When Rachel Gemara, 32, moved back to Israel from Canada in 2006, she had already decided she wanted to train as a nurse. However, little did she know she would be on the front line in Israel’s battle against COVID-19 (popularly termed “corona.”)
Gemara, together with 20 other staff, volunteered to work in the special coronavirus unit at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, and now, through her “corona journal,” she has become an inspiration to many.
“I always wanted to be a nurse. I found the medical field interesting and have two aunts who are doctors and another who is a nurse. From a young age, I looked up to my aunts, particularly the one who was a nurse, and thought I would find her work suitable for me – caring for others and doing something that was meaningful,” Gemara says.
Gemara describes, how unlike in her previous role on the oncology ward where she was in direct contact with her patients, she now has to keep her distance, sitting in what they call the chamal [literally meaning “war room”] where using monitors and videos, they keep a track of their patients’ blood pressure, temperature and pulse.
In order to feed her patients and give them their medication, Gemara puts on a mask and gloves and puts the food on an a shelf in an intermediary room. Once she places the food on a shelf in that room, the doors are sealed and her patients take their supplies, entering from the opposite door.
“Working in the corona unit is not so different from my usual routine, apart from the fact that the hours of my shifts have gone up from eight to 12,” she says. “I trained at Shaare Zedek for three years and decided to work in the oncology unit. We have been taught on the job how deal with corona – how to wear the protective gear and use the new technology, cameras and monitors. We are fully aware of the protocol and keep to it rigorously.”
One aspect of Gemara’s job which has changed is the colleagues she works with. “The nurses who work with me in the corona ward chose to do so. I decided to switch for two reasons. Firstly, because I thought it was important and secondly, as I saw it as a national calling. People always ask me – and, yes - I do feel safe as we are all being super careful.”
Working with corona patients is emotionally draining, as Gemara describes. “Seeing our patients isolated, away from their loved ones and suffering is really hard. Their families are on the phone to us regularly, and we have to calm them down, while at the same time telling them the facts. Also, the protective gear we have to wear is uncomfortable. Finally, not knowing when corona will finish is also challenging – ‘I want it to end as soon as possible.’”
Gemara is praiseworthy of the way her hospital has responded. “Shaare Zedek has dealt with it really well – always a step ahead,” she says. “They transformed themselves immediately and built the department overnight. From the engineers to the cleaners – the staff really work together. They are always preparing for the future – they’re on top of it.”
Gemara began writing a journal, which has a wide following. “When I started my blog on Facebook, I didn’t expect to get the response I did and it to have become so popular,” she says. “I saw other health workers share their thoughts, and I did likewise. I wanted to share some light, with a message of hope and strength – which I believe I have done.”
Gemara says it’s hard to distance yourself from what you are seeing, day in, day out. She refers to a particular case on Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, when a daughter came to visit her father. She couldn’t go inside the unit, and had come to say goodbye through the video intercom system. She asked me to hold her phone and record their interaction. As I watched her cry and talk to her father through a screen, I had to physically turn my head to hold back tears. “This was heart-wrenching to watch, I cannot even begin to imagine what it’s like for them.”
Gemara says she has been inspired by the way corona patients have created a sense of family for themselves. “The patients look after each other – particularly the younger ones for the older ones – who are more isolated. The sense of togetherness and mutual concern is really heartwarming.”
“I’ll never forget another scene on erev Shabbat a few weeks ago,” Rachel describes. “It was 6:30 p.m., and I was finishing off my last tasks inside the unit. At this point, the moderate patients had all congregated in the ward to do the Kabbalat Shabbat [welcoming Shabbat service].”
She thought to herself how special it is that the only permissible minyan in Jerusalem was right now in the Corona ward!
“People from all walks of life and across the religious spectrum were singing and rejoicing together as they brought in Shabbat. I felt so privileged to be witnessing this scene of unity and love for fellow Jews. Corona really doesn’t discriminate - it doesn’t care who you are or where you came from – and this was their response – to join together in prayer and song,” Gemara says.
Gemara believes she is learning so much from her patients on the ward, describing movingly her Passover Seder night with them.
“I spent my Seder in the ‘chamal’ looking on at the corona patients inside the unit. That afternoon, a nurse went in to set up a beautiful table for the patients that were well enough to sit and have a proper seder. We also arranged portable oxygen tanks for the patients that needed constant oxygen supply so they could also take part.”
Gemara continues, “The rabbi leading the Seder was a new patient – he arrived the day before. I was in awe as I watched him give over words of Torah and wisdom and excitedly engage the other patients. Even under unfortunate circumstances, he turned this experience into a positive one for everyone there. It’s amazing to watch them help each other out, bringing the elderly patients in with wheel chairs and visiting the ones that are too ill to leave their rooms. By the end of the seder, they all got up to form a circle and dance and sang, ‘Le’shana Ha’ba’a B’Yerushalayim!’ [Next year in Jerusalem].
“I felt like I was getting a glimpse of what the first Passover must have been like. Going through something unknown and unnerving, we were there for one another and got through it together, and these patients are doing just that right now,” Gemara comments.
When talking about her corona patients who had died, Gemara was clearly affected. “Sadly, some of my patients have passed away, including the well-known Prof. Mark Steiner.” The coronavirus patient who passed away with whom she was closest was a Holocaust survivor, Aryeh Even, 88, who was the first person to die in Israel from the virus.
Gemara was on duty when Even died. “During the day, he was fine, he was talking, the patients were talking to him,” she says. “He was fine on Friday night and then deteriorated. We could see that his heart rate was going up very quickly. There was some sort of arrhythmia. And we knew something’s happening, we need to go in. The other nurse and the doctor rushed in.
“I could see from where I was sitting, watching the screen, that his breathing was becoming less and less. Because I’m an oncology nurse, this is something I see all the time, I’m very familiar with it — I saw that they were his last breaths.”
“The doctor and nurse then broke into the room, said Shema with him and told ‘Aryeh, we’re with you, we love you,’ they really comforted him,” Gemara says.
In her journal entry, she wrote:
My heart is broken. On Friday night my worst fears were realized as I watch my beloved patient, Aryeh Even, take his last breaths on earth. By the grace of God, two patients *angels* rush to his side. With tears in my eyes, I watch them instinctively place their hands on his eyes and recite the Shema prayer. They comfort him and say goodbye as his holy soul enters the gates of Heaven.
I know what the next step is, and I’m already dreading it – the Health Ministry has prepared us with instructions on how to deal with the deceased COVID-19 patients. We are the first hospital in Israel to implement this protocol. Similar to causalities in a biological war, our treatment of the body needs to be done in a way that will not endanger anyone else who will come in contact until the burial.
My dear Aryeh, you survived the horrors of the Holocaust, immigrated to Israel, established a magnificent family and your extraordinary journey ends here, in this new ward we hoped we would never have to open. The circumstances of your hospitalization did not allow for your loving family and caretaker to be by your side. For us and them, this was heartbreaking.
We did our best to go in as often as possible. From the outside, we monitored you as closely as we could. In the unit, we were in awe as we watched the other patients care for you, keep you company and helped you however best they could. They so badly did not want you to ever feel alone.
You’ve touched my heart, the staff, and the patients that surrounded you. I know your life will inspire the rest of Am Yisrael (the nation of Israel) as well.
Go in peace, go to your resting place in peace. Look out for us from above.
Love, Rachel Gemara
Gemara refers to Israel’s struggle with coronavirus as a war-like situation, where they don’t know what’s going to happen next, but are preparing each day for the next battle – and most importantly, to be one step ahead. “It’s impossible to know how things will turn out and when this will end,” she says.
What is certain is that with highly capable and dedicated nurses like Gemara fighting for us, we are assured to be victorious in the end!”