Heroism for ‘Everyman’

We can’t all be heroes, as police officers Ahuva Tomer, Lior Boker and Yitzhak Melina were last week, but we can act to save people’s lives.

December 7, 2010 23:48
Heroism for ‘Everyman’

judy montagu 88. (photo credit: )

Even as we mourned her death on Monday from severe burns, few in this country failed to marvel at the selflessness and courage of Haifa police chief Asst.-Cmdr. Ahuva Tomer, who drove into the raging Carmel Forest fire on Thursday night to try and help a busload of prison service trainees trapped in the flames.

Police Asst.-Cmdr. Lior Boker and Ch.-Supt. Yitzhak (Itzik) Melina also went to the aid of the hapless trainees and were incinerated in their car.

Heroes all three, indisputably. Even though they would have insisted that they were only acting in the line of duty, it surely takes uncommon – almost superhuman – strength of will to beat down that most basic human instinct for personal survival and go forward knowingly into clear and terrifyingly present danger.

Their heroism will live on in the annals of the Israel Police, and perhaps even in the overloaded memories of ordinary Israelis.

The head of Magen David Adom in the Carmel district, interviewed on Monday by Israel Radio, said about the three police officers: “They plunged in with one thought: to save lives.”

WE TEND to think of saving lives as something dramatic and far removed from our own mundane existence. But saving life can also result from a considered decision, quietly made: such as donating one’s organs for transplant in the event of one’s death – giving others the chance of a normal life, or any life at all.

In this country every year, hundreds of dialysis patients, for example, wait for a donor kidney. And you’d think that healthy people – may they live till 120! – would be lining up to register with the local ADI donor organization and carry an organ donor card.

They aren’t. Although anyone here over 17 can register with ADI, under 10 percent of adult Israelis – some 50,000 people – have done so.

Perhaps this percentage will grow now that the Health Ministry, as Post health reporter Judy Siegel noted on December 1, has launched an initiative to promote organ donation.

Ministry Director-General Ronni Gamzu went to an Aroma coffee shop at the Israel Diamond Exchange in Ramat Gan, where he “congratulated Aroma CEO Asher Lev for encouraging donor registration and sat with customers to explain the importance of it.

The screens of the computerized cash registers showed the image of an ADI card and encouraged customers to sign up as they paid for their meals.”

I SPENT some time recently asking people I met whether they were signed up with ADI. All praised the concept of organ donation, but hardly any had registered as potential donors.

Why? Why, for that matter, have I myself not yet taken this simple step, although I intend to? Perhaps because it isn’t quite that simple. There is a psychological deterrent to deal with.

I got some profound insight into this from a friend, who declared: “I think it’s a good idea; but I’m not ready to die yet.”

A second later, he was laughing at the illogicality; but his spontaneous response illustrated strikingly that the act of becoming an organ donor – like making a will – brings one up slap-bang against the prospect of one’s own demise. And many people unconsciously or superstitiously equate the uneasy prospect with the stark reality.

It’s as if signing a donor card or making a will were tantamount to opening the door and inviting the Grim Reaper in to begin reaping.

I RAISED the topic with another friend over coffee, and she dug deeper still: “The idea of donating your organs,” she said, “is even more difficult than making a will. A will is getting rid of your possessions, which you can imagine doing without because they are one step removed from you; but giving away your heart, liver or cornea – now that is a different order of things to contemplate.”

“Yes,” I nodded, “it’s looking down on the dismemberment of your deceased self while you are still living and breathing, experiencing it in your imagination – even though you know that if it should happen, you’d be past feeling or experiencing anything at all.”

“But,” she went on, “just as you might imagine your best friend wearing your diamond earrings once you can no longer enjoy them, why not imagine someone seeing through your eyes? “It’s a kind of immortality.”

NOW THAT is a whole lot pleasanter to consider. For isn’t immortality, in one form or another, something we all crave? To live on beyond our lifetimes, to leave something meaningful behind us, to be remembered? And what about simple altruism, giving someone the gift of life when we ourselves can no longer benefit from it? This is what motivated a third friend of mine, together with her husband and children, to sign up with ADI as soon as it was founded in the late 1970s.

Human beings tend to be divided into givers and takers, that friend remarked, gently.

A 25-year-old student at the Hebrew University whom I spoke to said recent publicity about organ donation had made her “want to be a better person, and so maybe I’ll do it.” But, she added, she hadn’t seen anybody on university campuses trying to sign people up, as they do for the bone marrow register.

“If the organization came to the students, I think many more would respond well to ADI,” she said.

Maybe the universities are next in Gamzu’s consciousness-raising effort.

One hopes that, encouraged by campaigns such as the Health Ministry’s, the notion of helping others survive will grow strong enough to overcome even deeply rooted fears and superstitions.

Here the media, specifically health reporters, have an important part to play in fostering awareness.

IT’S NOT only in Israel that the level of organ donation is low. The shortage is a universal problem, one that countries such as Belgium, Austria and Singapore have solved by presuming readiness to donate unless a person’s will specifies otherwise. Some states in the US have a box to tick for organ donation when you renew your driving license.

But in Israel, the ADI organization – named after a boy who died for lack of a donor kidney – has had to deal with an additional obstacle: a cultural-religious taboo against “interfering” with the dead.

This might be explained as an exaggerated form of mandated respect for the dead (kvod hamet).

And some Orthodox Jews oppose the idea of giving up any part of their bodies because they take quite literally the liturgical proclamation of tehiyat hameitim or the resurrection of the dead.

About this, I have written elsewhere: “An actual physical resurrection? The departed returned wearing the fashions of their day, or maybe clad in flowing white robes? It’s hard to conceive – too Cecil B. de Mille.”

And what about the millions who perished in the Shoah, those who have died in our wars and in terror attacks; and, indeed, in last week’s Carmel fire – many of whom left little, if anything, of their physical bodies behind? If there is a resurrection of the dead, it’s hard to believe it will be a literal one.

In any case, respected halachic authorities have ruled that organ donation is permissible, and even meritorious; even while other rabbis are tussling with the whole issue of the point at which a person may be considered halachically dead and his or her organs available for transplant.

“I wouldn’t hesitate to donate my organs,” a haredi friend told me this week. “I can’t think of a greater mitzva.”

WE CAN’T all be heroes, as police officers Ahuva Tomer, Lior Boker and Yitzhak Melina – all posthumously promoted – were on the Carmel last week. But we can look for and locate inside ourselves the motive that propelled them: acting to save people’s lives.

To sign up for an ADI card, call *6262 or go to the organization’s website at www.kartisadi.org.il

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