'The more we strengthen the weaker links, the better we are'

Cutting-edge rehab center takes root in Negev Desert oasis for the disabled

The facility will meet the needs of residents of southern Israel who currently must head north for care after accidents, injuries, strokes or terror attacks

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

An illustration of the sports center that will be part of Israel's new rehab hospital in the ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran 2007 village (ALEH)
An illustration of the sports center that will be part of Israel's new rehab hospital in the ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran 2007 village (ALEH)

In the arid Negev desert, in the southern city of Ofakim, there is an oasis featuring water trickling over pebbles, patches of shaded green grass and walkways, Japanese hanging gardens, and a cluster of low-rise buildings. It is the ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran 2007 center, which provides therapeutic, medical and educational services to children and adults who have devastating physical and cognitive disabilities.

The center was set up through the vision and determination of Maj. Gen. (res) Doron Almog, among the most celebrated figures in the history of the Israel Defense Forces. Almog helped lead the famed Israeli hostage rescue at Entebbe in 1976 and for years after, as head of the IDF’s Southern Command, foiled countless attempts to launch terror attacks in Israel.

His son Eran, named after Almog’s brother who died on the battlefield during the Yom Kippur War, was diagnosed with severe autism and developmental disabilities. That is what spurred Almog to set up ALEH Negev, to cater for the needs of people like his son, who died 12 years ago at the age of 23.

“My son Eran was the reason we set up the village, for people like him with severe disabilities,” Almog said during a visit to the village last month to mark the progress of a new initiative: a cutting-edge rehabilitation hospital, the first for Israel’s south.

A patient at the farm of ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran 2007 village (Yoram Ashaim)

“Eran was my teacher, he taught me everything…His and our journey is what brought us here today,” Almog said, his voice wistful.

The new hospital — only the second to be built in Israel in the past 50 years — is now going up within the village. It will meet the needs of hundreds of residents of the south who currently need to travel to Tel Aviv for rehab hospital services following accidents, injuries, strokes or terror attacks. The hospital will also serve IDF soldiers serving in Gaza who require in-patient rehabilitation.

The initiative is a needed addition to the Israeli hospital scene, which is suffering from an acute shortage of hospital beds, particularly rehabilitation beds. In the whole of Israel there are just 847 rehab beds, according to data provided by ALEH Negev.

“This is a tremendous national project that will provide a satisfactory solution for the residents of the south, who are forced to travel to the center of the country for rehabilitation treatment,” said Almog.

Maj. Gen. (res) Doron Almog, left, and Shay Hajaj, the head of the Merhavim Council in the northwest Negev, where ALEH Negev and the new hospital are located, August 7, 2019 (ALEH)

The hospital is being built with a budget of NIS 300 million, or $82 million, of which half will come from donations and the rest from government funds. The Jewish National Fund USA is one of the partners of the project and is raising donor funds for the project.

The complex will comprise 108 beds, orthopedic and neurological in-patient wards, physiotherapy and occupational therapy departments, a sports center, facilities for outpatients and visitors, and a research and training center. In emergencies, all of the patients can be moved to a reinforced, protected zone.

An illustration of the interior planned for Israel’s new rehab hospital in the ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran 2007 village (ALEH)

Dr. Itzhak Siev-Ner, head of the Rehabilitation Department at the Health Ministry who is leading the new venture on behalf of the government, said at the press conference held at ALEH Negev that occupancy rate in rehabilitation wards countrywide is 108%, compared to a 98% occupancy rate at general hospitals and an average 75% occupancy rate in OECD countries. The average hospitalization period for a rehabilitative patient is lengthy, at 38.5 days.

The number of inpatient rehab beds per citizen in Israel is an average 0.1 bed per 1,000 citizens, with Tel Aviv having the most at 0.22 per 1,000 citizens.

Israel also suffers from a severe shortage of rehab physicians and nurses, as well as other health professionals such as physical therapists, occupational therapists and communication clinicians, Siev-Ner said.

The number of rehabilitative doctors in Israel is about half the average number in the OECD, and the number of such doctors in the south is the lowest in the whole of the country, he said.

An illustration of the interior planned for Israel’s new rehab hospital in the ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran 2007 village (ALEH)

The new hospital will be a “game changer for the area,” Siev-Ner said, and ALEH Negev is the most natural home for it because the village has a proven success record and the necessary human infrastructure in place, including doctors and nurses.

The Negev’s population is expected to reach 800,000 in the coming years (including thousands of soldiers). By 2050, the number of people over the age of 70 will be triple today’s. This makes the new hospital even more crucial.

Life expectancy in the south is seven years lower than in the center of the country because of a lack of access to appropriate medical care, Siev-Ner said.

Shay Hajaj, the head of the Merhavim Council in the Negev’s northwest where ALEH and the hospital are located, added that a new town planned for the area, called Daniel, will be inhabited by doctors and medical professionals working in the village and in the hospital, students and young couples, and people who have undergone rehab treatments and choose to stay close to the hospital.

The new community will also be connected to the ALEH Negev village, Hajaj said. “It will have complexes for people who have undergone rehab. All the facilities and the entire community will be accessible and will have joint activities with the villagers.”

Ada Karmi-Melamede, standing, presents the design for the new rehab hospital in the ALEH Negev village, August 7, 2019 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

The first stage of the hospital — 72 beds in two orthopedic and neurological in-patient wards, with adjacent physiotherapy and occupational therapy departments — is expected to open in 2021.

The hospital will work closely with the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in nearby Beersheba on rehab research and new patient programs, including technologies like virtual reality. The hospital will also host interns from the university so they can practice their medical skills.

Approximately 500 people currently work in the ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran rehabilitation village. An additional 500 medical staff, therapists and administration will be employed at the adjacent hospital.

The architectural firm of Ada Karmi-Melamede, one of the architects who designed the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, is behind the design of the new hospital: low-rise, with disability access throughout.

An illustration of Israel’s new rehab hospital in proximity of the ALEH Negev-Nahalat Eran 2007 village (Ada Karmi-Melamede Architects)

A “green lung” — a series of gardens — will connect all of the spaces, along with a shaded arcade for guests and workers. Some of the rehab activities can be held outside as well as inside, Karmi said. The pool, cafeteria and sports hall will be open to hospital patients, inhabitants of the ALEH Negev village and local inhabitants, to encourage interaction and help mitigate the stigmas connected to mental and physical disability.

The new complex aims to be different from a “typical” hospital, reflecting the tranquility and relaxation exuded by the village, Karmi said.

The idea is to build one of the best rehab hospitals in the world, said Almog, who is the chairman of ALEH Negev.

“The more we strengthen the weaker links in society the better we become. That’s the big test,” he said.

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