Into the sirens born

A hospital can play many roles in the lives of Israelis.

Fifteen years ago I spent some time in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa in the company of two women from a southern Lebanese village, a middle-aged Muslim couple from a Lebanese town, two soldiers of the Southern Lebanese Army, a Palestinian terrorist and an IDF commando specially trained to deal with terrorists. The SLA soldiers, Palestinian terrorist and IDF commando were all unconscious as I sat among them. The two Lebanese women, both very small and mousey in appearance and much in awe of their surroundings, were the mother and sister of the SLA soldiers, allowed by the Israeli authorities to remain close to their loved ones at the hospital. I was the mother of the then-IDF commando, who had been struck down by a hit-and-run driver and battered by a further three vehicles behind the one that didn't stop. He had been hitch-hiking home, standing at the Faradis junction where he had alighted from another vehicle. Faradis is Arabic for "paradise," and Boaz (then 20 years old) spent the last two weeks of August, all of September and part of October l991 unconscious in Rambam's ICU, knocking on heaven's door. After a long period of recuperation, rehabilitation and phenomenal support from the kibbutz community where we live, Boaz leads what is glibly called a "normal" life, although in Israel one wonders what exactly that means. When transferred from Haifa to Beit Lowenstein in Ra'anana, he had been renamed "Ness '91" - the Miracle of 1991 - by the Rambam staff. Last week the Miracle Man became a father for the first time, his baby unto Haifa sirens born. The ear-splitting sirens were not announcing the arrival of Gili to the House of Aisenberg, rather the arrival of more deadly Katyusha ball bearing-filled rockets sent to kill and maim - whether Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druse, elderly or gasping for their first breath after leaving the comfort, relative peace and quiet of their mothers' wombs. Rambam hospital's ICU is now mentioned almost daily on the news during these horrific times of war as its staff fights to save the lives of soldiers wounded in Lebanon and civilian victims of Katyusha rockets raining down on their part of the country - and dangerously close to the hospital itself. Scenes on television of helicopters touching down on the landing pad between Rambam and the seashore, soldiers leaping out holding saline drips pumping life into a wounded soldier on a stretcher, hospital staff racing with a bed across the tarmac to take over from the helicopter crew - turn my clock back instantly, now almost nightly, to similar scenes from l991. Israel was bogged down in Lebanon, and helicopters were also then bringing in youthful patients in uniform. The sound of helicopter blades whirring directly overhead produced quite a frightening din, not to be forgotten even after all these years. Some of those wounded passengers ended up in the ICU. Unfortunately, some of them didn't make it that far, and their photos and names would be shown in newspapers - along with details of their funeral arrangements - the following day. The Palestinian terrorist was also flown to Rambam by helicopter. We were already ICU veterans by the time he arrived late one evening, accompanied by armed soldiers as far as the door of the unit. Weapons are not allowed inside, and the soldiers remained outside. I had no idea who the young man was. Allowed in to sit by my son early the next morning, I found myself looking at his new neighbor. The previous occupant of his bed was a Lebanese boy who had been seriously injured in a car crash and whose parents were also corridor huggers day and night. The boy died, they returned to their town in Lebanon, and the Palestinian terrorist appeared in place of the curly-haired boy whose older brother had been taking him to see a football match. A young soldier girl popped in and handed me The Jerusalem Post as she did every morning. On the front page I read about the unconscious fellow in the bed by the window - a bullet had been removed from his chest before he was brought to the ICU. His life support machines blipped at a different pace, somehow, to the blipping monitors barely keeping my son in the land of the living. The Palestinian had been shot by an IDF patrol after his gang of Fatah Hawks took pot shots at them somewhere in the hills above Jenin. He was then put in a helicopter and flown to Rambam. He became conscious after a few days, and then panic set in. Every time I dashed off to the bathroom, I would count the tiles between the beds upon my return, as the fellow kept swaying back and forth in the bed, whose brake was broken, inching himself closer to ours. There were normally 10 tiles between us, but sometimes only eight or nine, and a nurse would push him back toward the window upon request. I was frightened of this weakened, wounded Palestinian youth because I also read in the newspaper that this young neighbor of ours - my kibbutz is a 10-minute drive from his West Bank village - had been responsible for killing three Jenin Palestinians that his cell deemed collaborators with Israel. To harm my son, he'd have only had to pull the plug out of the socket on the wall between the beds. There was great relief when the Palestinian youth was taken out of the room, but not before the two Lebanese ladies, whose relatives were in the room next door, stood over him and with great hatred and amazing accuracy, spat in his face, between his eyes. I was not surprised. Palestinian terrorists in Lebanon had planted the roadside bomb that blew up the two SLA soldiers, who were cousins. The women, who spent most of their waking time sitting on their heels in the corridor, dresses thrust between their knees, were yanked out of the room by a rather large Druse nurse whom they viciously kicked as he unceremoniously dumped them on their mattresses in the "family room" on the other side of the electronic door. Those ladies and I had our early morning in-house spies - the cleaning staff. The Lebanese ladies had George, a Christian Lebanese, who came together with a group of other Lebanese through the checkpoint at Rosh Hanikra on a daily basis to work in Rambam. There were many of them, given the right to work in Israel because someone in their immediate family was serving in the SLA alongside the IDF in southern Lebanon. I had Olga (not her real name), a new immigrant from the FSU - a piano teacher in Russia but a hospital cleaner here - who had learned just a little Hebrew. Why did we need spies? Early in the morning we would all want to know how things had gone during the night - what was our patient's temperature, pulse and so on. George and Olga would go in with their buckets and floor mops, and while wiping around the beds would surreptitiously look at the charts and report to us. I had many a cup of coffee with George and Olga in their little changing room. We would swap stories about our families. George was a tall and impressive character, a real gentleman. I cannot help but wonder if they are unharmed and have a place they can still call home. As I recall, George didn't care too much for his Muslim neighbors in his part of the country. As for the Palestinian terrorist, I have no idea what fate befell him, but he might be down the road from me at the moment, not in his village but even closer, at the Megiddo prison where about 1,200 Palestinians are incarcerated. The SLA soldiers recovered consciousness within a few days of each other, but I believe one later died and the other remained an invalid and returned to Lebanon. Fifteen years on, the IDF soldier can be found teaching at the Wingate Institute and struggling to get some sleep at night, as my granddaughter mimics the sounds of the sirens she heard at birth last week in Haifa as rockets from Lebanon slammed into the city.