Gender-affirming surgery performed at Galilee Medical Center for first time

Until now, all such operations were done at Sheba Medical Center; expert from Chicago guides teams from both hospitals in three male-to-female procedures

Dr. Loren Schechter (center), one of the United States' foremost experts on transgender surgery, with teams from Galilee Medical Center and Sheba Medical Center, July 2023. (Roni Albert)

Gender-affirming surgeries took place last week at Galilee Medical Center (GMC) in Nahariya, marking the first time such procedures were done in Israel outside Sheba Medical Center.

The three male-to-female surgeries were led by Dr. Loren Schechter, an expert in gender-affirming surgery from Chicago, together with teams from Sheba and GMC.

Sheba, located in Ramat Gan and Israel’s largest hospital, is currently the only medical center in the country accredited to perform all aspects of the surgery (including genital reconstructive, or “bottom” surgery). A statement issued by GMC indicated that the operations performed last week were an indication that the hospital would soon also be accredited for such complex procedures.

The surgeries took place one per day over three successive days, each lasting from morning through evening. The patients were taken to recover in the OB-GYN department and are reported to be doing well.

Among the Israeli medical staff involved were Dr. Alon Liran, a plastic surgeon and head of Sheba’s gender-affirming surgery service, Prof. Lior Levenstein, head of the OB-GYN department at GMC, and Dr. Revital Arbel, director of the urogynecological and pelvic floor service at Shaare Zedek Medical Center.

According to Levenstein, GMC put together an interdisciplinary staff to provide physical, emotional, and psychological support to patients undergoing gender-affirming surgical procedures. The team included psychiatrists, social workers, endocrinologists, and plastic surgeons.

“We had a very exciting week… This was something wonderful for the patients, who would have had to wait a long time for such surgery in Israel or seek it outside the country,” Levenstein said.

“I am pleased that we were able to offer this surgery together with a world-renowned expert and our colleagues from Sheba. It’s important that we be able to offer this kind of surgery in another medical center, and one that is not in the center of the country, so that the service is accessible to women closer to their homes in the north,” he said.

Liran said he was pleased that GMC wants to develop a full center for transgender patients, and offered to continue sharing Sheba’s expertise in the field.

“We view the success of such a project and making treatment accessible in the periphery as a significant contribution to the trans community,” he said.

GMC general director Dr. Masad Barhoum expressed thanks to Schechter and Sheba for their cooperation in the “marathon” of surgeries last week, which he characterized as part of GMC’s mission to serve every person regardless of religion, ethnicity, or sex.

Israelis (18 and older) must apply for approval for gender reassignment surgery. The wait for the procedure is long, and the cost of having it done abroad is prohibitive for most.

In December 2016, six female-to-male surgeries were performed at Sheba by Dr. Curtis Crane of the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. Crane is a urologic and plastic surgeon and a leading expert in female-to-male gender reassignment, which is more complex than male-to-female surgery and is rarely done in Israel. It was determined that it would be less expensive for insurance companies to bring Crane in than to pay for the patients to have the surgery done abroad.

In November 2021, the Knesset Committee on Gender discussed the long waiting lists for gender-affirming surgery.

At the meeting, Dr. Raz Gross, head of the Health Ministry’s national committee charged with examining and assessing the suitability of applicants to undergo sex reassignment surgery, called the four- to five-year wait time for the operations “scandalous.”

“These surgeries are oftentimes life-saving. At my initiative, three surgeries are performed each month at Sheba Medical Center, and I hope we will soon add a fourth operation, which will cut the waiting time by half,” he said.

That same year, then-health minister Nitzan Horowitz announced a plan to increase support for the trans community and shorten waiting times for the surgery.

“Gender reassignment surgeries are not cosmetic surgeries. These are life-changing and life-saving surgeries,” Horowitz said. “We will expand the number of surgeries and shorten the queues for these important surgeries here in Israel. We will improve the medical service, and adapt it to the needs of the LGBT community, and the trans community in particular.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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