In the early evening on May 14, 2008, twenty-four-year-old Avital Afgin hurried back from her teaching job at a high school in Ashkelon. Leaving her infant son with her mother, she planned to spend some quality time with her two-year-old daughter Tair at the Hutzot Mall and pick up a prescription at the doctor’s clinic on the upper floor. But a Grad rocket fired by terrorists in Gaza changed their plans and almost killed them.
“I was standing outside the door of the doctor’s office when the missile hit. I lost consciousness immediately. When I came to, I couldn’t hear; I couldn’t see. Darkness and dust engulfed me. I groped for Tair with my burnt hand. Blood was everywhere. I started to scream for help.” Avital reels off the memory with such ease that I suspect she has replayed it a hundred times. A beautiful, slim woman with a flawless complexion, Avital’s dark eyes exude warmth and serenity. We are sitting in the lobby of the Bali Hotel perched high above the shimmering Kinneret, where Avital and her family are part of a group of victims of terror from Southern Israel enjoying a much-needed retreat sponsored by OneFamily, Israel’s leading national organization dedicated to the rehabilitation of victims of terror attacks and their families.
Missiles from Gaza began to rain on Ashkelon, a city of 120,000 people, in July 2006. At the time of the attack on the Hutzot Mall, the alarm meant to warn residents of incoming missiles wasn’t working. The IDF had disconnected the system because five false alarms the previous month had led to panic. Grad rockets (most likely manufactured in Iran) contain an especially large quantity of explosives in their warhead (18 kg, about 40 lbs) and have a fragmentation effect that causes extensive damage. So it isn’t surprising that ninety people were injured in the mall attack.
“Within less than a minute, Magen David Adom paramedics arrived and Tair was rushed to the nearby Barzilai Medical Center,” Avital continues. But it took longer to evacuate Avital. “I didn’t feel any pain despite the burns and injuries; I just longed to be on a stretcher,” recalls Avital. “My body felt heavy, lifeless, dead. I wanted to fall asleep, but people kept slapping my face to keep me awake. Months later, I learned that when I arrived at the hospital, I was classed as badly wounded and Tair as critically wounded.” Avital looks tenderly at Tair who is sitting beside us. When the medical team realized that both Avital and Tair had suffered head injuries, they were immediately flown to Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, for treatment. “I’ll never forget the panic on the nurse’s face when she noticed blood oozing from my ear,” says Avital.
Back at home, Avital’s mother got a call from an aunt in Netanya. “Putting the puzzle pieces together, they realized it was likely that I had been injured.” Prayers helped: my husband was taken to all the rabbis to get their blessing.
Doctor Daniel Simon, Head of the Trauma Center at the Sheba Medical Center, had just completed his shift when he heard of the attack in Ahskelon. When he heard that no patients would be flown to the hospital, he headed home. He had just driven into his parking lot when he received an urgent call summoning him back. He was part of the team of surgeons that worked on Avital for thirteen hours of surgery. “When I surfaced from the anesthesia, I was surrounded by doctors, each one waiting to see the results of his work,” Avital recalls with a thin smile. “They told me that it was a miracle I had survived and that the bleeding in my brain had somehow stopped without intervention. I instinctively replied Baruch Hashem. My reply incensed one of the doctors. ‘Who put you here in the first place?’ he snapped.” While the rest of the medical team tried to hush the irate doctor, Avital replied, “Hashem is allowed to say ‘no.’ He’s allowed to give a potch.”