A bereavement officer in the Israel Defense Forces nearly died early on in the war against Hamas in Gaza, after her heart quite literally was torn.
Capt. (res.) Sivan Sekeli Ben Zichri went into cardiac arrest a month and a half ago, due to the extreme psychological stress brought on by her job. She almost didn’t make it, but staff at Sheba Medical Center acted fast and brought her back from the brink.
She still has a way to go in terms of rehabilitation, but is on her way to what she and her doctors hope will be a long-term full recovery.
Ben Zichri told her story in an interview with Kan news that aired on Sunday.
On October 8, a day after the savage attacks by Hamas on Israel resulted in 1,200 deaths and 240 hostages taken to Gaza, Ben Zichri was called up for reserve military duty. She was assigned the task of informing families that their loved ones had fallen in action, as well as planning and overseeing the soldiers’ funerals.
Among those who died on the day of the attack were nearly 300 soldiers.
“There were so many funerals, far more than we had previously seen,” she said.
When asked whether she could detach herself emotionally, she answered that it simply was not possible.
“Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. Tears flowed from my eyes no matter what. It all entered my heart and I couldn’t help it,” she said.
With one funeral following another, there was no time to process things and put feelings aside, and she felt herself sinking into a deep malaise.
Ben Zichri recounted that one day when she was at a funeral and saw 17 more newly dug burial plots, she felt her legs weaken and could barely stand.
At the end of the day, she arrived home and crawled straight into bed without eating. At 4:30 a.m., she awoke feeling unwell.
“I couldn’t feel my left side, my right hand was paralyzed, and my heart felt like someone was ripping it out of my chest,” she said.
The paramedics who arrived told her she was having a panic attack, but she insisted on being transported to the hospital. Upon arrival, initial tests checked out okay, and it did not appear that she had broken-heart syndrome (Takotsubo cardiomyopathy), a temporary weakening of the left ventricle, often due to acute stress.
However, when she was on her way for imaging, she felt something was extremely wrong.
“I told my husband to get a doctor now. It turned out that that was the moment I went into cardiac arrest,” Ben Zichri said.
With her body in total collapse, doctors had to connect her to an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine to keep her heart and lungs going. Once stabilized on the ECMO, she was sent for imaging, which revealed that an artery in her heart had suffered a sudden tear. She underwent immediate surgery to repair it.
Ben Zichri was sedated and intubated for three and a half days until her husband asked that she be woken up on her 40th birthday. Fortunately, she did come to and began a month-and-a-half-long process of recovery and initial rehabilitation at Sheba.
“My heart literally broke from the psychological stress. It’s not just me saying it. My cardiologists also say that is what is happened,” she said.
Ben Zichri said she was grateful for surviving this medical crisis, but admitted to being anxious and unused to having a cardiac condition. However, this is not the first time that she has contended with a health challenge. Four years ago, she battled ovarian cancer and survived.
Although she considers herself healthy now, she decided she does not want to chance her luck further by staying in the same apartment in the central city of Kiryat Ono. It was time for a restart after two health scares while living there, so while still in the hospital, she asked her husband to look for another apartment in the same neighborhood they and their three children could move to.
Ben Zichri’s husband and movers could be seen on camera packing boxes around her as she interviewed with Kan.
When asked whether she would agree to being called up again to her position as a bereavement officer, she said she absolutely would.
“I believe you have to contribute. We don’t have another country. Whatever I am asked to do, I will do,” she said.