The Human Spirit: Thinking about Haiti

In recent weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to hear the personal stories of a number of the doctors and nurses who made us Israelis and Diaspora Jews so proud.

Before the story of Israel’s remarkable mission to Haiti fades in our memories or worse, before it’s distorted to purposely tarnish both the altruism of the individual participants and our nation’s goodwill, let’s take a few moments to think back on this remarkable chapter of our history. In recent weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to hear the personal stories of a number of the doctors and nurses who made us Israelis and Diaspora Jews so proud.
Rested after the journey, long workdays, after-shocks and relentless mosquitoes, getting back into a regular routine after such an emotional experience is taking time, says Dr. Revital Hivert, a dentist and dental instructor. Hivert was supervising students at the Hadassah-Hebrew University School of Dentistry when the phone call from the Israel Police urged her to go home and pack for Haiti. “I packed T-shirts, jeans, sneakers and Crocs,” said Dr. Hivert. “Only at the briefing at Ben-Gurion Airport did I realize there would be group showers, and asked my son to drop off my bathing suit.”
Unlike the other 44 doctors in the Israeli mission, Hivert was recruited to attend to the dead. For the past decade she has volunteered for the police unit which identifies the dead from their dental records.
“Our first request came from Holland. Several couples had come to Haiti to adopt children, and the hotel where the new families were staying had collapsed.”
She was able to identify the parents from dental records and the children, who had no dental records, with chest X-rays in their adopting files. How did she cope? “One of my teachers said that just as you have to wear protective clothing and gloves, you have to create a protective covering for your heart, or you’ll never be able to think. So many lives are touched by this work that I have no choice but to overcome my feelings.”
IN HAITI, she was called away from her sacred if grisly task by the doctors tending the living. A nine-year-old girl was brought in with a jaw so shattered that she couldn’t eat. Lethal infection was already spreading. The IDF field hospital had brought no maxillofacial surgeons in the airlift. The closest specialist was military physician Dr. Haim Lavon, whose training is in ear, nose, throat and neck surgery. Lavon was ready to operate, but he was unsure how to realign the teeth. Together, Lavon and Hivert became a medical duo, removing infected bone, making sure not to sacrifice permanent teeth. Said Lavon, “You can imagine how joyous we felt when later in the day this little girl started to eat.”
The team arrived on Friday in the soccer field where they would work with no electricity, water or bathroom. The plane carrying the medical supplies and the spartan food supplies was routed through Florida and would only arrive during the night. The El Al crew that flew them over had donated the little wine bottles usually served with dinner. “Came sunset, and we sat in the dark in the field and listened to the rabbi making Kiddush,” said Hivert. “Then we sat for a long time singing Israeli songs. Being there was from the beginning all about Zionism.”
DR. SHIR Dar, the obstetrician who became famous for delivering the first baby whose grateful mother named him “Israel” in gratitude, agrees. Doctors tend to be cynical and get through difficult situations with dark humor, but from the moment the Israeli flag was hoisted, there wasn’t a drop of cynicism. Dar’s father is a Holocaust survivor and he himself has visited Auschwitz as a military physician, but “Haiti was more about the satisfaction of being able to help as an Israeli.”
Baby Israel was among the few uncomplicated deliveries he made. Most of the patients were high risks, preemies, twins and prolapsed umbilical cords – conditions that would be serious back at the Hadassah delivery room.
They’d brought delivery tables and fetal monitors, but when more pregnant women arrived than expected, they had to be creative. Short on bassinets, the obstetricians and obstetric nurses used brightly colored plastic kitchen basins. Two babies shared each incubator. In one case they had to operate immediately, without general anesthesia. Said Dar, “One of my professors back home used to describe how back in Russia, he’d deliver babies by cesarean section with local anesthesia. I’d never done it in Israel, but it worked fine.”
INDEED, THE multicultural background of the Israelis turned out to be another plus. Dr. Taras Shirov insists that the extensive scouting experience he had growing up in Siberia, and his medical education there in which would-be physicians had to work first as hospital janitors and nurses’ assistants, prepared him for whatever would follow. He served in the Russian army and in the IDF’s famed 669 airborne medical rescue unit. He was an anesthesiologist when he moved to Israel 10 years ago and began working in the intensive care unit at Hadassah, but he’s doing a second medical residency, this time in orthopedics.
“I was about 30 percent anesthesiologist, 70% orthopedist in Haiti,” he said. “The hardest part was treating the children,” said the father of two. “Some had broken limbs but didn’t cry. One child fell asleep while being treated.”
According to Shirov, the wisest decision of the entire mission was to include Reuven Gelfond, the Hadassah operating room chief nurse. All the physicians I interviewed independently lauded his genius for practical solutions. “I had worked with him for years but had no idea how brilliant he was in field operation,” said Shirov.
It was Gelfond who had the first tent up after six hours. While other relief teams were using vodka to sterilize equipment, he created an effective system to keep the flow of clean tools into the Israeli tent hospital.
He gained the greatest recognition for coming up with a solution when the orthopedists were about to run out of the surgical screws essential for hip surgery. Without surgery, hip fractures can be fatal, but the screws would take time arriving from Israel.
What they did have plenty of was the surgical nails used for less crucial repairs. Gelfond realized that with the right equipment he could turn the nails into screws. But where would he find such a machine?
“Everyone thought I was ridiculous going out to get one, but I had this irrepressible feeling that I’d find something if I scrounged around,” he said. Within a mile of the field hospital he came upon a collapsed metal-working shop. He located the office and began opening boxes of equipment he found in the rubble. At last he opened a box and found small cylindrical steel balls that could create threads on nails. His surgical nails were .5 millimeter. He found the exact match.
Surgery could go ahead.
“Okay, I admit I’m handy with equipment, but there’s no logical way to explain how I found that machine. I’d never been to Haiti before. I hadn’t ventured beyond the soccer field. I just knew it was out there and I could do it. All you can do in life is prepare and work hard. Then, sometimes you simply get a boost from Above.”
The author is a Jerusalem writer who concentrates on the wondrous stories of Modern Israel and its people. She also represents the women of Hadassah in Israel.