Remarkable Rambam

An underground hospital in Haifa is ready for anything.

An operating drill in Rambam hospital (photo credit: COURTESY RAMBAM MEDICAL CENTER)
An operating drill in Rambam hospital
It looks like any other upscale parking garage, if a bit cleaner than most. But this parking garage can become an underground hospital that can hold more than 1,700 patients, and is safe from conventional, biological or chemical attack.
It goes deep under the Mediterranean Sea and is connected to the Rambam Medical Center by elevators. Inside the walls of the parking spaces are all of the electrical needs for hospital beds, along with 22 surgical suites and 94 dialysis beds. Along the ceiling are medical pipelines that can carry air, oxygen, and water.
“Upstairs is Rambam hospital, the Level A trauma center for the entire north [of Israel],” Abigail Zohar, of the hospital’s resource development department, said during a tour. “Down here is a hospital that is double its size and run by the army just for emergency situations.”
Tensions have been ratcheting up along Israel’s borders – with Gaza in the south, and Lebanon and Syria in the north. After a series of Israeli air strikes on Iranian targets in Syria, Hezbollah leaders made a series of threats against Israel. Israeli intelligence believes Hezbollah has at least 120,000 rockets that can easily reach all of Israel.
In the last war between Israel and Lebanon in 2006, tens of thousands of residents fled Hezbollah missile attacks. Rambam hospital remained open, although many of the doctors couldn’t reach the hospital and patients were afraid to come.
Those experiences led to the building of the underground hospital, which opened in 2014 at a cost of $100 million to build and almost $10 million to maintain each year. The hospital can house a maximum of 1,740 patients, almost double the 1,000 patients that Rambam can treat at once. There are 12 huge pneumatic doors, each weighing five tons, that can completely seal off parts of the hospital. There are 2,000 NBC filters to clean the air from chemical weapons.
“We can come down here and stay as long as we want,” Zohar said. “We have generators and two water supplies. But after 72 hours we would need to resupply.”
The hospital recently conducted an extensive drill with the army’s Home Front Command and the Israeli Ministry of Health to check the hospital’s preparedness for war. It was planned for months, and it involved dozens of members of the army’s Home Front Command, as well as staff at Rambam hospital.
“We are constantly checking our preparedness for any event,” Dr. Erez Carmon, the Executive Manager of the hospital. “We want to make sure we are ready for any event that can happen.”
He said that every detail of the underground hospital has been planned. There are areas for decontamination of patients and staff in the event of a non-conventional attack. While most hospital shifts are eight hours, shifts here will be 12 hours to minimize traffic on the roads. The hospital can meet the needs of all dialysis patients in northern Israel, as well as all of the maternity beds in the north.
Dr. Carmon said that having the hospital helps in resilience of the civilian population and helps them continue to function even during wartime.
The drill comes as Rambam (named after the Jewish sage Maimonides who was a doctor) marked its 80th anniversary. Built 10 years before the creation of the state of Israel, it has become both a leading research hospital and a bastion of coexistence between Jewish and Arabs during an increasingly fractured time.
“About 25 percent of our staff including the doctors, are Arab citizens of Israel,” hospital director Dr. Rafael Beyer said in an interview. “There is a great atmosphere here of treating patients and saving lives.”
Rambam also treats hundreds of Palestinian patients from the West Bank. One patient, Imad Abu Dayyah, an official in the Palestinian Authority, recently received cancer treatment in Rambam. In gratitude he decided to make a donation to the hospital, donating tens of thousands of shekels to establish a playroom for children undergoing radiation therapy.
To mark the 80th anniversary of the hospital, Rambam organized a conference on innovative trends in medicine, including TED-style talks by young doctors and scientists. Most impressive was a young Arab woman Shorook Naara, 31, who is doing both a PhD, focusing on pancreatic cancer, and a residency as a surgeon. Wearing tight black leather pants, she spoke about growing up in Nazareth and the support she has always gotten from her parents.
She told the female medical students in the audience that they could accomplish anything they wanted. She spoke passionately about her love for medicine, and received a long round of applause.
In an interview Naara said that she has had to make the same sacrifices that any young aspiring doctor had to make.
“I’ve had to miss a lot of family events and I’m not married,” she said. “My grandmother keeps asking me when I’ll get married. That’s the only thing that is important to her.”
Beyond her grandmother, however, she has received nothing but encouragement and support from her family, colleagues and teachers at Rambam Hospital.
The hospital is expanding as well. They are about to break ground on the 20-story Helmsley Health Discovery Tower. The tower, which will be a joint project between Rambam hospital and the University of Haifa, aims to combine medicine and technology, and will focus on both research and teaching. The Tower will also have office space for new businesses combing health and technology