one-handed windlass system. The tourniquet used in the IDF until now was an elastic band that did not have an attached windlass, or stick for tightening. Medics are trained today to use a stick to tighten the tourniquet.

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