A volunteer team of American medical personnel thought they were flying to Israel last week to assist the staff at Asheklon’s Barzilai Medical Center during wartime. The fact that the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas went in to effect as they were in the air en route to Tel Aviv did not deter them. They wanted to help Israel, and it didn’t matter whether Operation Protective Edge was still going on or not.
“People have asked us if we are disappointed by the ceasefire,” said Wendi Schambach, a nurse from Fort Worth, Texas, who spoke Monday to The Times of Israel as she was finishing up a rotation in the hospital’s recovery room before flying home on Tuesday.
“We are not at all disappointed. Our mission has not changed. We’re here to help put a program in place so that there can be future assistance.”
Schambach came to Ashkelon with the Emergency Volunteers Project, which also brought over a dozen American firefighters this summer to help put out fires caused by rockets from Gaza that fell in southern Israel. The nonprofit organization was founded in late 2009 by two Israeli medics and an Israeli firefighter who realized in the wake of Operation Cast Lead and later, following 2010’s Carmel forest fire, the need for Israel to bring in first responder reinforcements in times of crisis.
“Israel’s emergency services are the best in the world in terms of trained personnel and effective protocols, but we are limited in size and we don’t have mutual aid agreements with neighboring countries like American emergency departments in a given state have with ones in a neighboring state,” said an EVP spokesman.
According to EVP, the number of emergency calls made by Israelis increased drastically during Operation Protective Edge.
“Barzilai, which is the closest hospital to Gaza, treated 1,500 patients specifically due to the situation,” the EVP spokesman said.
The organization trains experienced emergency workers (professional and volunteer), such as firefighters, paramedics, nurses and doctors, in working in the Israeli environment. So far it has held training programs for 600 American first responders in both the US and Israel.
“We are not an emergency tourism organization,” said the EVP spokesman. “We deploy based on requests by departments in Israel.”
In addition to Schambach, four paramedics and one physician’s assistant arrived in Israel on August 26 after Barzilai Medical Center turned to EVP requesting medical volunteers to help relieve the burden of the hospital’s overworked staff.
In coordination with The Ashkelon Foundation, and with support from the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, a private family foundation, and Pastor John Hagee, EVP was able to quickly deploy the medical team.
“People at the hospital have been asking me why I came, and I answer, ‘Because you called,’” said Scott Weiner, a volunteer paramedic from Baltimore.
Over the week he was at Barzilai, Weiner assisted anesthesiologists in the operation room, did triage and started intravenous drips in the emergency room, and performed CPR on a woman who had been brought by car to the hospital in cardiac arrest.
“We’re here to take the pressure off the staff. People here at the hospital are in good spirits, but they are tired,” said Weiner, who has been pulling shifts as long as 16 hours.
For Schambach, there has been some learning on the job. A non-Hebrew speaker, she has been writing down and using key Hebrew phrases, like “breathe deeply,” for communicating with patients who can’t converse with her in English.
While for the most part she finds the practice of medicine here in Israel similar to in the US, she has discerned some differences that go beyond language.
“The atmosphere is different here in Israel. People are more aware and medicine is done very quickly here. Decisions and admissions are made very quickly,” she said.
Schambach, who is not Jewish, is disappointed by what she perceives as diminished American support for Israel, and she is glad that she can do her part in showing that Americans do care about the country.
“I believe in Israel and its people. I support Israel and I love that I can show that support by using my professional knowledge and skills,” she said.