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To help Israel fight the pandemic, ER doctor specializing in disaster relief makes aliyah

With help from Nefesh B’Nefesh, Dr. Deena Wasserman brings the skills honed during her time as an EMS flight physician performing helicopter evacuations to her new home in Ashdod, Israel, as she fights on the front lines against COVID-19

Left: Dr. Deena Wasserman prepares to depart from Newark Airport on her flight to move to Israel; Right: Dr. Deena Wasserman in the protective gear sometimes required when treating patients during the pandemic. (Courtesy)
Left: Dr. Deena Wasserman prepares to depart from Newark Airport on her flight to move to Israel; Right: Dr. Deena Wasserman in the protective gear sometimes required when treating patients during the pandemic. (Courtesy)

Emergency room doctor Deena Wasserman has, like nearly all medical professionals, been fighting the coronavirus pandemic since it emerged in early 2020. Wasserman, though, has the distinction of having served on the front lines on two continents — first in her native United States, and since this past August, in Israel, her new home.

As an ER doctor trained in disaster relief — she was a flight physician with a helicopter EMS team during her post-residency fellowship — Wasserman is without question a huge asset to her new employers at Samson Assuta University Hospital in the central Israeli city of Ashdod. But making the move across the Atlantic from Philadelphia in the middle of a pandemic has been a mission of its own.

Wasserman made the decision to emigrate to Israel long before the global health crisis hit — in fact, she knew the Jewish state was her final destination even before she started her medical training at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. The 29-year-old has grandparents, aunts, and uncles already living in the Holy Land (not to mention a couple siblings, who took the leap before her), and traveled to Israel often, including a yearlong stint at a religious seminary after high school.

Following a three-year residency and a year on fellowship in Philadelphia, Wasserman was ready to get the ball rolling. She hopped online and filled out an application to make aliyah, the Hebrew term for Israeli immigration, with the Nefesh B’Nefesh nonprofit organization in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and JNF- USA. But just as she was about to finalize her paperwork with the Israeli immigration office in early April, she got a telephone call that because of the health crisis, all consular services were being put on hold indefinitely.

With her apartment lease ending and having notified her employers of her upcoming departure, Wasserman had no choice but to put on a strong face and keep treating patients at her Philadelphia hospital as the pandemic raged on.

“I was like, what am I going to do? My job is ending, my apartment lease is ending, I’m supposed to move to another country and I don’t really have a backup plan,” Wasserman told The Times of Israel. “But I was just really Israeli about it and pretended everything was fine even though I had no answers.”

Dr. Deena Wasserman following a shift in the Emergency Department. She has been on the front lines fighting the coronavirus on two continents. (Courtesy)

Fortunately, Nefesh B’Nefesh helped get everything sorted out, including scheduling her a new flight after El Al, Israel’s national airline, put all flights to and from the US on hold. Now, Wasserman sees a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel from the halls of her new job at Assuta.

“The minute I heard they were giving out the vaccine, I started walking around saying, ‘Hello, can someone stick me please?’” she laughed.

The hardworking Wasserman took the time to speak with The Times of Israel by phone from her new apartment near the Ashdod beach as she sipped a cup of coffee just before starting a 12-hour overnight shift.

Sounding deservedly exhausted but upbeat, Wasserman talked about the immigration process, her life in Israel, and what it’s like to be serving alongside her new fellow citizens in the fight against COVID-19. The following interview has been lightly edited.

The Times of Israel: Can you tell us a bit about what went into your decision to move to Israel?

Dr. Deena Wasserman: Growing up, my family was very Zionistic, so the idea of aliyah always felt very natural. I have a lot of family in Israel. My father’s parents and brothers all made aliyah as adults, and my mother’s father was actually born in Jerusalem, and his whole family is still in Israel. So growing up, half our family was in Israel, and half was in the US. After high school I came here to study in a seminary and I knew that I wanted to make Israel my home, but I also knew that I wanted to be a doctor. So my goal was to finish studying in the States, and then come back here.

Were you aware that medical professionals in Israel don’t earn as much money as their US counterparts?

I think that’s a big deal and it’s one of the things that prevents a lot of physicians from moving here, but I was lucky in a couple of respects. First, I got a lot of scholarships for medical school, so I wasn’t really burdened with the kind of student debt that a lot of physicians have that necessitates them to take high-paying jobs to pay it all back. The other thing for me is that I made aliyah straight out of training. So I did my residency, and then I did a year of fellowship, but I was never making a real American salary. It’s one thing to know your earning potential and never have made it, but it’s another thing to go from making a significant salary and having it, and then moving to Israel and dealing with taking a cut.

I got offered a job in America and the starting salary made me hesitate for a second because it’s a lot more than what I’ll make here, but in the end it’s not all about money

That’s part of the reason that I knew I wanted to come immediately, because I knew I didn’t want to get used to that larger number, so to speak. And like I said, I’m lucky in that I don’t have a high cost of living. I got offered a job in America and the starting salary made me hesitate for a second because it’s a lot more than what I’ll make here, but in the end it’s not all about money.

Dr. Deena Wasserman displays her new Israeli passport. (Courtesy)

What was going through your head as you made aliyah in the middle of the pandemic?

It’s actually really interesting. Like I said, I had plans to make aliyah and it was finally here. I finished my residency and I decided to stay another year and do a fellowship for a bunch of reasons, both logistical and specialty-wise. I did my residency in emergency medicine and I did my fellowship in EMS and disaster medicine. In January 2020, I came to visit Israel, and I was working connections to find myself a job, and I basically left knowing that I had a bunch of job offers and I had it in my head that I was coming.

I had done my immigration application through Nefesh B’Nefesh, and I was waiting for my Jewish Agency interview, which I did as soon as I got back in January, and then corona broke out. I was about to put my passport in the mail to the Jewish Agency to get my visa, and I got a call saying, “All the embassies are closed, the consulate is closed, don’t send your passport. We’ll let you know when things open back up — probably at the end of June.”

I was just really Israeli about it and just pretended everything was fine even though I had no answers

I was like, oh God, what am I going to do? My job is ending, my apartment lease is ending, I’m supposed to move to another country and I don’t really have a backup plan. So there was that on my mind, but I was just really Israeli about it and just pretended everything was fine even though I had no answers. All the people at my work were asking, “So, when’s your move date?” and I was like, “I don’t know,” and they would say, “When are you getting your visa?” and I’d say, “I don’t know! It’s all gonna be fine — hakol y’hiyeh b’seder,” which, when everyone says that you know it’s definitely not going to be fine. [Laughing.]

Besides that I was the disaster fellow in the middle of the global pandemic, so it became my entire life. I was involved in a lot of planning and training, and I was also an EMS fellow, so all of our EMS agencies had to have new protocols and retraining. Plus I was working in the emergency room — our intensive care units got so full that they actually started having ER doctors covering the ICU, because they didn’t have enough ICU doctors to cover, so we were helping them out. So I kind of lived through the whole thing and in the back of my head was like, “Yeah, I don’t know what’s happening with my life, and my job, and my home, and my move to another country.” So it was definitely an interesting few months.

Dr. Deena Wasserman is greeted by her niece and nephew upon arrival to her new home in Israel. (Courtesy)

But it looks like you still managed to get to Israel somehow.

Yeah, so in the end I was registered for a flight and then El Al stopped flying, and then we had to go through United Airlines, and all of that was very up in the air. Nefesh B’Nefesh was so great about rescheduling the flight, being really clear about all the logistical stuff, and it was really nice to have had that because it definitely streamlined the process. Also, all the updates they’ve been doing for COVID and the pandemic-associated changes have been super helpful. Dealing with Israeli bureaucracy you’ve got to have a lot of perseverance and a lot of humor in order to deal with it, and just having all those guides and people to ask questions to was really helpful.

And then when you arrived, you must have had to hit the ground running.

So I came in August, and I was two weeks in quarantine. The day I got out, I went to the hospital to see my boss, who I think wasn’t sure I was actually going to show up until I knocked on her door asking for a contract — because they don’t really believe American doctors are actually going to come because of all the reasons we talked about earlier. And then I had to run around and get my medical license and deal with all the bureaucracy, and then it was Rosh Hashannah, and then the day before Sukkot I started working.

It was really crazy because originally they told me that I’d be able to shadow somebody for a couple shifts and have a couple weeks for acclimation. That’s pretty normal not just for a new country — a lot of the hospitals I worked at in the States had the same thing just so you get to learn the place and all that. But it happened to be the week that I started also happened to be the week the second wave of the virus started, so my very first 12-hour shift was scheduled in the main ER as a regular senior doctor. Thank God for my residents and all the other staff — they were all fantastic. But they literally threw me in the deep end and I just started treating patients and learning as I go.

I’m acclimating to a new country, and a new hospital system, and a new language. I almost feel whiplash from how fast I’ve been thrown into the system here, but it’s also kind of the best way to learn

I still feel a little bit like, “Wow, what is happening,” and every once in a while I just laugh, because I’m acclimating to a new country, and a new hospital system, and a new language. I almost feel whiplash from how fast I’ve been thrown into the system here, but it’s also kind of the best way to learn. My Hebrew has gotten 10,000 times better since I’ve been here, just the vocabulary alone. And overall, I’m very happy with where I landed, I love my coworkers, I love my job, and I feel like I’m doing something important.

Dr. Deena Wasserman in the protective gear sometimes required when treating patients during the pandemic. (Courtesy)

What does a regular shift look like for you?

So the first thing we do is gear up and then mask up. It’s constantly changing, like surgical mask, N95 mask, different type of N95 mask, face shield. So you kind of have to wear all the stuff all the time. And then you just dive in. There’s a lot of medicine that’s not COVID, but the underlying assumption is that everyone has COVID until proven otherwise. So you just kind of have to act that.

We have a lot of patients that have symptoms that might be COVID, or might not be, and there are different parts of the ER they’re supposed to go to depending on what their symptoms are. Sometimes it works well, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s really, really busy. The hospital has been really full, so sometimes we have patients who board in the ER for hours and hours and hours. Some days I have a steady stream of patients and I see them, and my residents see them, but I have breaks — you know, I can go to the bathroom, I can get a coffee. And then some days I just get there and for 12 hours I don’t sit down — and I have the Fitbit steps to prove it. And you just kind of roll with it.

But the thing that has most changed is the amount of thought that goes into your gowning up. I had a really sick COVID patient yesterday. There were a lot of people who just wanted to run into the room to help, and I said, “Nope, there are no emergencies in a pandemic. You gown up and then you go in. You have to take care of yourself first before you can take care of anybody else.” So it’s kind of that extra added step of all the donning and doffing of PPE that at the beginning was really tough, but I think now we’re all a little bit more used to it.

What’s post-aliyah life like outside of the ER?

Well, we keep going into lockdowns, so it’s definitely not what I imagined. I have a lot of family here and I thought I’d be always going away for Shabbat, and meeting new people, and that’s not happening yet. But I’m lucky because I work in a profession where we tend to like a lot of the people we work with, so I made some friends from work.

I live in Ashdod, near the beach. I really like it — I feel like it’s the best kept secret in the center of the country

I have siblings here but it’s been tough to visit them because of corona and I don’t want to expose them. But I live in Ashdod, near the beach. I really like it — I feel like it’s the best kept secret in the center of the country. A lot of Anglos don’t really know that there’s anything here, but it’s a great city. It’s right on the beach, it’s close to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Modiin. There’s a mall and restaurants, and the hospital.

Living in Israel is definitely different than America. The ease of just being here — being Jewish, being religious, a lot of things are just so much easier here than they were in the States. You know, going and getting Thursday night cholent and bringing it to the ER and having people high five you for that, it’s like a weird combination of different sides of my life that I never got to combine before, and it’s kind of nice.

Dr. Deena Wasserman prepares to depart from Newark Airport on her flight to move to Israel. (Courtesy)

How was making aliyah with Nefesh B’Nefesh?

It was really great. Everyone asks, “Did you make aliyah with Nefesh B’Nefesh?” and I say, “I’m from the US, I didn’t know there was a way to make aliyah without Nefesh B’Nefesh!” It was just very clear — I went on the website, I opened my file and started uploading my documents, it was really straightforward. They were super helpful with the medical stuff, because they have a medical liaison, and there were certain parts of my file with the Health Ministry that they helped make sure all my documents were in and that I was able to follow up on everything. They gave me the right phone numbers to get in touch with people, along with a clearer explanation of certain things that maybe aren’t so clear online.

And it’s actually kind of cute, they keep calling me to be like, “Hey, do you have any more questions? How’s it going?” And every time they call, I say, “I’m good, thanks for calling!” It’s kind of nice to have somebody checking up on you, but I was really lucky that I was able to find a job on my own, and I got a place to live, and I have family here so I knew a little bit about it, but it was nice knowing that they cared.

This article was sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh and its partners, Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel and JNF-USA.

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