United Hatzalah's Eli Beer after coronavirus: 'Sure I was not waking up'

Beer accused Litzman of preventing United Hatzalah from taking part in the country’s fight against coronavirus.

United Hatzalah's President and Founder Eli Beer returns to Israel after recovering from coronavirus (photo credit: SHIRA HERSHKOPF/UNITED HATZALAH)
United Hatzalah's President and Founder Eli Beer returns to Israel after recovering from coronavirus
“Angels were watching over me,” United Hatzalah president Eli Beer told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, his voice raspy. He coughed. “I am still weak – very, very weak.”
Beer arrived in Israel on Tuesday afternoon after recovering from the novel coronavirus, which he contracted while on a fundraising trip abroad. He was hospitalized at University of Miami Hospital for around six weeks. Most of that time he was in a coma and intubated.
“The virus is not a regular virus,” he said, “It is overly aggressive. This virus can kill anyone.”
But Beer, who helped found the country’s second-largest emergency medical service, survived.
Beer had left Israel before the coronavirus threat was understood, he told the Post. He traveled to California, India and Washington for the annual AIPAC policy conference and then to New York, before going to Miami for Purim. He recalled that AIPAC had put up signs about keeping distances, and not hugging or kissing. He followed those rules, but at the time, it was unclear how contagious the coronavirus really was.
At the end of Purim, he started to feel “all of a sudden” that something was wrong. He went to a doctor, who misdiagnosed him with strep throat. A few days later, “I felt like I couldn’t breathe anymore,” and he was rushed to the hospital.
“They took an X-ray of my chest, and the doctor immediately put me in the intensive-care unit,” he said. “Three days later, they sent a message to my wife and kids that they want to intubate me.”
Beer recorded a message to his friends and supporters asking them to pray for him: “My situation is difficult; my breathing is getting worse... I need you to keep davening [praying] and keep doing mitzvahs.”
Then, the world went dark.
An EMT, Beer said he understood the gravity of his situation. As they intubated him, he was crying. He believed that the phone call he had with his children shortly before was his last goodbye.
“I was sure I was not waking up,” he told the Post.
Beer was asleep for 18 days. When he came to, he thought he was on the road to recovery. But a few days later, he took another turn for the worse. They intubated him for another 12 days.
“This virus is 100 times more powerful than the regular flu,” he said. “This virus goes straight to your lungs, and it does not let go, and it destroys whatever it can.”
Beer, 46, does not smoke and had no underlying medical conditions.
“It’s true that people who have preexisting conditions get sicker faster,” he said. “But anyone can get it – the healthiest guy and the strongest person.”
Beer said as hard as it was to fight the virus physically, it also caused him mental anguish and depression. “When I woke up, it was the beginning of an extremely hard, emotional journey,” he said.
The medications caused him to have illusions. At one point he thought he had been kidnapped and bad people (the doctors) wanted to kill him.
“The medicine is so powerful, and they give you a lot of it,” he told the Post.
The hardest part was when Beer discovered how long he had been asleep and that he had missed the entire coronavirus escalation and Passover. He called his wife shortly after the second coronavirus coma and asked her to fly in for Passover. She barely had the heart to tell him that the world had changed and Passover was over.
He cried when he learned that his children put his picture at the head of their Seder table so it would feel like he was there.
Ultimately, Beer kept fighting, making progress and was eventually told he could leave. He tested negative for coronavirus three times before being discharged.
Dr. Joel Sandberg, the father of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and a board member of Beer's United Hatzalah, served as his medical advocate. He told the Post that Beer was treated with mesenchymal stem cells, which Beer believes saved his life.
“We were getting information on trials because he was not doing well, and one of the things we got was from Israel, a company called Pluristem, which makes mesenchymal stem cells, and they were trying them in Israel on a few cases,” Sandberg said.
Pluristem had just published preliminary data on the treatment of six critically ill coronavirus patients in Israel who were considered high-risk for mortality, with Pluristem’s placenta-based cell therapy. All those treated survived.
The hospital put Sandberg in touch with the university’s infectious-disease team, which has its own mesenchymal stem-cells program – the Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute at the University of Miami. Their cells are made from the umbilical cord.
“They wanted to try it on a COVID-19 patient but did not have a patient to do it on, so Eli became the first person to get stem cells in Miami,” Sandberg said, adding that the program managed to get its cells approved for use within the FDA’s compassionate-use program in only one day.
Beer received a series of injections over six days together with some other treatments, which likely played a role in his miracle turnaround. The Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute is now running a clinical trial.
It also helped that Beer had so many people praying for him and expressing love from around the world, Sandberg said.
“He is everyone’s hero,” he said.
Beer was flown back to Israel on the private jet of Dr. Miriam Adelson. On his arrival, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that he was “glad to hear of United Hatzalah founder Eli Beer’s recovery from coronavirus and his return to Israel.”
But Beer admitted that while he is glad to be home, he does worry about the health of his country. In a second video recording made shortly before he was intubated, one that was not supposed to be released, Beer is seen in his hospital bed struggling to breathe and speak. He berates Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, who he calls “an evil man” who has “worked against Hatzalah.”
He accuses Litzman of being “a bad person without a good heart” who is “only focused on his personal interests,” adding: “Don’t worry, our organization will grow. Litzman will not determine how far we will go.”
On Wednesday, Beer accused Litzman of preventing United Hatzalah from taking part in the country’s fight against coronavirus.
“They tell him about coronavirus, and he says Moshiach is coming; we have nothing to worry about,” Beer said. “This is a person who is going to the mikveh and to shul when he tells the country not to, and he got sick.”
Having Litzman as health minister is like having a defense minister who does not know how to hold a gun, Beer said.
Asked why he would deliver such a message on his deathbed, Beer said: “I love Israel. I saw death in my eyes. When I was about to go to sleep, I said maybe I will at least wake up Israel.”
Litzman denied the allegation.
“Minister Litzman currently is occupied purely with saving lives and managing the largest incident the world has seen today and is not engaging in slander and arguments of those who are politically inclined,” the Health Ministry said in response. “Now is not the time.”
Beer is recovering in a friend’s apartment near the beach in Tel Aviv. On Wednesday, he donated to the family of a 48-year-old father of 14 who succumbed to COVID-19 overnight Monday.
He hopes to donate plasma soon, he said.
“Thank God my body created antibodies,” Beer said. “So I can use my blood to help save other people from the coronavirus.”