The well-being of Israel’s children isn't a priority for Health Ministry

"I was devastated that the health of the most unfortunate children in the country was not the priority for any of the decision makers."

MK ORLY LEVY-ABEKASIS (center) takes a seat in the protest tent (photo credit: YONATAN PELEG)
MK ORLY LEVY-ABEKASIS (center) takes a seat in the protest tent
(photo credit: YONATAN PELEG)
One morning in June 2017, I woke up with a mission – to get 11 Jerusalem city council members to sign a letter calling for an extraordinary meeting to talk about the crisis that was unfolding in Pediatric Hematology-Oncology in Hadassah University Medical Center.
The previous evening a group of concerned citizens and political activists as well as representatives from the city’s pluralistic parties had gathered in the German Colony neighborhood’s Ramban synagogue under the auspices of Rabbi Binyamin (Benny) Lau to figure out what we could do to help solve this tragic situation. As Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat refused to comment on the issue or even sit with the parents and lobby on their behalf, we honored the request of one of the parents to force the mayor’s hand to act through this unique city council meeting.
I had begun to get involved in the struggle a few weeks earlier when a close friend who worked in the department alerted me to a very concerning situation. The pediatric oncologists were being squeezed by management to do more bone marrow transplant operations, because they were profitable and the hospital needed to find a way to crawl out of financial deficit.
The doctors were being spread so thin, they felt it was compromising the care that they were giving the children in the regular cancer ward. Furthermore, to save resources, they were being ordered to put child and adult bone-marrow transplant patients in the same ward, despite the fact that every professional opinion and all research indicates that children suffer significantly when they share a ward with adults.
When I became aware of the issue, there had already been many rounds of negotiations between the management and doctors. The relationship between Prof. Ze’ev Rothstein, the new director-general of Hadassah, and Dr. Micky Weintraub, the head of pediatric oncology, had broken down irreparably. The doctors felt that there was no option but to stage a walkout, leaving the department with no specialists and therefore completely dysfunctional. Children were being diverted to hospitals around the country for treatment of brain tumors, leukemia and other types of cancer because there was simply no longer any specialist treatment in Hadassah to care for them. This was putting an enormous strain on hospitals in the center of the country and on the entire system.
EVEN WORSE, Rothstein and deputy health minister Ya’acov Litzman were insisting that the department in Hadassah was business as usual, dismissing near-fatal mistakes made by non-specialist doctors that were shipped in to avert the crisis. And they were lying in general to the public about the level of care in the ward. Anyone visiting the department after the doctors walked out knew that in Hadassah’s Pediatric Hematology-Oncology you would only find Palestinians with no resources and connections, and medical tourism in the form of children who were having bone marrow transplants. What added insult to injury was that Litzman himself, while claiming that everything was fine in Hadassah, was privately sending friends and family to Sheba Medical Center in Tel Hashomer.
The doctors were impatient, believing that if the public understood the situation, they could garner enough public support to win the battle and open a new pediatric oncology department in Shaare Zedek. They could move their combined best practices and knowledge to another hospital in the capital.
Little did they know that this was a political battle in every sense, and in politics there is no justice.
Litzman, who had brought Rothstein from Sheba to “save” the terrible financial situation of Hadassah Medical Center, was giving him his full backing and blessing to do what he needed to do – even if it meant reducing care for the children or focusing on bone marrow transplant operations. All solutions were acceptable in the name of increasing profit.
In addition, Litzman, not to be undermined by a group of doctors, threatened Shaare Zedek not to make even a minimal move towards establishing a pediatric oncology department and sent threatening letters to them for hiring a few of the doctors that had left Hadassah. And sadly, when the health minister threatens a national hospital that receives funding from him, there is little that can be done.
As the drama was unfolding, Barkat refused to get involved because Litzman and his Gur faction were the only haredim (ultra-Orthodox) who voted for him in 2013, thus handing him his victory when he almost lost to Moshe Leon. The last thing was going to do was bite the hand that fed him and therefore, who was left?
The parents, who fought with everything they had – from protests, marches and tents to court and even hunger strikes. And the doctors, who had walked out and therefore bore some of the responsibility – although after many conversations with them, I truly believe that they felt they had no choice.
WHEN I became more deeply involved, I quickly realized that very few people were going to put themselves on the line to help, as there was little political benefit to go up against Litzman.
I was devastated that the health of the most unfortunate children in the country was not the priority for any of the decision makers. I became emotionally invested in this struggle, brought MKs to the tent, lobbied the Shaare Zedek board and even wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu begging for his intervention, as he was the only person in the entire country that Litzman would possibly take orders from.
He sent his wife, Sara; she visited the protest tent, got everyone’s hopes up and then… nothing.
In my arena of local government, everyone showed their true colors. The letter with the signatures I tried to arrange on that same morning a year ago was signed by myself and the members of my party Yerushalmim, as well as Meretz and Arieh King. In short, all opposition members signed but we still needed another six signatures. Hitorerut, which had attended the meeting with Lau and agreed to sign, dragged its heels for a whole day, saying they were making some changes to the letter. By the afternoon, I realized they had no intention to sign – and they didn’t.
Our strategy – of getting the 11 signatures needed to push for this extraordinary meeting of the council and pressure to take a stand in favor of the families – was not working.
Deputy mayor Meir Turgeman, known for a short temper but a good heart, was the next person I pleaded with for help. He initially agreed in the morning – but when he saw I was gaining momentum and it may have happened, he wrote me a text in the afternoon saying that if I signed in his name as he had agreed, he would sue me for libel.
So in the end we were left alone with the families and the doctors.
THIS STORY unfortunately still does not have a happy ending. Hadassah today lacks the specialty they once had to save the lives of children suffering from cancer. This means that the capital of the State of Israel, its largest and most populous city, no longer offers best-of-class pediatric oncology treatment. Not only that, but the Health Ministry till today is actively preventing the opening of a new department to house this specialty in Shaare Zedek.
I said in my letter to Netanyahu of a year ago: “We could blame Litzman for his stubbornness in blocking the reopening of the department at Shaare Zedek, because he needs Weintraub to remain the cash cow of a hospital in serious financial crisis.
“We could blame Weintraub for being unwilling to wait a little longer to give management a chance to change course, however unlikely that eventuality may seem.
“We could blame the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, for his deafening silence on an issue that has punishing consequences for 250 of the weakest families in his city every year.
“We could even zoom out and blame political power plays, bad management, bureaucracy, ego, or even Bernard Madoff.
“But just for one terrifying minute, I would like you to put all that aside and imagine that your child, your most precious and loved possession in this universe, is going through a horrifying disease – even if there is a decent chance of survival, you will go through the daily agony of seeing them suffer for the next few years.
“You will watch them lose weight and color, their hair, their laughter, their daily routine, their childhood.
“You will lose motivation and energy for your work, career, partner or any daily enjoyment you had before this terrible thing happened.
“You see good, kind, caring people around you doing their very best to treat your child like their own, but your child is sleeping in a hospital bed for weeks and months, away from their home, school, friends and family.
“And to all of this misery you now pile on hours of travel, traffic, expense and distance from your community when you most need them.”
CHILDREN AND their families are still spending hours in traffic to receive the care that gives them a chance to survive this devastating disease. When they get a fever in the middle of the night and have to be in the hands of a doctor within 15 minutes, it takes them at least an hour to get to their hospital.
We have allowed politics to get in the way of a basic human right in this country, the right to good medical care and the best treatment this country has to offer, for the best chances of survival for sick children who have their whole lives ahead of them.
I am ashamed that we are still fighting this battle and that we failed in our attempt to create the national outrage necessary to get a new pediatric oncology ward in Shaare Zedek. Maybe it was naïve on my part to believe that good triumphs in the end. However, for the sake of these children, the city and the country have no option but to step up to their responsibilities. This is the reason the system exists in the first place – and the public should ensure that the politicians do not forget it.
The writer is a Jerusalem city councilwoman and leader of the Yerushalmim Party.