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'When you’re under pressure, that’s true giving'

Israelis aid COVID-stricken Italian region, with billionaire Abramovich paying

For first time, Israel’s disaster medicine center deploys in an advanced Western state, after appeal from Piedmont, where hospital was overwhelmed

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Israeli doctor Orly Ashkenazi, working as part of an aid delegation at the Ospedale Michele e Pietro Ferrero Hospital in Piedmont, Italy. A sticker on her protective gear states her name and shows a photo of her for the benefit of patients. (Sharon Yaniv/Sheba Medical Center)
Israeli doctor Orly Ashkenazi, working as part of an aid delegation at the Ospedale Michele e Pietro Ferrero Hospital in Piedmont, Italy. A sticker on her protective gear states her name and shows a photo of her for the benefit of patients. (Sharon Yaniv/Sheba Medical Center)

A team of Israeli medics, funded by Chelsea soccer club owner Roman Abramovich, is helping a hospital in a northern Italy to cope with a deluge of coronavirus cases.

“There are around 300 patients in the hospital and 165 of them are coronavirus cases, which is on a completely different scale from what I see in Israel,” said Elhanan Bar-On, director of the Israel Center for Disaster Medicine and Humanitarian Response, which is running the delegation.

Bar-On and his colleagues arrived in Piedmont on Wednesday after the region’s local government sent Israel’s Foreign Ministry a request for help.

They have been integrated into the local teams, and are helping with the hour-to-hour care of COVID-19 patients at the Ospedale Michele e Pietro Ferrero Hospital, including the most serious patients in the intensive care unit.

Elhanan Bar-On, director of the Israel Center for Disaster Medicine and Humanitarian Response, outside the Ospedale Michele e Pietro Ferrero Hospital in Piedmont, Italy, where his aid team is working. (Sharon Yaniv/Sheba Medical Center)

“This hospital is the central place in the Piedmont region for treating COVID-19 patients, where two weeks ago they were completely overwhelmed, and now still, the place is basically full to capacity,” said Bar-On, whose aid organization is based at Sheba Medical Center.

He described the situation in the Piedmont hospital as “intense, very intense, but not frantic,” and said that while some Israelis may question the wisdom of dispatching medics overseas as coronavirus cases rise at home, it made sense.

“People say there are plenty of people in Israel who need treatment but Sheba sees part of its role as impacting the way medical help is provided in the world,” Bar-On said. “It’s easy to give when your resources are unlimited, but when you’re under pressure, that’s true giving.”

The mission will not drain the Israel Center for Disaster Medicine’s general budget, as it is covered by philanthropic donations, most significantly from Russian-Jewish billionaire Abramovich.

Bar-On has provided humanitarian support in the past after natural disasters in Haiti, Nepal, Turkey, India and the Philippines. “This is the first time we’re deploying in an advanced European country,” he said.

The delegation, which will stay in Italy until next week, is gaining and sharing knowledge about COVID-19 treatment as it works alongside Italian doctors, as well as contributing manpower, Bar-On said. “With a new disease like this, we’re all constantly learning, and being here provides a mutual teaching and learning experience.”

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