Two years ago, Jerusalem-based paramedic Hagai Bar Tov was called to the scene of a terror attack. A Palestinian driving an excavator attacked a bus, flipping it over and killing one pedestrian.
“I was one of the first paramedics to arrive and we started to do CPR, but nothing was left of him,” Bar Tov said.
Bar Tov, an 18-year veteran of the Magen David Adom (MDA) medical service, traces the current terror wave to that incident. He has treated many terror victims since, especially near his home in Kiryat Arba.
MDA medics deal with the mundane as well as the traumatic in their daily work. The organization’s personnel cover a range of medical needs as emergency responders, the caretakers and providers of the national blood supply, and as Israel’s representatives to the International Red Cross.
The group’s most visible role is as an emergency medical service. MDA, Israel’s largest non-profit organization, operates 1,074 ambulances in Israel and has access to two helicopters. Their white ambulances carry basic life support equipment for non-urgent situations, while the yellow Mobile Intensive Care Unit vehicles are described as “emergency rooms on wheels” and are staffed by highly trained paramedics.
There are also volunteers with motorcycles or with medical kits in their personal vehicles that can be sent to a scene. The organization has about 15,000 staff members in Israel, 1,850 of whom are paid professionals, while the rest are volunteers.
The Life Guardians program, which recruits civilian volunteers with basic first aid skills who can be notified of an emergency in their immediate area, has had 12,000 applicants since its launch six months ago.
Emergency calls are answered by operators throughout the country, unlike in the United States, where calls are directed to local offices. The nationalized system means a faster response time since more operators are available. The average phone response time is four seconds.
About 72 percent of the budget is covered by patients’ health plans. Health providers need to collect this fee by law in Israel. Around 20% of the budget comes from donors, mainly in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.
Most calls are mundane — an old man with suspicious chest pains who needs to be tested, for example — but many still need to be treated as emergencies. It is better to “over-triage” when there is doubt about the severity of a case. The most common dramatic events are work and traffic accidents and, in the summer, drownings.
The recent terror wave stressed the system, but the mechanism for treatment was already in place, only the volume increased, medics said.
They say they can see from the injuries of stabbing victims that many of the terrorists know where to stab people’s bodies to inflict the most harm. After the bus bombing in Jerusalem in April, medics said they knew who the bomber was by the nature of his injuries.
Bar Tov, who first volunteered with MDA when he was 15 years old, lives in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba on the outskirts of Hebron.
“I go for most of the calls that we have there. It’s not easy to arrive to a scene to discover that you are treating friends or people that you know, and worse, that you need to treat very badly injured soldiers,” he said.
MDA also responds to emergency events abroad like the earthquakes in Haiti in 2010 and in Nepal last year, especially if Israelis are trapped or injured in a disaster zone. In Nepal, one crew was sent to treat Israelis and one to care for Nepalese. A team went to treat Israelis injured in the Istanbul bombing in March, when three Israelis were killed and 11 injured.
Above: MDA paramedics take off for Istanbul to treat Israelis wounded in a bombing.
Despite the traumatic events Bar Tov has had to deal with on the job, he has experienced high points too. He delivered twins in the back of an ambulance once five or six years ago, he said. And, he met his wife after cooking a meal for her in the MDA station in Rishon Lezion in central Israel where both were working at the time. They now have four children and both work as paramedics in Jerusalem.
The run-of-the-mill calls give him strength too, he said.
“When you go to an old man, even if he only needs help to get up from the floor to the bed,” Bar Tov said, “it’s a good feeling when someone is smiling at you when you finish your treatment and says ‘thank you.'”