MDA, Israels national emergency medical response and blood services organization, has been a pillar of Israeli society since its inception in 1930. And ever since, it has relied on Americans and donors worldwide to save lives in Israel. Its a unique partnership; MDAs operations are not funded by the Israeli government, so American donors experience a direct and tangible connection to MDAs medics working on the ground, and that relationship was never as strong – or as necessary – as it was in the summer of 2014.
During Operation Protective Edge, MDA worked around the clock to save lives and respond to the needs of Israelis, as well as IDF soldiers. MDA activated its entire fleet of 1,000 ambulances and all its 13,000 volunteers to cope with emergencies stemming from rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza. Meanwhile, despite being forced to bomb shelters, MDAs blood services continued operating at full capacity to provide clean and safe blood to the IDF and Israeli civilians. And while MDA crews rushed to save lives, it continued responding to daily emergencies throughout Israel, such as traffic accidents.
MDAs staff and volunteers displayed the kind of courage, perseverance and dedication that has made MDA a world-renowned emergency medical response agency. But rarely do MDAs lifesavers – modest by nature and hardwired only to care about saving lives – receive the kind of credit Israeli or American supporters believe they deserve.
Treating mortar injuries
Jehan Berman and his wife were celebrating their sons third birthday on Kibbutz Nir Oz when they heard the wailing of the siren. Mortars were inbound and, knowing he only had seconds to find shelter for his family, he rushed his wife and young son into a nearby kindergarten. In the last moments before the explosions, he kissed his wife and then wrapped himself around her and their son in an act of sheer courage and selflessness. Immediately, with a thunderous boom, a mortar hit, sending shrapnel through the window of the kindergarten. Jehans wife and son were spared injury. But Jehan was not so lucky. The jagged, heavy pieces of twisted metal ripped through his body, missing his heart by inches.
Within minutes, MDA was on the scene. Oren Wacht was manning the armored MDA ambulance that was dispatched because of the continuing danger of mortar fire. I saw him lying down, covered in blood. My concern was that it hit his heart, he said. Jehan was loaded into the ambulance with his wife by his side. Oren assured her Jehan would make it. I always make sure to talk to the family, Oren said. Theyre giving you their full trust. For us, its something we do daily, but the family remembers it their whole life.
Today, Jehan is in good spirits and recovering from his injury. Many would call him a hero for protecting his family, but he says the true heroes are the paramedics and EMTs of MDA. We see MDA as angels, he says. For the injured, theyre the light in the darkness.
A paramedic mom
Sarah Cascella-Kapach works two full-time jobs. When shes not racing to save peoples lives as an MDA paramedic, shes scrambling to catch up with her young daughter. The two sides of her life merged on a few occasions during Operation Protective Edge.
Sarah works out of the Judy Kaplan and Esther and Hyman Rapport Sderot MDA Emergency Medical Station, close to the Gaza Strip. One of her main roles is to help transport sick and injured Palestinians to Israeli hospitals. Because of the lack of quality prenatal care in Gaza, Palestinian babies are often brought to the Erez Crossing and transferred to MDA ambulances to be transported to Israeli hospitals for potentially lifesaving treatment.
During one transport in the midst of attacks from Gaza, Sarah was preparing to give an IV to a premature Palestinian infant in an incubator, when the baby suddenly started crying. Sarah looked up to see the mother, whose face was full of fear and concern. Instinctively, Sarah placed one of her hands inside the incubator and motioned for the mother to do the same. Together, the two moms kept the child calm during the entire ride, as rockets and mortars fell all around them. At the end of the day I am a paramedic who is a mom, she says.
Overseas volunteers helped save lives
When Jon Burke and Nathan Redlich signed up for MDAs overseas volunteer program, they had no idea they would be dealing with more than just broken bones and heart attacks. By the time they arrived, the IDF had begun its ground operation into the Gaza Strip and rocket attacks were a daily occurrence. They could have flown back to the safety of America, as some family and friends hoped, but instead they stayed to help save lives alongside MDA paramedics and EMTs.
I had several moments where Americans, and even Israelis, asked me why I would come during a time like that, says Jon, a Minneapolis native. And when Im with another volunteer, well look at each other and have this shared moment of, What do you mean? Of course we came during this time! It doesnt seem heroic or spectacular or exceptional.
For six weeks, the overseas volunteers worked in the back of MDA ambulances after intensive introductory training. Alongside paramedics and EMTs, they worked eight-hour shifts, sometimes back-to-back, to keep up with the high number of emergencies.
The two will head back to the United States soon to start careers in the medical field, but theyll take with them the skills they learned from MDA and the spirit of the Israeli people they worked with. Theres a saying – lizrom – to roll with it or go with the punches, and I really felt that in Israel, despite what went on, Jon said. No matter what happens, you have to keep living and enjoying life.
Protecting the blood supply
On the afternoon of July 8th, I got the call from Eli Bin, MDAs director general, saying: its time to go down, recalls Prof. Eilat Shinar, MDA Director of Blood Services. He had received information about possible rocket attacks from Gaza. As MDA is responsible for the nations blood supply for all the hospitals and the IDF, it was imperative that we take all the necessary measures to protect our blood inventory. Immediately, the blood services staff worked through the night to relocate Israels entire national blood supply to the bomb shelter underneath the National Blood Services Center in Tel Aviv. By the following day, we had completely moved all of our vital operations from our upstairs laboratories to a protected, though very cramped, shelter.
For the next 50 days we didnt leave. The atmosphere was very tense. Yet, remarkably, no one missed a single day of work, including those who live in the heavily bombarded areas. At least, we didnt have to run to the bomb shelter when a siren went off – we were already there! By the end of Operation Protective Edge, MDAs blood services supplied some 60,000 blood units and components to all the hospitals and the IDF. While we see this as a success, one thing became painfully clear during our time in the bomb shelter: the dire need for a new, safer building. We will not always have time to prepare, evacuate and move everything to a safer location. Thats why we need the proposed new subterranean blood center in Ramla, so that there will never be a doubt that MDA can supply and protect Israels blood. Were making strong inroads toward our goal of $100 million for the new national blood center, but we still need a lot of help. In the meantime, we will continue to provide Israel with a safe, high quality and secure national blood supply, says Prof. Shinar.
For more information about American Friends of Magen David Adom, visit www.afmda.org.