Sharon Slater: The Israeli woman helping Hatzalah treat trauma

Gratitude and perspective guide Slater’s days as she glides through life spreading healing and light.

 Sharon Slater (photo credit: Ciona Shaked)
Sharon Slater
(photo credit: Ciona Shaked)

Sharon Slater does not often walk into a room; she swings. A chic camel-colored coat swishes over her tapered skirt; her clear green eyes are framed by cascading locks.

With her model looks, slim figure and gentle demeanor, you could be forgiven for assuming Slater, now in her mid-fifties, spends her days having lunch, casing malls for chic shoes, and chatting to friends. But this elegant mother of five and grandmother of nine is a powerhouse for good: a doctor of psychology and clinical psychologist, she’s also an ambulance driver/medic, and round-the-clock volunteer with the psycho-trauma unit of United Hatzalah.

“My husband and I moved to Israel 30 years ago,” Slater explains, “and soon after our fifth child was born an acquaintance lost her baby to a chocking accident. I panicked; I was home alone all day with babies and absolutely clueless about first aid.”

The day after the tragic funeral she signed up for an ambulance and advanced medic course. 

Eli Beer, president and founder of United Hatzalah, an emergency response volunteer organization, knows about saving babies who choke. UH’s 7,000 volunteers are men and women from every sector of Israeli society; they suture and triage religious and secular, Arab, Jew and Christian, and anyone in between.

 Slater bringing a refugee from Ukraine to Israel. (credit: CADYA LEVY) Slater bringing a refugee from Ukraine to Israel. (credit: CADYA LEVY)

Murad Aliyan, for example, an Israeli-Arab first responder from a village up North, tells the story of racing to save a nearby newborn choking on his umbilical cord. The grateful father, a newly religious Sephardi Jew, fell on the EMT’s neck, determined to name the baby in his honor. “Tell me your name,” he kept insisting. “I need it for the brit.” 

“Just buy my wife flowers,” suggested Aliyan. 

“No, no, no,” repeated the dad. “I want my boy to carry your name.” 

Eventually the stalemate had to end. “I’m an Arab,” explained the responder. “I’m not sure you want your baby to be Murad.”

“What’s your address?” replied the father, still hugging his savior. “I’ll send flowers.”

Sharon can relate. An observant Jew (her gorgeous hair is a cunningly cool sheitel), she takes her phone to shul so that she can respond to calls on Shabbat or festivals. Piku’ah nefesh (saving lives) takes precedence over anything else; rushing to aid someone is sacrosanct. 

Slater has done her share of dashing to car crashes, and reviving pedestrians who suddenly collapse in a heap. UH volunteer dentists drop their drills, business managers pause international meetings, and teachers tell their pupils they’ll be right back when an alert beeps on their phones. The nearest five to the scene jump onto a specially outfitted ambucycle or bike, leap into an ambuboat or ATV, and speed off to the rescue. Call 1221 anywhere in Israel; someone will be there within three minutes at most. 

“IT’S A privilege to be able to help people,” notes Slater, who has recently branched out into more specialized care. With 30 years of experience in treating victims of sexual trauma, she signed up for a psycho-trauma course run by UH in 2016. And, God bless Israel, there’s no shortage of traumatic drama here.

The unit was formed to treat shock victims who were walking to buy milk when terrorists blew up their plans; almost everyone freaks out when blood flows on pavements instead of invisibly behind skin, even if the blood is not their own. Suicides and traffic accidents can also propel onlookers into serious PTSD, and often into a hospital. 

“Sometimes witnesses are unable even to speak,” explains Slater. “After the ramming of soldiers in Jerusalem, for example, passersby were unconscious with their eyes open, stuck in silent terror.”

PTSD mires sufferers in the present – they obsessively replay the horrors over and over, leading, in severe cases, to becoming paralyzed.

It’s not enough to give a traumatized soul a cup of tea and a hug; there are sophisticated techniques to soothe raging anxiety and pain. EMDR – eye movement desensitization and reprocessing – is one; tapping on knees or hands alternatively to stimulate both sides of the brain, while repetitively reassuring victims that they are safe and the incident is over, is another. 

Slater, calm and compassionate, claims it’s easier for her to be present when pain hits hard.

Soon after the Mount Meron disaster, when 45 worshipers were crushed to death on Lag Ba’omer, she mediated a massive group of traumatized medics who had had to pull little boys out of the mess and pronounce them dead. The acute trauma springs not only from witnessing death, she explains, but also from being told to stop resuscitating; that compounds the horror with a feeling of failure. 

Slater has propped up floundering families of victims in Surfside, where the condominium collapsed; in Texas, after Hurricane Harvey wreaked its havoc; and recently in Moldova on the Ukrainian border, where Israeli volunteers were the only helpers on the ground.

“This was not the time to do therapy,” she explains, “refugee women were focused on feeding their kids and finding a place to sleep.”

The UH volunteers rolled up their sleeves and started peeling potatoes; rented a bar/restaurant and bought fruit and vegetables; and served up some 2,000 meals, supplemented with meat from Israel, in 24 hours. 

“In therapy we look for emotion,” says Slater; “with refugees we look for cognition.

After being on the run for days, exhausted refugees are under a tsunami of emotions. They don’t want to hear ‘how are you?’ They want to hear that there’s food, and a place to sleep, and where there’s Wi-Fi so they can contact home.”

The trauma team briefed volunteers on relating to refugees: rushing to help with bags and carry babies is not the way to go. Whole lives are in those rucksacks, and mothers are not about to relinquish their kids to strangers, no matter how kind. Sensitivity is key; first impulses to help are not always correct. 

Between passing on tips about trauma and endlessly helping people to heal, Slater runs a full-time psychology practice and, regularly, plays the piano. She exercises each day for an hour before the sun comes up; running, lifting weights, training at high intensity. She lectures on the benefits of sleeping properly – and how we humans can’t cut corners when it comes to closing our eyes – but it’s hard to see how she can follow her own advice. 

“But I do sleep well,” she protests. “In Moldova we had no heat and no showers; we shared a tiny bed and slept in all our clothes. But I thought about the women at the border and I felt blessed that I wasn’t fleeing for my life.” 

Gratitude and perspective guide Slater’s days as she glides through life spreading healing and light. And somehow she manages to look glamorous from 5:30 a.m. until she flops into bed for her requisite hours.  

For more details about United Hatzalah, and how to sign up to be a volunteer medic, please visit www.israelrescue.org