Meet the new olim fighting on the coronavirus frontline

They came to Israel from all over the world and were crucial in the fight against the pandemic.

SHOSHI DESSAUER and her colleagues in the emergency room of Hadassah Ein Kerem (photo credit: Courtesy)
SHOSHI DESSAUER and her colleagues in the emergency room of Hadassah Ein Kerem
(photo credit: Courtesy)
At the beginning of 2020, when reports started to emerge about a new infectious disease from China spreading around the world, Shoshi Dessauer, a registered nurse at the emergency room of Hadassah-University Medical Center, in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem, was not particularly worried it would affect Israel.
“We were all a bit skeptical,” Dessauer told The Jerusalem Post. “We did not think that the virus would make its way into Israel and even if it did, we expected it to be just a different type of flu.”
Little did she know that within a few weeks, life in Israel and in most of the world would turn upside down, the borders would close and the government would impose a full lockdown – which resulted, among other things, in her first Seder night spent at the emergency room.
“It was a weird experience, but if I wasn’t going to spend it with my family at home, I felt the need to be with my family at work while doing something important,” she explained.
Dessauer immigrated to Israel from Melbourne, Australia, in 2011, following her dream to build a life and a family in the Jewish state.
New immigrants represent about 30% of Israel’s 33,000 doctors and 41,000 nurses. As the health system battled against COVID, many of them found themselves at the forefront of the fight against the pandemic, sometimes with the additional burden of having left their families on the other side of the world, like Dessauer did.
“We really felt like we were on the front line because as an emergency room, we had to learn on the job what the virus was, how to treat the patients, what kind of equipment we needed to wear,” she said.
The nurse explained that it has been very difficult.
“I received a lot of support from people in Israel and abroad, but working so hard, without ever being able to have downtime and seeing family and friends, felt very isolating,” Dessauer pointed out. “The amazing part from the beginning was this big sense of mission and togetherness, that we were going to figure it out together and beat this thing.”
Taking care of his staff’s wellbeing has been one of the priorities of Dr. Jonathan Rieck, the director of the Emergency Medicine Department at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon.
Rieck made aliyah from London in 1984 after he completed his medical studies. He served as a doctor in the IDF and worked in several hospitals before arriving at Barzilai about three years ago.
“We have been very busy and have seen many corona patients and many suspected corona patients, young, old, serious, less serious. We have seen the full spectrum of the pandemic,” Rieck explained. “Some staff got infected, including myself. Thank God, I had a mild case.
“I found the endeavor especially challenging on two levels: First and foremost, in looking after the interest of my staff, leading them, but also making sure they had the right equipment; and at the beginning we had to battle for the most basic things,” he explained. “The second aspect was keeping up to date, making sure that we were offering patients the best treatments.”
The fight against the pandemic has not involved only hospital staff, but researchers working on possible cures and vaccines, as well as experts serving in an advisory capacity to the Health Ministry.
Prof. Cyrille Cohen, head of the immunotherapy laboratory at Bar-Ilan University, who immigrated from Marseille, France, in 1992, told the Post of his experiences on the panel.
“Before COVID-19 hit, I was already serving in the ministry’s committee that is in charge of approving clinical trials for gene and cell therapies. Because I’m an immunologist, during last summer they asked me to sit on the committee for clinical trials on vaccines for COVID-19. Moreover, in my laboratory we study T-cells, which are crucial to fight cancer and viruses,” he said.
“I can tell you that I do not have a lot of free time.”
Cohen has found himself also tasked with evaluating possible treatments for coronavirus patients, including whether to approve compassionate treatments for those in very serious conditions.
“I would often receive an email about a specific situation and would find myself in the need of making a decision in a matter of hours,” he said.
“A year after the pandemic begin, I feel very humbled because the virus has been teaching us a lot of new lessons, but also frustrated. We could have done better, and for me every mistake is a life that we have lost.
Facing the tremendous loss of lives brought by the pandemic and supporting families who went through the experience has been the task of Shira Yizhary, a social worker at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, who made aliyah from New York as a teenager some 12 years ago.
“I started to work between the two waves. I was in charge [of] help[ing] patients to obtain their disability rights, a very bureaucratic role,” she said.
She explained that all of a sudden, the beds started to fill up again and the hospital was not able to hire new social workers, so they asked those who were already there to serve some hours in the coronavirus wards.
The social worker found herself accompanying families with members in critical condition. At that time, visitors were not allowed in the wards, and even when they started to be allowed in, there were cases where the whole family was sick and therefore had to be in isolation.
“A couple of times, we were in a situation where we managed to bring a family member who was sick at home to visit their loved one on the deathbed,” Yizhary recalled. “On the one hand there was a little comfort in thinking that they were able to say goodbye; on the other the person still died.”
Noa Choritz immigrated from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a member of the first aliyah plane operated by Nefesh B’Nefesh in 2002.
Since then, the organization, which supports immigration to Israel from North America and the UK, has facilitated the aliyah of 680 physicians and 2,500 medical professionals, and it currently runs a program to help doctors in their immigration process.
After arriving in Israel, Choritz attended nursing school and became a nurse, working for various medical institutions before joining Terem, the chain of emergency clinics. She currently heads the Jerusalem District of Terem.
“When you’re running a chain of emergency clinics, there is always something going on, so even before the pandemic my work was pretty hectic,” she said. “I still remember when I heard about the first suspected patient who visited one of our clinics. It was a huge deal.”
At the beginning, Choritz stressed, they did not know how to handle such patients.
“Anyone who came in contact with them had to go into isolation,” she explained. “I had to go through the footage of the clinic cameras to check who had been close to them or talked to them. The Health Ministry would alert me on a Friday night in the middle of dinner and then I had to start watching the images. It was a lot.”
Choritz spent a lot of time developing protocols to make sure that the staff and other patients were protected, but she was also out in the field testing patients.
She described the vaccine as a game changer.
“All of the sudden, we did not have to be afraid anymore,” Choritz said. “I remember shaking as I was putting on the protective gear at the beginning, fearing that if I made a mistake I could get infected, since I was about to come in contact with people I knew were virus carriers.”
In the past 10 years, some 700 doctors immigrated from the former Soviet Union through the medical program run by Israel Experience, the Jewish Agency’s subsidiary for education.
Viktoriia Vergelis moved from Crimea in 2019 after graduating medical school and obtained her Israeli license as the pandemic was already raging.
Vergelis is currently doing her internship at the Shamir Medical Center near Rishon Lezion. She has been rotating through different departments, while also working with coronavirus patients, in what she describes as a very formative experience.
“What I feel is very important is the support that I have always received from the rest of the staff,” she told the Post.
Looking ahead, all olim (immigrants) hope that the country has left the worst behind.
“When I see how everybody else in the world is still struggling with the pandemic, my heart breaks for them as well,” Yizhary concluded. “But looking at us in Israel, I have never been happier to be here and to go through what we went through here. I am excited that the pandemic might come to a close, in Israel and hopefully in the rest of the world.”