Saving a soldier's life under fire in a helicopter

"The ability to perform medical procedures in a helicopter requires a high-level of professionalism."

helicopter resuce 88 (photo credit: )
helicopter resuce 88
(photo credit: )
News of the wounded came in the middle of the night, with just several hours left before dawn. St.-Sgt. Avraham, a paramedic with the Air Force's elite 669 search and rescue unit, boarded a Yanshuf transport helicopter at a base in the North and began making his way deep into Lebanese territory. As the helicopter crossed into Lebanese airspace, for the first time in the war, Avraham said he saw anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles whiz by the aircraft, which, backed up by Apache attack helicopters, took sharp turns and dives to avoid enemy fire. After a short flight, the pilot dipped into the southern Lebanese village of Ayta a-Sha'ab and found the group of paratroopers he was looking for. One of the soldiers had been shot in the face by a Hizbullah sniper and was in serious condition. The helicopter hovered two meters above the ground as the wounded soldier was hauled on board. "Bullets and missiles whizzed by as we hovered over the ground," recalled Avraham, whose family immigrated to Israel from Maine when he was three years old. "It is certainly an extreme situation." Once the soldier was aboard the helicopter, Avraham got to work. "He had taken a gunshot to the face," he said Wednesday. "I started to open his airways and began to put him on a drip. By the time we landed at Rambam Hospital, he was stabilized." Avraham is one of dozens of specially-trained medical personnel who work with the IDF's Medical Corps and unit 669. The team, made up of doctors and paramedics like Avraham, undergo advanced and intense training to learn how to treat the wounded while flying in a helicopter in complete darkness under enemy fire. The team flew over 100 operational sorties into Lebanon during the 33 days of fighting there and evacuated and treated over 300 wounded soldiers. The unit was established following the Yom Kippur War in 1973, but according to Chief IDF Medical Officer Brig.-Gen Dr. Hezi Levy, the unit has never worked as intensely as it did during the past month of fighting. "The work this medical team does is unlike any other medical team in Israel," Levy said. "They risk their lives by getting into a helicopter, in the dark and under enemy gunfire. With all that going on, they then need to begin treating the wounded." To learn how to insert a tube or an IV into a wounded soldier's body while flying in a noisy, moving helicopter, unit 669 developed a special simulator several years ago in which the medical personnel undergo rigorous training sessions that test their ability to work on the wounded under such conditions. "The ability to perform surgical and medical procedures in a noisy and shaky place like a helicopter requires a high-level of professionalism," Levy said. "You need to be able to keep someone alive under difficult conditions." Not every doctor, explains Maj. Ophir, commander of the 669 airborne medical team, is suitable to be a member of the unit. "You could be the best doctor in your hospital," he said, "but that doesn't necessarily make you qualified to perform medical procedures in a helicopter."