‘Saving a single life is like saving an entire world’

After being away from home for two weeks, the 147-person delegation from the IDF Home Front Command and the Medical Corps has return.

idf in phillipines 521 (photo credit: Reuters/IDF )
idf in phillipines 521
(photo credit: Reuters/IDF )
After being away from home for two weeks, the 147-person delegation from the IDF Home Front Command and the Medical Corps has returned from the Philippines.
Sitting on the plane home, they felt satisfied, excited, happy and mostly just tired. In the field hospital they had constructed in Bogo City, they had treated 2,686 Filipino men, women and children who were injured in Typhoon Haiyan.
The Israeli staff felt that they hadn’t just opened the doors of the hospital tent, they had opened their hearts as well.
The Philippines has suffered through 22 typhoons this year alone, probably due to the heat that condenses in the upper layers of the atmosphere, and the pressure differentials, which create strong winds. The latest storm crossed the Philippines in early November at speeds of 320 kilometers an hour, leaving untold devastation in its wake.
Local residents, who are accustomed to storm alerts, were flabbergasted by the intensity of Typhoon Haiyan, which is thought to be the worst storm in the Philippines’ history. More than 5,000 people lost their lives, thousands are still officially missing, and hundreds of thousands were evacuated from their homes. Electricity and telephone networks crashed, water pipes were damaged, roads were blocked and rescue teams have had a difficult time reaching survivors.
FIVE DAYS after the storm hit, the Israeli delegation landed in the midst of the chaos with 90 tons of medical equipment and a strong determination to help.
The Home Front Command and Medical Corps teams set up a 15-tent field hospital next to a local hospital.
Each tent housed a different department: pediatrics, emergency, X-ray, a lab, operating rooms and obstetrics.
The fact that the hospital was mobile did not hamper its work; patients were registered in the computerized system in an orderly fashion. Sixty medical staffers worked in the field hospital; some of them were full-time military personnel, and some were doing their reserve duty. Other volunteers with no military connection had agreed to be part of the delegation as well.
“We weren’t sure exactly what the situation would be like when we arrived, so we decided to bring as many specialists with us as possible, especially those whom the army doesn’t usually need, such as midwives, pediatricians and neonatal care specialists,” says Lt.-Col.
Racheli Mizan, the IDF chief nursing officer.
The moment the order went out that a delegation would be sent to the Philippines, Mizan began gathering a team of the best professionals she could find – from within and outside the IDF. To find the best nurses, she turned to the head nurses at each hospital for recommendations.
“Nurses need to be experienced, professional and caring. We also needed staffers who were resilient and emotionally strong,” she says. She adds that not one of the people she approached turned her down.
ONE OF those people was Inbal Amit, the head nurse at Sheba Medical Center’s internal medicine department.
When Mizan asked her if she would join the team, Amit accepted on the spot, without hesitation.
“I told her ‘yes’ with a few exclamation marks,” Amit says. “Only after I accepted did I begin thinking: Who can I get to replace me at work, and how will my family get along without me – my children have only one mother. I wondered what it would be like there. I felt ready professionally and emotionally, and I knew I wanted to help.”
She shed her hospital scrubs and donned the IDF team’s. Every morning, they sang the Israeli national anthem, ate military rations and slept in joint living quarters.
“Each and every one of the team members here gave much more than they were required to,” she says proudly.
When the Israeli team arrived on the island, it found that the infrastructure had been completely destroyed, and it was very difficult to offer medical aid in these conditions.
“There was no light in the birthing room, so the mother-to-be held a flashlight so the staff could see what they were doing,” says Michal Peres, a midwife from Kfar Saba’s Meir Medical Center. “There were two or three women lying on the bed, side-by-side. It was unbelievable.”
There was no running water and no way to contact family back home, but the Israeli team succeeded in getting the electricity back up so other women could give birth in a lit room.
“I found some of my fears confirmed here: I was overwhelmed by the heat, and the camp was not a very hygienic place,” Peres says. “But I overcame my fears, and every morning I put a big smile on my face.”
After spending the night in rooms that were set up for them nearby, the dedicated nurses began their day at 6:30 a.m.
“The rooms were very small, but all we needed was somewhere to unroll our sleeping bags and rest our heads,” Mizan says.
For the first few days, the only way the staff could clean their bodies was with bottled water and a special soap.
“We were all given the appropriate vaccinations,” she says. “No one was worried.”
By the time the field hospital was officially supposed to be up and running – at 8 a.m. – everything was ready and organized.
“If it had rained at night, we’d have to dry off everything that had gotten wet from the water that had penetrated the tent,” Amit recalls.
Approximately 800 children were treated at the hospital. Some of them had lost limbs when structures had collapsed on top of them, and some of them had secondary infections.
“One two-year-old boy whom we treated had meningitis. His parents had asked to have him transferred to the Israeli hospital because they had heard it was offering the best treatment in the area,” says Orna Tzuria, the head nurse at the Safra Children’s Hospital at Tel Hashomer. “After treating him intensively around the clock, we succeeded in stabilizing him and were able to have him transferred to a local hospital for further treatment. I was very satisfied that we were able to implement Israeli standards that I’d learned in hospitals in Israel.”
When one department became less congested, staff members assisted in other departments, or found other useful tasks to perform. No one ever sat around doing nothing.
“No one was thinking about their ego,” Tzuria says. “If something needed to be cleaned, garbage taken out or things to be moved, everyone helped out whenever they could. If I could copy this work ethic and implement it back home, that would be amazing.”
THE ISRAELI volunteers were able to keep in touch with home mainly through WhatsApp. Everyone had left behind spouses and (some young) children, but they all assert that their nuclear and extended families mobilized to help out while these women were busy helping others on the other side of the world.
Amit’s three children, ages six through 13, missed her tremendously, but they were also proud of her.
“My kids didn’t really understand why I was going away,” she says.
“But they helped each other and did everything they could to get through this period as best as they could. I believe that part of educating our children is showing by example, not just telling them that it’s important to volunteer. I am lucky to have had this opportunity to help other people.”
‘IN JUST one week, we had restored their classrooms and mended the roof. They sang Hebrew songs and hugged us.’ “Granted, the Filipino staff is extremely knowledgeable, but their equipment is two decades old. It was difficult to see that this is the way the people here live.
At home, if babies are born premature or are in danger, they are immediately transferred to the NICU. But here, the baby is handed over to the mother, who does her best to keep the baby alive. We’re not used to such sights.”
Only now, after arriving home, will these four nurses be able to start processing these intense experiences, which will remain with them for the rest of their lives.
“The last time I flew with a team overseas was after the 1999 earthquake in Turkey,” Mizan says. “I was a young officer then, and what I remember the best was the intensity and the feeling of responsibility that the IDF had. The Israeli staff worked nonstop to help the Turkish people.”
Tzuria says this trip “was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had. I came here to help these people get back on their feet, and yet I’m the one who has grown stronger as a result.”
NATURAL DISASTERS – earthquakes, storms, flooding and giant waves that destroy entire cities – happen all the time all over the world. So how does the IDF decide which cases warrant sending a rescue team? “We are always ready to deploy wherever the army tells us to go,” says Lt.- Col. Haim Elisha of the Home Front Command’s Search and Rescue Unit.
“And don’t forget that the Philippines helped us when they voted at the UN in favor of the creation of a Jewish state.”
From his experiences in areas where his unit has been deployed around the world, he says people have a positive view of Israel and the IDF.
“They definitely speak about the State of Israel in extremely positive terms. They view the IDF as an organization that saves lives and helps them voluntarily. And it’s written in the Talmud, ‘Saving a single life is like saving an entire world,’” he says.
He adds that “taking part in these types of events gives you the best feeling of satisfaction in the world. This is the fifth time I’ve taken part in a rescue team, and if I’m asked to do so again, I will go without hesitation.”
While the medical staff was busy working inside the hospital, the other Home Front staff members reconstructed a school that had been completely destroyed in the storm.
“In just one week,” says Elisha, “we had restored their classrooms and mended the roof. They sang Hebrew songs and hugged us. Until we arrived, they were living without electricity and couldn’t do anything. But from the moment we arrived, they began actively working to put everything back in order. This was so amazing to see – it brought tears to my eyes.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.