“Abba, we are at war!” I heard my son calling from Israel tell me at 7:30 a.m. on October 7, 2023. My wife and I bolted out of bed, turned on the TV and watched as the horrors of that devastating morning unfolded. Everything is not OK. I feel like I have been living a dual life—going to work, doing my job, keeping it together and living with this matzav (situation or state of affairs) of the war. Two of my sons, a daughter-in-law and my newest grandchild—our precious neched—live in Israel. How do I go to them, protect them, comfort them? How do I help the 7 million Israelis who are my brothers and sisters? Why didn’t I spend that Yom Tov in Israel?
Sitting with some of my closest friends, each of us horrified and scared, we listened to Israeli TV news. My friends were here in the U.S. taking care of a few matters while their four children, ages 13-28, remained in Israel. We all prayed for their safety, and feared for their older boys, now called to duty as soldiers in the IDF. We still pray for their safety as they serve deep in Gaza and by the border with Lebanon.
Needing to do something concrete, I notified my medical colleagues, then signed up with anyone offering an emergency medical license to work in Israel. I waited for any response, and even reserved a flight on El Al hoping I would soon need it. When notification of my authorization to work in Israel arrived, I distantly remembered that I even had a flight. After that first phone call, boundaries of time dissolved as days and nights blurred from one to the next; overwhelmed with emotion, I dreamed of doing whatever I could to help.
After numerous Zoom meetings, and phone calls as often as I could, searching for any real opportunity where my skills as a physician could best assist my brothers in Israel, I finally received a call back. By the grace of our Jewish few-degrees-of-separation, I connected with an organized volunteer Jewish medical anesthesia team. This group grew quickly from maybe a few hundred to many hundreds of anesthesiologists—all trying by every means possible to organize emergency medical licensing and secure posts in an Israeli hospital. Some were lucky enough to have previously worked in Israel and had an easier pathway to working there once again. Most of us continued to fill out form after form.
Like so many efforts supporting Israel that are based on massive grassroots efforts of so many individuals and communities, medical volunteering was led by a few Israelis and Americans who pushed for, and helped to, align this effort. Concurrently, my family started fundraising for my son’s plugah (military brigade) to buy them bulletproof vests and other lifesaving equipment, with my hometown community responding generously and immediately.
Then late in November, I was finally contacted by an Israeli anesthesia chairwoman, who worked her magic and had me on the phone being interviewed by Professor Eyal Raz, the chairman of anesthesia at Rambam Hospital in Haifa. After a few awkward moments, we resolved any differences, and Professor Raz offered to assist me in obtaining an emergency medical license. A “vacation” that was planned prior to the war became my war effort. I must admit that my son in miluim (reserve troops) warned me that if I came to Israel, I was there to be a Saba and a doctor. He was not going to allow me to come and pick fruit—though now I know how that, too, is very important for Israel!
I arrived in Israel, and after a few days of hugs and kisses with my children, I set off in the early morning hours to Rambam Hospital via the train. After a very quiet, almost mystical journey, I arrived in Haifa at Rambam Hospital. I guess I was expecting bombs going off and gunshots zinging overhead. However, Haifa was quiet. The hospital was just filling up with the morning rush of medical staff and patients. A difference may be the patient in his hospital bed getting coffee with his family outside the front door.
Dr. Raz met me, gave me Rambam scrubs, a cup of coffee and a tour of the operating rooms. After realizing this was “it,” I settled in with a nice Italian anesthesia resident, and we got down to the job of medical care for a child with a brain tumor. Yes, there were no soldiers there as patients. But I did not travel to Israel to volunteer as a physician just to care for soldiers. I went to Israel to serve the 7 million “family members” who are living there that we all share. They need doctors, too. Rambam was missing between 15% to 30% of its medical staff after the IDF reservists were called up by the emergency Stav-Shemoneh. Anesthesia departments were hit very hard, as many of these physicians are both anesthesiologists and medical reservists in the IDF Search and Rescue Forces (669).
The languages spoken in the operating rooms were anything but Hebrew and English. Yet my interactions with staff, patients and families were more than friendly, regardless of my bumbling Hebrew. I met all types of Israelis—Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Druze, Bahai, Russian, Ukrainian, and even a few Palestinians. Here at Rambam, everybody works together to care for everyone. There were always so many “thank-you’s” and “wows.”
As one week became three, I was awakened to a side of Israel that I have barely interacted with over many past years of vacations. No longer a tourist, but a working physician during wartime, my interactions and observations revealed a different Israel, I could up-close see the pain, anxiety and sadness caused by the ongoing fighting. As the visiting doctor with family in Israel, I would soon return to my home in the U.S., pained by the knowledge that for my Israeli colleagues no such option existed—they went home to air raid sirens and exploding Iron Dome rockets.
I had the chance to finally assist in my small way, to put my feet on the ground when that ground can so quickly become unstable is the new reality. Israelis live each day, 120 and counting, not knowing when the ground under their feet will simply disappear. Medical volunteers like me are filling in wherever we can be most useful, but my few weeks of volunteering feel like a quick second amid this most difficult situation that Israel is living through.
May those who we have lost be remembered, may those who have been kidnapped come home soon, may those who have been injured heal, may the whole country speedily and completely recover, and may this tragic matzav rapidly conclude.
Am Yisrael Chai!
Jonathan Blank, MD lives in West Orange with his family.