Doctors tapped for Independence Day torchlighting hope to heal fractured nation

Shock trauma pioneer Prof. Avi Rivkind of Hadassah and infection control expert Dr. Khetam Hussein of Rambam inspired by Israeli medicine, hope for unity on Independence Day

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Prof. Avi Rivkind of Hadassah Medical Center (left) and Dr. Khetam Hussein of Rambam Medical Center are among the torch-lighters at the national ceremony marking Israel's 75th Independence Day, April 25, 2023. (Courtesy)
Prof. Avi Rivkind of Hadassah Medical Center (left) and Dr. Khetam Hussein of Rambam Medical Center are among the torch-lighters at the national ceremony marking Israel's 75th Independence Day, April 25, 2023. (Courtesy)

Two physicians are among the 12 Israelis chosen to light torches on April 25 at the national ceremony on Mt. Herzl kicking off celebrations of Israel’s 75th Independence Day.

Prof. Avi Rivkind, a general surgeon from Jerusalem’s Hadassah Medical Center, is a pioneer in shock trauma medicine in Israel, and Dr. Khetam Hussein, an infectious disease control expert, served as head of Rambam’s dedicated departments for the treatment of COVID patients during the height of the pandemic.

“It’s a great honor to be chosen,” said Hussein, who was one of the first Druze women to study medicine in Israel. “I didn’t even know I had been nominated.”

Rivkind told The Times of Israel that he got a call about the honor from transportation minister Miri Regev, who is organizing the ceremony, when he was treating patients in the intensive care unit.

“I was very surprised. I didn’t expect this, but I am very proud,” he said.

Both Rivkind and Hussein told The Times of Israel that they could not ignore the fact that they are celebrating this significant honor at a time when the country is divided and tensions are high. However, they each expressed the important role that medicine plays in uniting people.

Israeli doctors carrying ‘Doctors Fighting for Democracy’ attend a rally against the government’s judicial overhaul bills, Tel Aviv, February 25, 2023. (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

“I think that we physicians must spearhead the effort to achieve solidarity within the nation. If I have the ability to treat [Palestinian] terrorists, then I also have the sensibility to lead the medical community. The medical community should be the pillar of cloud that guides the [national] camp toward moderation and compromise, to unite the country and not divide it,” Rivkind said.

Hussein said she believes that Israel’s Memorial Day (Yom Hazikaron) and  Independence Day (Yom Haatzmaut) should be devoid of political and social conflict.

“It’s a difficult time. The situation, what’s happening in our country…But these special days and the torch-lighting ceremony are above all. Everyone has to leave their conflicts and beliefs out of it. Everyone has to respect these days,” she said.

Rivkind, 74, received his medical degree from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem and developed an interest in general surgery toward the end of his training. While doing his residency, he became interested in trauma when a woman who was a victim of domestic violence died in the hospital.

“The first time she came to the emergency room, they told her everything was fine and sent her home. Then she came back two days later and they kept her for observation. Several hours later they found her dead in her bed,” Rivkind said.

The Hadassah Medical School performed an exercise simulating a mass terror attack, at the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem. Professor Avi Rivkin, head of the trauma department gives orders. July 22 2009. (Yossi Zamir/ Flash90)

“Through the postmortem, it was discovered that she had a torn spleen. That was a completely preventable death, and it shook me and I realized there was something we weren’t doing well. I discussed this with the higher-ups at the time and that’s how I decided to get into the field I am in. I went to Maryland to train in shock trauma,” he said.

Rivkind, now the father of five and grandfather of two, has become a leader in shock trauma, shaping the field at home and sharing Israel’s experience and know-how with the international medical community.

“The whole subject of mass casualties, the whole subject of blast trauma…We are unfortunately experts in this,” Rivkind said.

Dr. Khetam Hussein, an infectious disease control physician at Rambam Medical Center, was chosen to light a torch at the national Israel Independence Day ceremony on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, April 25, 2023. (Courtesy of Rambam Medical Center)

The son of Holocaust survivors, Rivkind is also the medical director for United Hatzalah of Israel and founded Young People Driving Differently, a national project teaching high school students about the devastating consequences of road accidents the importance of safe driving.

Hussein, 48, hails from Rameh, an Arab town in northern Israel. A married mother of two young teenage daughters, she had always dreamed of becoming a doctor, but did not have any female role models within Druze society. Fortunately, her parents and immediate family were supportive. She ended up being the first Druze woman to study medicine at The Hebrew University, and the third in Israel overall.

After earning her medical degree in Jerusalem in 2000, Hussein completed her postgraduate training at Rambam in internal medicine and infectious diseases. She subsequently completed a sub-specialization in infection control and hospital epidemiology. In 2011, she was tapped to establish Rambam’s infection control unit.

“It was fate because just at that time there were serious outbreaks of Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacterales (CRE), antibiotic-resistance bacteria, in the hospitals,” she recalled.

Hussein told The Times of Israel that she was attracted to infection control because it applies to all areas of a hospital.

Illustrative. A coronavirus ward at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, at the height of the COVID crisis. (AP Photo/ Oded Balilty)

“Treating infection, you treat one patient. But leading an intervention in infection control, you are impacting the lives of thousands of patients if you succeed,” she said.

This could not have been more true during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Hussein oversaw all of Rambam’s dedicated COVID departments. She was also consulting with the Health Ministry during what she called “a very tough period.”

Hussein recalled how at first there was no information, and all she had to go on was her professional experience and gut. All eyes were on her, with the other staff waiting for her to issue instructions and guidelines.

“But there was no one for me to ask. We had to make hard decisions and it was very intensive. We learned all the time, and we changed. The way we treated the patients in the first wave was different from how we treated them in the subsequent waves,” Hussein said.

Although Rivkind and Hussein are being recognized as individuals, they are aware that they also represent the medical community in Israel when they light torches on Yom Haatzmaut.

Hussein is particularly pleased and proud that, since her own pioneering steps to become a doctor, there are now some 200 Druze women physicians and medical students — some of whom she has trained personally.

Prof. Avi Rivkind, in scrubs, cares for an injured person. Rivkind has pioneered treatments for terror victims based on his experience in Israel. (Hadassah Medical Center)

“I look and them and feel very proud. Today, any Druze girl can say that she wants to learn medicine and she can do it. It’s acceptable,” she said.

Rivkind particularly loves trauma medicine because it allows a doctor to save a person’s life immediately, with decisions having to be made in a matter of minutes or even seconds. He shared that he is proud of being one of many men and women who exemplify what it means to be an Israeli physician, regardless of specialty.

“An Israeli doctor is highly, highly motivated, committed and professional, and cares,” he said.

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