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Healing Under Fire: How Ashkelon’s Barzilay Medical Center Coped with Four Days of Rockets

The Barzilay Medical Center Emergency Room. Some 100 critical patients were moved to secure areas under rocket threat.

The Barzilay Medical Center Emergency Room. Some 100 critical patients were moved to secure areas under rocket threat.
Photo Credit: Yori Yanover / The Jewish Press

Soft spoken and friendly, Barzilay Medical Center CEO and Medical Director Dr. Chezy Levy faces extremely unusual professional challenges, born by his facility’s unique location – only a few miles north of the Gaza strip.

“What we’ve experienced in the last four days is another wave of violence in this area,” he recalled one day after a tenuous cease fire between the Islamic Jihad and Israel had gone into effect. A lot of missiles fell here.”

Altogether, the four days of fighting in mid-March, 2012, saw some 200 rockets being launched at Israel’s southern population centers, compared with about 800 rockets over the entire three weeks of operation Cast Lead of late 2008, early 2009.

“Barzilay is the only hospital in the region, and so, in addition to our routine service in every area of medicine, like any ordinary hospital, we also have to be prepared year-round to treat civilians who were wounded by those missiles from the Gaza strip, and treat additional casualties from the military,” said Levy.

He used to be the IDF Surgeon General, and so dealing with emergencies, “unfortunately,” as he frequently puts it, is his bread and butter. “We, doctors, live in Israel with one eye looking at ordinary medical service, and the other eye always ready and alert in anticipation of emergencies. This is, unfortunately, why Israel has such expertise in operating medical facilities in emergency times.”

Barzilay Medical Center CEO and Medical Director Dr. Chezy Levy oversees operations while the rockets from Gaza are flying outside.

Barzilay Medical Center CEO and Medical Director Dr. Chezy Levy oversees operations while the rockets from Gaza are flying outside.

Early on the Sunday following the eruption of the short, but massive conflict, Dr. Levy sent word to his entire staff to forgo all leaves and come in. This was not simple, since schools had been closed as a result of the fighting, and many of his nurses are mothers to school age and smaller children. Nevertheless, he said, they all showed up, because “they are very devoted to the patients and the hospital.”

In my work as local reporter in NY City, I once covered the way Gouverneur Medical Center on the Lower East Side operated during a particularly fierce blizzard. Staff members walked many blocks across town in snow up to their knees, to get to a subway that was still operating, to make it to work. I know first hand this kind of dedication of medical staff. But this one required working under fire and leaving one’s children in someone else’s care while the shells were coming down. Beats a blizzard.

“We had to decide which patients to transfer to our better protected facilities,” Dr. Levy explained what working under fire actually took. “This hospital is quite old and there are some shielded buildings, but most aren’t. Unfortunately, we are well used to this, since we’ve been targeted by missiles, on and off, for more than ten years now. And as time passes, the Gazan missiles are becoming more and more sophisticated, and Ashkelon is now regularly within the range of the shooting.”

He said this had been the fourth time in which the shelling was so bad and ongoing, they had to transfer patients to other, better protected buildings.

“Our choice is to first move those patients who can’t help themselves,” he continued. “So we took, first of all, the premature babies and put them in the shielded area.”

He smiled softly. “You should have seen  them transporting a premature baby in the incubator, while resuscitating it on the way…”

Then they took the newborn babies. Then they moved the pediatric ward, the dialysis patients, and patients receiving ontological treatment.

The very old, geriatric patients who can’t help themselves were transferred outside the region, to facilities up north.

Ashkelon's Barzilay Medical Center meets the challenges of living next door to the Gaza strip, Grad rockets and all.

Ashkelon's Barzilay Medical Center meets the challenges of living next door to the Gaza strip, Grad rockets and all.

“We transferred about 100 patients, or 20% of the patient population, most of them to protected hospital units, some to ambulatory services,” he reported, sighing: “It took four to five hours to move all the critical equipment and to open the new, protected ward.”

Dr. Levy said he and his staff were debating whether or not to transfer the emergency room to the shielded buildings, and in the end decided against it. The alternative location is just not convenient enough for the kind of fast-pace, hectic work that goes on when an ER is taking patients from massive rocket hits.

“We are in the process of building a new, protected emergency room, which should be ready in two to three years,” he said, and his subdued smile suggested two to three years was a very long time when you live this close to Jihadists with access to batteries of Grad missiles.

But he was effusive in describing his facility’s openness to anyone who requires medical help, including folks from the very area that’s shelling his facility.

“In this hospital we also treat Palestinians, and among the patients we had to transfer under the Grad shelling to the protected areas were civilians from the Gaza strip,” he said.  “It reminded me of something I saw four years ago, during the Cast Lead operation. We had a pair of Palestinian twins who were receiving treatment here, and their mother refused to go back to Gaza. She said she preferred staying here and receiving treatment under the missile fire that came at her from her own home town.”

Then he reiterated: “We don’t differentiate between patients based on their nationality. We treat everyone.”

On the morning we spoke, one day after an unofficial cease fire between Israel and the Palestinians had gone into effect, Barzilay was starting to go back to its ordinary operations.

“It took some time,” Dr. Levy said, “but now we are under ordinary conditions, the kids are back in school, everything is OK.”

Then he intimated: “I pray for the day when we no longer need to invest in emergencies, and we can invest all this money in developing medical technologies…”

A new facility that will offer larger sheltered quarters will be completed in two to three years.

A new facility that will offer larger sheltered quarters will be completed in two to three years.

I asked Dr. Levy if there were serious medical consequences from the four days of shelling.

“Luckily, no,” he said. “Luckily, our staff is so well trained and skilled, that they accomplished the moving of so many patients without harmful consequences.”

Beyond the serious inconvenience, and beyond the harsh responsibility in deciding who must be moved and who can stay, and who is in such a dire condition that they may not be moved at all.

What about budgetary consequences?

“Whenever something like that happens we face budgetary issues,” he said. “It’s secondary, of course, but we feel the economic pinch as a result of admitting fewer patients and performing fewer operations. After all, our income depends on those, and here our income suffered some. But we’ll deal with it.”

About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.


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