United Hatzalah founder Eli Beer bounces back from COVID-19

When Eli Beer, founder and president of United Hatzalah, returned to Israel from Miami on April 21 following his recovery from COVID-19, he was given a hero’s welcome at Ben-Gurion Airport.

United Hatzalah founder and president Eli Beer closes his eyes to recite the ‘Shema’ as he arrives at Ben-Gurion International Airport on April 21 (photo credit: YEHUDA HAIM/FLASH90)
United Hatzalah founder and president Eli Beer closes his eyes to recite the ‘Shema’ as he arrives at Ben-Gurion International Airport on April 21
(photo credit: YEHUDA HAIM/FLASH90)
When Eli Beer, founder and president of United Hatzalah, returned to Israel from Miami on April 21 following his remarkable recovery from COVID-19, he was given a hero’s welcome at Ben-Gurion Airport. 
His wife, Gitty, and five children were there to greet him, as were hundreds of volunteers, ambucycles and ambulances of United Hatzalah, a Jerusalem-based rapid response organization that saves lives around the clock across Israel. 
After covering his eyes to say Shema Yisrael, Beer was overcome with joy as he embraced his family before being driven off in an ambulance. “I am happy to be back in Israel among my immediate family and my extended family of 6,000 first response volunteers of United Hatzalah,” he said. “I fought for my life for several weeks. Now I’m returning home to continue saving lives.”
It was with mixed feelings that Beer, 46, had flown to Florida in early March. He had good friends in Miami, but he pined for his family, whom he hadn’t seen for two-and-a-half months. “I was sobbing like crazy for them,” says Beer. “I missed them so much.”
He had just ended a promotional tour for United Hatzalah that had taken him to India, Qatar, the UK and the US, where he held a fund-raiser emceed by comedian Jay Leno in Los Angeles and attended the annual gathering of the pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, in Washington, DC. The tour began in December 2019, when Beer – who can charm any audience – raised some $7 million for United Hatzalah at two gala dinners he hosted – one at Airport City in Israel and the other at Jungle Island in Miami a week later.
His punchy pitch was: “Saving lives for all religions.” Donate to United Hatzalah to enable its volunteers – Jews and Muslims, Christians and Druze – to save lives in Israel 24/7. Its iconic ambucycles, equipped with advanced GPS technology and lifesaving equipment such as defibrillators, could get to the scene of a medical emergency in under three minutes – and as fast as 90 seconds. 
When the novel coronavirus began spreading from China to the rest of the world, Beer was in the peak of health: he had no illnesses, exercised regularly and never smoked. He called Gitty and asked her to send two of their four daughters to join him in Miami for Purim, telling her he would celebrate Passover – his favorite festival – with the whole family in Israel a month later. 
To his delight the girls flew in, and they looked forward to spending quality time together, going to a bar mitzvah of family friends on the beach in Miami and to a conference in Las Vegas. Beer went to synagogue for Purim, dressing up as Superman. But a day before the bar mitzvah, he felt that he had developed strep throat.
“I said, ‘Kids, I’m not feeling well and you need to get back to Israel because of this coronavirus outbreak.’ So I sent them home.” 
Beer went to see a doctor, who had him undergo tests and gave him antibiotics until the results came out. He stayed in his Miami apartment for three days, “when all of a sudden, I had a really hard time breathing, so I called the doctor, and he ordered me to go to the hospital immediately.” 
On March 18, he was admitted to the University of Miami Hospital, where he was told that his life was in danger and he was sent to the ICU.
“I was scared, really scared,” he says. “I called my doctor, Dr. Zev Neuwirth, and the first thing he said was, ‘Eli, do they have a ventilator there?’ I said they did. ‘Grab it while you can,’ Zev said. ‘Next week they might not have any.’”
Beer also called his friend Dr. Avi Rivkind, the head of the trauma unit at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem who also volunteers for United Hatzalah, for consultation. Then, from his hospital bed, he made a video message to his family and colleagues, urging them to do “acts of hesed (loving-kindness),” thinking that these could be his last words.
In the message, Beer said, “Hi everyone. This is Friday afternoon, the fourth day in hospital and the worst day. The doctor said they need to put me to sleep. It was announced that I have COVID-19 and my breathing is not doing better. The doctor says if they put me to sleep, they’ll intubate me, and I’ll have a better chance of recovery.”
Looking haggard as he spoke through an oxygen mask in his hospital bed, Beer noted that many people were asking what they could do to help. “My worry is United Hatzalah, this organization that saves lives every day,” he said, choking up. “Almost 2,000 people get helped every day by volunteers risking their lives to save others. So if you really want to do something to help, support United Hatzalah. It’s a critically important organization in Israel!” He then made a passionate plea to everyone watching to go onto the organization’s website, israelrescue.org, and send a donation. “Do whatever you can do to help United Hatzalah survive!”
RECALLING THAT traumatic time, he says, “I was worried about United Hatzalah, because although we have incredible people running the organization, I was the one running around the world fund-raising. So I begged people to give to Hatzalah because of the lifesaving work we do. I also said that I hoped Ya’acov Litzman would soon be out of his job as health minister. A few minutes later, they intubated me and put me to sleep.”
Regarding his last jab at Litzman, he says, emphatically, “Litzman was not the right person for the job of health minister. It’s like giving the ministry of defense to a guy who’s never held a gun.”
Beer was on a ventilator in a medically induced coma for three weeks, his life hanging by a thread due to the severity of his COVID-19 infection. To this day, he is not sure where or how he was infected. United Hatzalah and his family posted on Facebook for people to pray for the full recovery of “Eliezer Yehudah Ben Chaya,” his Hebrew name.
United Hatzalah Chair Mark Gerson and his wife Erica issued a statement saying, “We are grateful for the outstanding care Eli is receiving at the hospital in Miami, and for the remarkable support that United Hatzalah supporters are providing for him in Miami.”
The United Hatzalah Board of Directors appointed Dr. Joel Sandberg, a top ophthalmologist who is a member of the board, as Beer’s healthcare proxy. Sandberg coordinated with Beer’s doctors, consulting with the ICU pulmonary intensivists and the infectious disease physicians, and relayed updates to his wife Gitty several times a day. 
Dr. Miriam Adelson, a physician and donor to United Hatzalah together with her husband, philanthropist Sheldon Adelson, also checked in with the hospital regularly to inquire about Beer’s condition.
When Beer was in his third week on the ventilator and not doing well, suggestions for experimental treatments came in from all over the world. One was for mesenchymal stem cells which had been successful in a few tries in Israel and other countries. Sandberg spoke to the ICU and infectious disease teams to see if they were willing to try it.  
Fortunately, the University of Miami Hospital has an Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Institute that has treated 160 patients, mostly with severe heart failure. Beer was their first patient with COVID-19 to be treated. Within 36 hours of the stem cell infusion, he was better and able to be weaned off the ventilator.
After he was extubated, Beer tested negative for COVID-19 and was sent from the COVID unit to the regular ICU. Two days later, however, he developed bacterial pneumonia and septic shock after probably aspirating something into his lungs. He was febrile and had much difficulty breathing. He now tested positive for COVID-19, so he was returned to the COVID ICU, re-intubated, and put back on the ventilator. 
He was treated very aggressively by the ICU team with antibiotics and pressors (drugs to keep his blood pressure up). Beer improved rapidly with this treatment and was able to be taken off the ventilator in a few days, this time for good.
“It is not clear if it was the stem cells, the natural course of the disease, the steroids he received as pre-treatment for the stem cells, the active proning they did in the ICU for two days prior to the stem cells, or the prayers for Eli from around the world,” says Sandberg, whom Beer credits for saving his life. “The University of Miami now has a clinical trial using stem cells to treat COVID-19,” Sandberg adds.
Reflecting on the ordeal, Beer says, “It really was a miracle! The stem-cell treatment worked and I could breathe again. I was so happy that I could now call Gitty and tell her we could have Pessah together.”
Gitty – who is director of United Hatzalah’s women’s unit – and their daughter Avigail were on an emergency call that Friday, so they did not answer the phone at first. When they did, they were over the moon to hear that Beer was on the road to recovery. 
His eyes welled up when they told him that Passover had passed and that the family had held a Seder in their Jerusalem home with a photograph of him wearing his orange Hatzalah shirt stuck to an empty chair. “I was devastated,” he says. “I had really wanted to be with my wife and kids for the holiday.”
Beer attributes his recovery to a combination of Dr. Sandberg’s intervention and the wonderful medical treatment he received at the University of Miami Hospital, as well as the prayers said for him by people of all faiths around the world. He was told, for example, that word of his illness spread quickly in Mumbai after his recent visit there, and United Hatzalah was flooded with messages from India wishing him a full recovery. 
But it was a blessing from a 13-year-old Israeli boy from Beitar Illit fighting a rare type of cancer that touched him deeply. “When he was 10, he visited me at our headquarters in Jerusalem,” Beer says. “When I was sick, this special boy prayed for me every single day with tears in his eyes. After I recovered, he called me while he was getting ready for his bar mitzvah. He told me he was so happy that I am alive and that he can’t wait to grow up and volunteer for United Hatzalah.” 
Beer was so strengthened by the boy’s words that he resolved after their phone call that he would return to Israel as soon as possible and redouble his efforts to promote United Hatzalah around the world. 
BEER REMEMBERS vividly that before he turned six, on June 2, 1978, as he was walking home from school with his older brother, he witnessed the horrific explosion of Bus No. 12 near their family home in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vagan neighborhood. He had heard an old man calling out for help in the bloody wreckage of the terrorist attack.
The terrorist attack killed six people – five of them Israeli teens aged 12 to 18 and an American aged 30 – and wounded 20 others. In his young mind, he couldn’t understand why it had taken so long for medical teams to get to the scene to help the victims. 
It was a feeling he never forgot. The trauma and helplessness he experienced would later inspire him to learn how to save lives himself. His parents were Orthodox Jews who had made aliyah from New York; his father owned a religious book store in Bayit Vagan. When he turned 15, they allowed him to do a paramedic course and become a volunteer EMT for the Magen David Adom ambulance service in Jerusalem.
One day, his MDA team received an emergency call from the family of a seven-year-old child choking on a hot dog. Because of traffic congestion from one side of the city to the other, the ambulance took more than 20 minutes to get to the scene, and when the team finally started administering CPR, it was too late. A doctor who lived nearby arrived, told them to stop the CPR and declared the child dead. Beer thought to himself: “This child should not have died. If that doctor, who lived just one block away, had been alerted by someone 20 minutes earlier, he could have saved the child. There must be a better way, a faster way to get help to people in times of emergency.” 
At the age of 17, he decided to get together a group of 15 friends who were all EMTs, and find a way to get to the scene of an emergency within minutes in their Jerusalem neighborhood. He had heard about the Hatzalah initiative started among hassidic communities in Brooklyn in the 1960s in which volunteer medics responded to calls from community members in their neighborhood. He approached the manager of the ambulance company and said, “Please, whenever you have a call in our neighborhood, just alert us by beeper. We’ll buy beepers, and working together, we can save lives by getting to the scene much faster.” The manager laughed, saying, “Kid, go to school or go open a falafel stand. We’re not interested in your help.” But Beer was a stubborn kid, or as he puts it, “a meshuggener.”
He decided, in his words, to employ the famous Israeli trait called “chutzpah” and went to buy two police scanners, which he and his friends took turns monitoring. The day after they began the operation, Beer was himself listening to the scanner when he heard about a 70-year-old man who had been hit by a car just a block away, on the main street of his neighborhood. Without any medical equipment, he raced there and found the man lying on the ground with blood gushing out of his neck. Beer knew he had to stop the bleeding as soon as possible, or else the man would die.
Without thinking, he took off his yarmulke and, applying as much pressure as he could muster, pressed it on the man’s neck. Fifteen minutes later, when the ambulance arrived, Beer was able to give the paramedics a patient who was alive.
When Beer went to visit him two days later, the man – a Holocaust survivor – embraced him in tears, thanking him for saving his life.  At that moment, he realized that this man was the first person whose life he had saved after working for two years in an ambulance. Jewish tradition teaches that one who saves a life has saved an entire world. Beer vowed that from now on, his mission would be to find a way to save as many lives as possible.
He succeeded in realizing his dream in 2006 by bringing together more than 50 independent Hatzalah organizations under one umbrella to form United Hatzalah of Israel – an inclusive enterprise that “unites” people of all faiths, both among the volunteers and the people they save. Recognized by health authorities as a national medical emergency organization, United Hatzalah grew rapidly over the coming years.
Today it is the largest rapid-response service in Israel, dispatching EMTs, paramedics and doctors across the country in response to calls via the national emergency line or directly to United Hatzalah (whose phone number in Israel is 1221). It never charges: its volunteers, ambulances and ambucycles help everyone for free.  
Beer’s revolution was to offer the service to everyone, rather than a particular community. In his words, “United Hatzalah is not about saving Jews. It’s not about saving Muslims. It’s not about saving Christians. It’s about saving people.” While the integration of volunteers of different faiths – including the range of Jews from haredi to secular – was challenging at first, they soon became like a large family, working together as a team to save lives and establishing close relationships with one another in the process. 
United Hatzalah, headquartered on Yirmiyahu Street in Jerusalem – a city viewed by the world as the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – has become a model for peaceful coexistence. Beer has opened branches from the US and Canada to South America, England and France, and his vision is to replicate its lifesaving model across the globe. 
FOLLOWING A huge send-off by supporters of United Hatzalah at the airport in Miami – with a convoy of cars passing by to wish him well – and his triumphant flight back to Israel on Dr. Miriam Adelson’s private plane, Beer stayed at a friend’s apartment in Tel Aviv to recuperate before returning to his family home in Jerusalem.
On May 8, Beer celebrated a rare holiday called Second Passover (Pessah Sheni) in Israel. The symbolism was powerful: Just as the holiday gave Jews a second chance to celebrate, so he had been given the gift of a new lease on life. Three days later, he visited the Western Wall to say the Birkat Hagomel prayer of gratitude for his recovery, and to lead a worldwide prayer for healing those afflicted with coronavirus. “Thank G-d, I’m lucky to be alive,” he says, echoing the sentence he’s heard from many people whose lives he and United Hatzalah have saved. n