This column has brought to life some of the heroes and heroines who labored to bring dreamers to the shores of Israel, who built the army and the navy, and who gave their young lives to the fledgling homeland. Their sacrifices are priceless. In this final article, we visit the ill-equipped hospitals where staff and even patients gave of themselves unconditionally. These many heroes and heroines gave Israel their hearts.
Professor Jack Penn was an innovative South African plastic surgeon, one of the first of many South African medical professionals who arrived in Israel to heal the wounded. After he had successfully completed an intricate facial operation, Israel’s senior doctors, most of whom were war refugees from Germany and who would not accept that their training in the great German medical schools of the 1920s and 30s was outdated, reacted with scorn.
“Ach ja,” they said, “but you have ze equipment.”
“It’s the technique you should be watching,” said Penn. “You could do it with a kitchen knife.”
The doctors laughed – until later that day when Penn performed an even more complicated reconstruction job on the face of a mutilated tank driver using a knife from the hospital kitchen that he had sharpened to a razor edge. *
Penn, a major in the South African army, had had wartime experience with casualties in need of plastic and reconstructive surgery when he served in the Battle of Britain. But not everyone treating the wounded Israeli soldiers had such an advantage. In addition, they were working with outdated medical equipment and insufficient supplies.
Three in One
In early June, South African nurse Ray Brunton established Djani, the country’s first real military hospital, in Jaffa. With no medical equipment in sight, it was a hospital in name only. In her memoirs, Ray describes the conditions under which she and her colleagues toiled to save lives. While checking the area for mines, the staff found a stack of out-of-date instruments was found buried in the ground. The orthopedic surgeon used sterilized sculptor’s tools and she used sterilized crochet cotton to sew up the patients. With few options, amputations were carried out at an alarming rate. Ray protested against this and when her protests failed, she hid the tools.
Since the wounded were brought in from Jerusalem during the night, the medical team would work through the night and then sleep four hours in the late morning. Despite the conditions, the hospital was a success. “I must say that we never, ever had a septic case; in fact nothing went wrong. The Lord was on our side, and nobody else,” writes Ray.
With Djani up and running, Ray was sent to a hospital situated between Kfar Giladi and Tel Hai. Fighting in the area was so heavy that when she arrived at the hospital in Teverya, no one would take her to Kfar Giladi. In fact, the staff denied that there was even a hospital there. In essence, they were right: the hospital, a prefab makeshift building, had no name.
Ray’s third posting was the hospital in Beersheva. On arrival, the commanding officer greeted her with the words: “So you’re the next one they’ve sent to be killed.” Both Ray’s predecessors had been killed in the fighting. But she was undeterred. She went on to work under impossible circumstances, once dealing with 200 wounded entirely by herself because the other staff members had left for the weekend. Happily, not everything in Beersheva was blood and gore. One night, Ray had the good fortune to deliver a baby boy: possibly the first Jewish baby to be born in Beersheva in 2,000 years.