Magen David Adom’s (MDA) Overseas Volunteer Program held its annual ceremony on Thursday, with 158 foreign volunteers in attendance, half of whom had completed the June program and the rest about to begin their ambulance shifts.
The program, which is directed by the Israel Experience Company, a subsidiary of the Jewish Agency that also recruits the volunteers, gives students from around the world the opportunity to work as first responders on ambulances in Israel.
Israel Experience Chairperson Hanna Pri-Zan explained that the program allows volunteers to “get to know various aspects of Israeli society in a direct way through dealing with complex situations and exposure to responsibility and giving.”
After 10 days of extensive training, the volunteers are deployed on ambulances and provide support – both physical and emotional – to their patients.
“Through the program, we were provided with priceless opportunities to save lives on a daily basis."Eva Maman, MDA volunteer
Reflecting on saving lives
Participants who have completed their time in Israel reflected not only on the practical knowledge they gained from the experience, but also the life lessons they learned while carrying out their duties.
Natalia Levin, a volunteer from South Africa who shared one of her more powerful memories of the experience, said that the support given can come in many different forms.
“We took a young woman to the hospital after she was involved in a car accident,” she recalled. “She had no family members in the ambulance with her, and she did not let go of me. I could see the gratitude she had in her eyes for all of the emotional support I gave her in her most vulnerable moment when I held her hand.”
Canadian volunteer Eva Maman had felt that while it could sometimes be easy to dismiss a situation as insignificant when it did not appear to be life-saving, she came to realize how important every single call was, including the time she had to carry a man from his chair to his bed.
“Through the program, we were provided with priceless opportunities to save lives on a daily basis,” she said. “After reading my journal the first day, I realized that I had helped five people. I not only helped them, but their families as well. It doesn’t matter the gravity of the situation; every call we receive is a service we’re providing to others in need.”
Maman added that the program taught her a number of critical skills, including how to take a patient’s blood pressure at 100 kph.
Not everyone can be saved
ONE OF the unfortunate realities that come with the job is that not every call results in a positive outcome. By no fault of their own, sometimes the volunteers are unable to save a life.
“On my second shift, heading to a CPR case, there was a 97-year-old lady passed out in the back of her car with no signs of life,” Adam Eliakim said. “We did CPR for 45 minutes when the family asked us to stop. Unfortunately, she passed away.”
Nevertheless, he extracted a valuable lesson from the situation. “This made me realize that life can be taken away in an instant. She probably got in her car thinking she’d get to where she had to go. This made me more appreciative of everything in my life, from small to big.”
Eliakim learned a great deal from another patient as well. The volunteer was transporting a 90-year-old man home from hospital and was perplexed by his glowing smile in spite of his immense physical pain.
“He recalled that his first wife left him and took all of his money,” Eliakim shared. “He was happy because he was now married to the love of his life, who was sitting in the front of the ambulance. He said that he is in ambulances all the time but smiling keeps him happy. From this, I learned to be more positive, proactive, helpful and, most importantly, to be happy.”
Magen David Adom offers invaluable experiences
Invaluable experiences such as these would not be possible without the program staff. “We are proud of the hundreds of young people who chose to take this extraordinary summer experience,” according to Dr. Eli Jaffe, MDA’s vice president of community.
"[Volunteers] get to know various aspects of Israeli society in a direct way through dealing with complex situations and exposure to responsibility and giving.”Israel Experience Chairperson Hanna Pri-Zan
Jaffe specifically thanked the program’s staff, whom he credited with connecting excellent and curious students from all over the world.
Aside from performing medical duties, participants are exposed to people from all sectors of Israeli society, strengthening their connection to the country.
Shaina Rosner explained that although she does not observe many Jewish rituals at home, her time in Israel with MDA was formative in her cultural appreciation of Judaism. “I meet Jews here from every place and I feel that I am opening another chapter of my roots and history with the State of Israel,” she said.
Volunteers who completed the June program received certificates onstage at the end of the ceremony, but the memories and skills they gained could not be quantified on a piece of paper. The practical knowledge, life lessons and cultural immersion they gained this summer will stay with them forever.