The Human Spirit: The doctors were stumped

The unfamiliarity of our physicians with ghastly conditions is the good news.

By
October 12, 2006 11:14
4 minute read.
barbara sofer 88

barbara sofer 88. (photo credit: )

 
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I attended an unusual lecture last week. Dr. Rick Hodes, an American-trained Jewish physician who lives in Ethiopia, presented a variety of his recent cases to a seminar room full of medical students and physicians at Hadassah's Medical Center. At first I was surprised and frankly a little embarrassed that our gifted Israeli doctors couldn't identify the horrendous diseases and malformations that make up much of Dr. Hodes's daily practice in Ethiopia, where he works in Mother Teresa's mission and his own orphanage as well as treating potential immigrants to Israel. Then suddenly a thought lit up my day: The unfamiliarity of our physicians with these ghastly conditions is the good news. In the modern State of Israel, smack in the middle of the inhospitable Middle East, most of the regional endemic maladies in nearby parts of the globe have long become unknown. The silver-haired physician sitting to my right had to be at least in his seventh decade, which means that for at least 30 years of practicing serious medicine in Israel's poorest big city, he had never seen the contorted bodies and pocked faces of the patients who daily visit one of the clinics where Dr. Hodes treats them. I hummed to myself, "There but for Zionism go you and I." Shmini Atzeret, the final day of the Succot holiday, celebrates the coming into the land of the Jewish people. We symbolically leave our succot, and eat in our home. What better time to take a break from our inveterate and indispensable fault-finding to enjoy some of the accomplishments of the State of Israel. Had we not returned to our homeland and brought the energy and creativity of the Jewish people to this land, there's no reason why our country wouldn't be part of the Third World that remains engulfed in disease and reduced life-expectancy. Not all the medical slides were mysterious. Even I could identify one or two of them: the elephantine necks of goiter disease - preventable by a small dose of iodine - and trachoma - the eye disease treated mostly by rinsing with running water. THE TRACHOMA slide made me think of the historic visit of Rabbanit Sophie Szold and her daughter to the Holy Land in 1909. The Turkish policy of banishing anyone who might be a threat had thinned the professional class of doctors. Pharmacies stocked few supplies. In addition to the usual maladies of the poor and hungry, typhoid, dysentery and cholera raged. But what most moved to tears the widow of Baltimore's esteemed Rabbi Benjamin Szold were the children who woke up in the morning and went to sleep in the evening with flies in their eyes. Back in Baltimore and in New York, where she'd moved after the rabbi's death, there were plenty of poor children. But she never saw children so accustomed to flies that they didn't even bother to shoo them away. Then, in an elementary school in Jaffa, the children had healthy eyes. The principal explained that a school nurse visited twice a week and instructed the children on hygiene. Simple enough. Back in New York, Sophie's daughter - Henrietta Szold - decided to do something about the situation, and American Jewish women rallied to the cause. She started Hadassah, the women's Zionist organization, and spent the rest of her life mobilizing the resources of the Jewish people in the Diaspora and in the Yishuv for health care, social welfare and child rescue. Most important, teachers from abroad set up the first post-high-school education for women in what has become our State of Israel. By the early 1920s, a cadre of tough-minded, locally educated public-health nurses were pushing back epidemics from the borders. FAST-FORWARD to 2006. Tel Aviv, which was founded by 60 families in the same 1909, is today a fascinating metropolis and our little state is a world leader in medicine. Where are we and where are the other nations of our region? Dr. Hodes's medical lecture took place on the day of the announcement that Roger Kornberg won the Nobel Prize in chemistry. (The 27th Jew to do so, in that category alone, but who's counting?) Stamford University Professor Kornberg is well-known in the scientific community in Israel; he spends a third of the year in Jerusalem, and he praised the scientific standards of our little state. Mega-industrialist Warren Buffett did the same when he visited recently. And just last week this paper carried two stories: that after the United States, Israel was the top country in human embryonic stem cell research, one of the areas that shows the most promise in curing modern-day disease. That's not per capita - but in absolute number of publications; ahead of the UK, Korea, China, Singapore, Australia, Sweden and Canada. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem was in first place among universities outside the US and the UK in biotech transfers. But on a personal note, all of us who live here appreciate having medical expertise available to us - so much so that we usually take it for granted. Pediatric cancer is a death sentence in the Third World. In Israel, more than two thirds of childhood cancer is cured, and our researchers and physicians are working hard to do even better. I'll never forget riding in an ambulance with my 12-year-old American cousin whose eyes were blasted when terrorist Wafa Idris blew herself up on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem. I knew that world-class experts in corneas and retinas were waiting for her. SUCCOT IS also the holiday which encompasses all the nations of the world. In the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer asks, "Why are 70 offerings brought on Succot? For the [merit of the] 70 nations of the world." (Succot 55b) The tradition of visiting Jerusalem on the Feast of the Tabernacles has been picked up by the Christian supporters of Israel. I welcome them. Please look around and see what we've done here, even without oil wells.

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