By Dr. Jonathan Halevy
In the days following the Haiti earthquake, the international press was awash in astonishing reports commending Israel’s tremendous work in medical disaster response and setting up a field hospital operation that had other nations looking on in awe. Even as these reports left us feeling intense pride, our reaction back in Israel has been one of far less surprise.
From CBS to CNN to MSNBC and numerous other outlets across the media landscape, wide-eyed medical reporters witnessed the Israeli operation with an underlying tone of combined admiration and jealousy.
Why is it that of the dozens of countries contributing to the relief effort, with delegations of all shapes and sizes, it’s the Israelis who travel halfway around the world and within hours have a fully operational hospital in place? Journalists pointed with amazement at our mobile imaging machinery and sedated patients on ventilators and asked outright why anyone else couldn’t be doing this.
The reason we in Israel are not surprised is because we know that we’ve been training for years for just these types of scenarios. We can also appreciate that Israel sees part of its mandate as a military and medical leader to make sure that expertise and know-how will benefit the international community should the opportunity present itself.
And so, as much as our enemies desire to paint the IDF solely as a hawkish, war-seeking powerhouse, the mission in Haiti shows just the opposite to be true.
Admittedly, Israel’s adeptness in launching these types of operations stems from a history of confronting hostilities and being prepared to address every possible threat. I personally recall from my days as commander of a field hospital in the First Lebanon War that we set up such a field medical facility within hours and that “real-life” training was just one of many invaluable tests that would benefit the IDF Medical Corps in the future.
Over the years, the brave men and women of our army have recalled those lessons on all too many occasions, both here and, just as often, in ports of call in other parts of the world.
So when the news came across the wires that Haiti had been rocked by a devastating earthquake, the question was never if Israel would be there to respond, but only how soon.
Those of us involved in emergency management and disaster response know all too well that Israel has a unique advantage over most, if not all, nations in this discipline. Every week, a major drill is held at a hospital somewhere in Israel. Our protocols and emergency departments have become models for hospitals all around the world.
Despite our relatively small size and urban landscapes that pale in comparison to most of the West, our Home Front Command has made it a principal training objective to remain ever-ready for all types of disasters.
Even with the very limited traditional communication tools that exist between Israel and our rescue teams in Haiti, I had the chance to be in touch with my colleagues from the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem on several occasions after they landed in the earthquake zone. The underlying tone that came across was one of overwhelming shock at the scope of the disaster they faced, yet they admitted that they felt as prepared as humanly possible for the medical realities they were confronting.
What has been most challenging, without a doubt, has been the emotional experiences. Many of those in the field hospital were seasoned veterans of the military and have treated hundreds if not thousands of victims of warfare and terrorism. However, they reported that perhaps more than ever before, in Haiti desperate questions of medical ethics had to be asked even before the ones over the best course of treatment. Each patient had to be judged based on the chances for his or her survival. The medical process only then commenced if the doctors and nurses believed that this case had better chances for a positive outcome than the victim that lay immediately next in line.
These were devastating questions for even the most hardened medical professional and ones that challenge Israel’s medical teams countless times each day.
Beyond these stories of disaster and loss, the Israeli experience in Haiti still has been one of hope and promise. The world quickly learned that the “successes” we achieved there came because we appreciated the continuous need for this type of training. Even more so, it is recognized that we have a role in contributing to the greater welfare of the international community.
Perhaps it’s unfortunate that it took the devastating tragedy in Haiti for the world to understand this valuable lesson that Israel has an enormous amount of good to contribute, both in good times and bad. Yet we can also be hopeful and confident that it’s one not soon forgotten.
Dr. Jonathan Halevy is director-general of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. This piece first appeared in The Jerusalem Post.