Army opens new medical center to treat masses of troops flocking south
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Army opens new medical center to treat masses of troops flocking south

As IDF moves its operations to the Negev, Maj. Galit Bidner says her clinics will be there to treat everything from broken bones to fertility complications

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

The Israeli army's new Southern Regional Medical Center, which opened its doors in July 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)
The Israeli army's new Southern Regional Medical Center, which opened its doors in July 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

A large, state-of-the-art medical center to treat soldiers opened its doors in southern Israel last month, a necessary component in the military’s multi-year plan to migrate much of its operations to the largely uninhabited and under-resourced Negev desert.

The newly constructed Southern Regional Medical Center, known in Hebrew by the acronym Marpe-Darom, opened its doors on July 9, and within a week was seeing hundreds of patients each day, according to the center’s commander Maj. Galit Bidner.

It was built on the army’s sprawling Training Campus, known in Hebrew as the Kiryat Hadracha, or more commonly as Ir Habahdim, the “City of Training Bases,” which is located south of the city of Beersheba, near the town of Yeruham.

The Training Campus, which is home to thousands of soldiers, is the crown jewel of the army’s push to move south. By moving the army’s training bases from the center of the country to the Negev, Israel hoped to streamline their operation, free up real estate near the central cities and breathe life into the south.

‘There are lots of new soldiers, much of the IDF has moved south’

However, as the IDF moved thousands of soldiers to the Negev desert, added strain was put on the previous facilities of the Southern Regional Medical Center.

“There are lots of new soldiers, much of the IDF has moved south. All the training bases are [now] located in the Training Campus,” said Bidner, a nurse by training.

The latest tech

Army medical care is a constant gripe among soldiers and their parents. The issue appears in nearly every ombudsman annual report, with examples of troops receiving inadequate or untimely medical treatment.

In IDF Ombudsman Maj. Gen. (res.) Yithak Brik’s latest annual report for 2016, he found the army’s medical system to have significant technological failings, despite the IDF being considered one of the more advanced militaries in the world.

“Once of the most significant gaps, which harms the quality of the medical services provided by the IDF today, is the technological gap,” the ombudsman wrote in his 2017 report.

According to Bidner, the new Southern Regional Medical Center will be “much bigger, much newer and much more technologically advanced than what we had.”

The new building is made up of two wings, each with four floors. Hundreds of doctors, nurses and staff work inside, treating between 600 and 800 people each day, on average, but with the capacity to see some 1,500 patients per day.

The Israeli army's new Southern Regional Medical Center, which opened its doors in July 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)
The Israeli army’s new Southern Regional Medical Center, which opened its doors in July 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

“It’s going to improve both the quality of the care and the variety of care,” Bidner said. “It also looks better; it doesn’t look old and moldy.”

The major offered as an example the center’s X-ray machine, which uses digital plates instead of analog film, allowing operators to work more quickly.

An X-ray machine in the Israeli army's new Southern Regional Medical Center, which opened its doors in July 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)
An X-ray machine in the Israeli army’s new Southern Regional Medical Center, which opened its doors in July 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

“This will be one of the few digital radiography X-ray machines in the country with resolution like this. It’s much faster and much higher quality,” she said.

The funding for the new medical center came in part from a donation by French art dealer Ignace Hellenberg, a Holocaust survivor who left his fortune to Israel when he died in 2004. The more than NIS 200 million ($56 million) that Hellenberg left the state, one of the largest inheritances ever bequeathed to Israel, was earmarked for six medical centers for soldiers.

According to Bidner, approximately a third of the NIS 60 million ($16.8 million) spent on the Southern Regional Medical Center thus far came from Hellenberg’s estate, with the Defense Ministry paying the rest.

From Gedera to Eilat

The military is required to care for all IDF soldiers in uniform, including conscripts, career soldiers and reservists. Its responsibility extends far beyond battlefield medicine. The IDF has to provide medical treatment for everything from broken bones and skin rashes to depression, cancer and pregnancy complications.

In order to provide that care, the army created four Regional Medical Centers, one each in northern, central and southern Israel, as well as a fourth in Jerusalem.

“But we’re not a general hospital. If there’s a soldier who has a heart attack, he’ll go to a hospital,” Bidner said. A military medical center, like the Marpe-Darom, is for “a soldier who needs to be tested for cancer or a soldier with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) or a soldier who needs physical therapy three times a week.”

A room in the Israeli army's new Southern Regional Medical Center, which opened its doors in July 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)
A room in the Israeli army’s new Southern Regional Medical Center, which opened its doors in July 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

These Regional Medical Centers are not single buildings but rather units that are responsible for providing care to the soldiers who live or serve in their geographic area. The individual clinics that serve under the center may be found on other bases.

Geographically, the largest of these — by a wide margin — is Bidner’s southern Regional Medical Center, which is responsible for the soldiers who serve in or live in the southern half of Israel, from the central town of Gedera to the Red Sea port of Eilat, save for Jerusalem and its surrounding suburbs.

It provides care for the soldiers stationed on the Training Campus or on the numerous training bases in southern Israel (the open desert is ideal for riflemen, tanks and artillery to conduct live-fire exercises), as well as the operational bases along the Gazan, Egyptian and Jordanian borders.

The center can also treat soldiers and officers who live in the coastal cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon; the tourism hot spot Eilat; the so-called capital of the Negev, Beersheba; the desert towns of Arad, Yeruham, Dimona and Mitzpe Ramon; and dozens of kibbutzim and small communities sprinkled throughout the south.

Until the new Southern Regional Medical Center opened last month, the medical unit was based in the Southern Command’s headquarters in Beersheba, but soldiers often had to travel to other bases or civilian hospitals for the treatment they needed, Bidner said.

“They would either have to go to a hospital or they’d have to go to the center [of the country] or they’d have to travel to Haifa or Jerusalem, wherever there was an appointment available,” she said.

“Now they can just come to us. It’s better than what it is in civilian life.”

Hundreds of doctors

The decision to build the new Marpe-Darom was made approximately five years ago, Bidner said, and contractors broke ground on the facility two years later.

This new building brings many of the army’s specialists and facilities under one centralized roof. Though not all the services are available every day, the medical center will host everything from podiatrists to oncologists.

“There’s a mental health center, an obstetrics and fertility center, a rehabilitation and physical therapy center, a center for tertiary medicine, which is hospitalization and recuperation from complicated illnesses, and medical advisement,” Bidner said.

A physical therapy room in the Israeli army's new Southern Regional Medical Center, which opened its doors in July 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)
A physical therapy room in the Israeli army’s new Southern Regional Medical Center, which opened its doors in July 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

The “massive” new medical center is “three times the size of the Beersheba center,” she said.

It employs “hundreds of doctors, nurses, specialists and [medical] professionals.” Most of them are career officers and reservists, while the rest are civilians employed by the IDF, Bidner said.

The major said soldiers will be able to travel to the new center independently, on public transportation, or on organized shuttles.

Anticipating the complaints over the new location being in the Training Campus, as opposed to the more central Southern Command headquarters in Beersheba, Bidner noted that it was “only an additional 10 minutes away.”

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