By BRENDA GAZZAR
When Ronen Argalazi spoke of the moment that changed his life more than two decades ago, about 80 restless teens stopped talking, sat still and listened.
Argalazi was 17 when he hit a bump on the road, was thrown from his motorcycle and broke his neck. He wasn't concentrating on the road. He was thinking about the soft drinks his friends had asked him to fetch for the beach. "All that I was thinking about was what they wanted," said Argalazi, who is quadriplegic and uses a wheelchair. "And this was the consequence."
Argalazi's story, which he recently shared at HadassahEin Kerem with the 12th-grade students, is part of a new program that aims to combat traffic accidents among teens of driving age. The four-hour event, which is expected to reach up to 3,000 twelfth-grade teens in Jerusalem this year, brings in medical personnel, safety experts and injured survivors who discuss the physical and emotional consequences of living through an accident.
Such a program is particularly significant in Israel, where 28,760 people have been killed in traffic accidents since Israel's inception - more than those killed in every war and terror attack during the same period. Not only are more than 400 people killed in traffic accidents each year, but another 40,000 are wounded.
Those between the ages of 18 and 24 are two and a half times more likely to be involved in an accident, according to the Ministry of Transportation.
"An automobile is a good thing, we want them to drive a car, but we want them to think," said Amitai Rotem, marketing director of Hadassah Medical Organization. "If they will think of the consequences...maybe drivers tomorrow will be more careful."
In perhaps the most shocking part of the program, the students were shown a film of four teen friends who videotaped themselves during a vacation to Eilat. The video shows them swimming together at a hotel, teasing one another and goofing off in the car on their way home. But the four friends never make it, as all four are killed in a head-on collision with a truck on road no.4.
The friends stopped filming about 20 minutes before their accident, but their car -- smashed and broken into countless pieces -- is shown on screen in a film about the accident.
Students are also taken into a vacant section of the trauma unit, where they examine X-rays of trauma victims and high-tech equipment that alerts staff to the pending arrival of incoming patients.
"What would be going through your parents' heads if they got a call saying you were in critical condition?" Argalazi, a handsome man with sea blue eyes, asked the students on Nov. 14.
"What happened?" one student said.
"Maybe a terrorist attack?" another said.
"Hysteria," suggested a third.
The parents would say, "The most important thing is that he's alive," said Argalazi, 38, who paints with his mouth and works as a graphic artist in Tel Aviv. "They don't care if he is in a wheelchair. The most important thing is to tell them that their child is alive."
But those who survive face challenges many cannot imagine or expect.
Argalazi, for example, was hospitalized for one and a half months and in rehabilitation for another 10 months. Today, he must depend on someone to do the simplest daily tasks: get up in the morning, eat, drink, use the bathroom and shower.
Many crash survivors face multiple operations, treatments and long periods of rehabilitation. Accidents can cause permanent and temporary disabilities, as well as suffering not only for the victims, but for all members of the family.
Many orthopedic injuries, while not life threatening, can result in several surgeries over a young person's life, disfigurement and months of hospitalization. Even light injuries can be very significant, Dr. Sharon Ayalon, an orthopedist, told the group.
The emotional consequences can be just as traumatic. Many teens who are involved in traffic accidents have to deal with feelings of fear, mourning, guilt and depression. Some survivors have to put their life on hold - perhaps delaying or even cancelling plans to enlist in the army or attend a university. Family members often take on new roles to compensate for the lack of ability of the victim, social worker Dorit Grinshpan said.
The program, which is conducted by volunteers, swung into motion after Hadassah Director-General Shlomo Mor-Yosef decided he wanted to do "something" about the 10,000 patients seen at Hadassah each year due to traffic accidents, said Rotem.
Last year, 400 students went through a pilot project, and in June, the program was awarded a prestigious safety award from the Jerusalem Municipality.
Next year, hospital officials say they hope to see the program implemented with other hospitals throughout the country.
"Today, there are many organizations that combat traffic accidents, each one in their own way, and we thought what we could do involves the things that we see day to day, to pass on the trauma to the public, the drama that happens to large numbers of those injured," Rotem said.
The program's content, which stresses road safety, seat belts and personal responsibility, is a collaborative effort that sprang from a need but is not modeled after another program or based on hard scientific data. Each teen group is solicited at the end of the day for feedback and its reactions.
"In the long term, will this make them drive more carefully? We can't say," Rotem acknowledged. "We just hope that our actions and those of the Green Light organization,[...] and the campaigns of the Ministry of Transportation, that all this together will ultimately do something." Students from the Kedma and Machon Lev schools who attended the program on Nov. 14 said they found the program interesting and sobering.
"You always see traffic accidents and light injuries on television, and you say, they will get through this, but suddenly you see that even the "light injuries" are actually serious injuries, and can stay with you your whole life," said Adi Azori, 17, from Kedma School.
Machon Lev student Noah Dresner, 17, said the program helped the students understand the "terrible consequences" of traffic accidents.
His mother, Hanna Dresner, said that she is hopeful that such a program will decrease the number of car accidents on the road.
"I find that some parents are more protective by not showing (children) the bad things in life," said Dresner, of Nof Ayalon, in a phone interview. "I think it's very important. I think if they are aware of the danger, they might be more careful."
The Hadassah initiative is a partnership with the Education Board of Jerusalem, Green Light, the National Council for the Prevention of Traffic Accidents, the Municipality of Jerusalem, the Ministry of Transportation and the Ministry of Education.
For more info. call 677-6080. More information about Argalazi and his artwork can be found at argalazigallery.com