Counting Our Blessings — Tishre Through The Eyes Of a First Responder

It hasn’t been an easy Tishrei for me as a first responder. In the two-and-a-half weeks that have passed so far during this month, I have responded to two major tragedies involving friends of mine from my own community and heard about the death of a friend from other colleagues who tried to save his life. In addition to these, I have responded to numerous car accidents, a few stroke patients and a number of other illnesses and traumas. While the ones that hit home hardest are the ones whom I know personally, but the others still take their toll.

Scene of the terror attack that killed Ari Fuld

Sunday Two Days Before Yom Kippur: Ari Fuld

As a member of United Hatzalah’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit, in addition to being a volunteer EMT and ambucycle driver, I responded to this tragedy as a second wave responder.  I was in Efrat when the attack occurred, so I knew that I wouldn’t be one of the first EMS volunteers on the scene. I was going to deal with the shock victims rather than the physical injuries.

Scene of the terror attack

It took me seven minutes to cross all of Efrat and arrive at the mall. By that time Ari was already in the ambulance on his way to the hospital where he would eventually be pronounced dead. The terrorist was just being loaded up onto another ambulance and I was left to search for and treat those in need of psychological or emotional stabilization. I was pulled by a fellow EMT to the back of one of the stores in the mall where two women had taken shelter during the attack. Thus began my two hours at the scene where I treated two people and helped direct the social workers from the local authorities to the relevant people who needed help.

One of the women I spoke to said that one of the saddest things that I have heard in my life. I asked her how she was feeling at the moment and she said, relatively okay since: “This is not the first terror attack I have experienced here. I’ve been through about 15. After a while, you simply pause for a time and then carry on with life. There is simply nothing else to do except wait for the next one.”  

At the scene with one of the people I spoke to following the attack

I sat with her for a few moments waiting to see if she wanted to say anything more. After a short time, she turned to me, smiled and said, I’ll be okay. Number 16 isn’t so bad. Then she returned to her store. I gave her my card and told her to be in touch with me if she felt she needed to speak further. She said thank you and carried on her with her routine.

I headed home about 2 hours after the attack occurred. I still didn’t know who had been attacked. I found out just as I pulled up to my building that the person killed was Ari Fuld, a member of the Shul I go to in Efrat. A neighbor and someone I had spoken to the day before in Shul. We weren’t close friends per se, more like acquaintances from the same community. But I know members of his family very well. His brother Hillel was my college roommate and his cousin Akiva stayed with my family in Toronto for an extended period of time. I’ve learned a lot from both of them. I also worked with his father in Yeshiva a number of years ago.  The news hit me hard, but it would have been harder had to treat Ari myself.

That night I went to a team debrief. We talked about the operational side of things and helped each other get the big picture from all of the volunteers who were involved that day, both at the scene and with the family behind the scenes. The Director of the Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit, Miriam Ballin came and got us to open up a bit more. Then it was off to the funeral. It was really hard. I saw so many friends, and family of my own and of the deceased. It was surreal. Cramming thousands of people in a small cemetery was not an easy feat. The funeral lasted until past 3:00 a.m. I lasted until 1:45 a.m. as I had to be in Tel Aviv for motorcycle training the next day.

Our team debriefs in Alon Shvut on Sunday night following the terror attack.

Monday:    

Tel Aviv motorcycle training was blessedly easygoing. 1-hour riding to the location and then 6 hours riding there. Then I waited around for my rehearsals in Tel Aviv later that evening. I decided to buff some calls. The second call I got crept up on me. I was about to visit one of my favorite bookstores on Shlomo Hamelech Street. (Okay, it’s a comic book store… I call that self-care after the Sunday I had… 🙂 )

United Hatzalah Motorcycle training in Tel Aviv with Ofno’an Me’uman

As I was getting to the store on my ambucycle, I came across a line of busses crowing the street in front of me. I waited patiently. But then a driver in the opposite lane beckoned to me and told me that at the head of this line of standing busses was a car accident. I flipped on my lights, drove in the opposing lane and headed towards the accident. I called dispatch to report it, as no one had done so yet. I arrived to see three injured patients, (all light injuries thankfully).

The bus had hit a woman crossing the street in a crosswalk. After assessing her for only scrapes and bruises, I went onto the bus where two elderly women had sustained injuries when the bus jolted to a stop flinging them into poles. I treated one woman on the bus, then the ambulance team arrived. They took over treating the physical injuries, and I headed back out to the street, where the woman who was hit had spiraled into a full-fledged panic attack.

Scene of the bus accident in Tel Aviv

Together with a city inspector, I began trying to calm her with breathing and speaking gently. A passerby had given her some money for a cab, as the woman was refusing transport, in spite of her injuries as she said she had no money to pay for the ambulance. Her phone had shattered in the accident and she couldn’t call her husband. She began recounting all of the traumas she had suffered in the past few years and I waited with her and listened to her as she left the shock of the moment wash over her and be added to the trials of her past. She bemoaned that she suffered all of the bad luck in the world due to the myriad problems that she had, many of which were very serious indeed, and that this was added to her list just before Yom Kippur. Eventually the police arrived, took her information down, gave her the driver’s information so that she could pursue it with insurance somehow, and then she got into a cab and went home to her husband who would be able to give her the pills she takes to control her panic attacks, which she then told us were chronic.  

Thursday:

On my way back from work to a continuing education EMS course, (paramedic’s assistant) I came across the best car accident that I have ever seen. A motorcycle driving on the shoulder hit a car turning right. The car’s tire blew and the motorcycle flipped into a pole with the driver crashing into the pole head first. Again I was the first on scene and called it in. The people in the car were uninjured and the motorcyclist only had a scrape on his arm as he wasn’t wearing a jacket. His helmet took the blow against the pole and other than the scrape he was fine. I canceled the ambulance, but it came anyway.

The reason it was the best accident is what happened afterward. The motorcyclist helped the car driver change his blown tire, and the car driver helped the motorcyclist pick up his motorcycle and place it in a safe location near the road. They took photos of the scene, exchanged details, and then the car driver offered the motorcyclist a “tremp” (ride) home. This restored a lot of my faith in humanity. I’ve never seen such a positive response by two people involved in a car accident before.

Scene of the car accident. (Photo Credit: Shira Dweck)

Shabbat: Tragedy Number Two:

Shabbat afternoon I was taking a nap. My radio woke me up. A person fell from heights in the Dagan, the neighborhood next to mine in Efrat. I report on WhatsApp that I am en route and head out on my ambucycle. On the way, the report comes in that the victim is a young child who fell out of a three-story high window. The child was in bad shape. I picked up speed. A lot of speed. I got to the scene in 4 minutes. Two of our UH responders were already there. One had called it in. The ICU showed up we treated the child for a few minutes to stabilize him enough to transport him. I drew drugs for the paramedic, attached the lines for the monitor, and performed a lot of the actions I just finished learning in the course on Thursday. This was not how I wanted to do my review.

As the call is being wrapped up, I helped put the child into the back of the ambulance and for the first time, I see the father in the front seat. We were roommates in Yeshiva about 19 years ago, and before he moved to the new neighborhood, we were also neighbors. I know him fairly well. His window is shut but my heart sinks. The rest of the EMS teams leave. I take a second to look around and I see a lot of children very earnestly talking to adults all around. I walk over to one of the adults and ask what the children were talking about. Apparently, a group of children were the only ones to witness the incident. Many of them were shaken up, some badly, some less so. All of them needed to talk. It was going to be a long afternoon.

What was worse was that I couldn’t find or locate all of the children as many of the parents had squirreled them away following the accident. The child who fell was in serious to critical condition. I found out after Shabbat that surgeons had performed emergency surgery, opened his skull, relieved a hematoma, and saved his life, in part due to the fast care he received at the scene. One of the children who witnessed the fall was talking to his mother as I approached them. He told me he saw the fall and wanted to talk about it. I sat down with him, but he urged me to go to the spot where the fall took place. He wanted to show me what had happened. We returned to the scene of the fall where the seven-year-old child explained in incredible detail exactly what he saw and when. The police, who were by this time investigating the scene, found the eye-witness report very helpful.

I encouraged the boy to tell us whatever he felt was important and he beamed at being useful to both myself and the police. It was his way of processing and feeling as if he made a difference. When he walked away from the scene with his mother, who had made a mental note of all of the children who were there according to her son’s report, the boy looked up at his mother and said: “I want to be an ambulance driver when I grow up and ride a motorcycle as well.” My silver lining from the incident I guess.

Sunday Night: Chag Sukkot – Tragedy Number Three – Knowing but not helping

On Chag a drunk journalist rammed his car into three people killing one and injuring two. I heard about the accident via the spokesperson’s channel, but was not in Jerusalem and therefore was unable to help.

This incident didn’t strike me too hard at first. I considered it a shame like all other fatal car accidents that take place in the country and I mourned from afar the loss of life. It didn’t touch me in a personal way until Tuesday morning.

I was driving with my family down south when the news revealed the identity of the car accident victim. He was none other than a pianist whom I hired countless times to play music for the theater I used to run. His creativity and joy for the arts knew no bounds and he was a taskmaster when it came to teaching people music. I saw the fruits of his labors shine gloriously many times. His name was Haim Tukachinsky and he was a gift to the city of Jerusalem and to those who knew him. While there was nothing for me to do, this added a significant weight to the already heavy month that is only two weeks old and the year that is of the same age.

Summing It All Up

On Sukkot, we have a triple commandment to be happy. This is trying when it comes on the heels of a triple tragedy. But as always in this job… we must persevere and focus on the good and not the bad. We need to focus on those whom we are able to help, and not those whom we lose. We have to count our blessings more than our tragedies.

With that in mind, I am joyful for those whom I was able to treat at the terror attack. I am joyful for the woman I was able to calm at the car accident and the people I got to help through their shock process. I am also thankful I got to see that best side of humanity helping each other after a car accident where not a single hard feeling was uttered. I am thankful for the miracle that my friend’s son survived his fall and that his surgery was successful and I pray that he has a full recovery without lasting brain damage. I am thankful for the time I got to know and enjoy the creativity of my friend Haim while he was with us. And I am thankful for my own small bundle of joy who teaches me how to smile again every single day. I have learned that there is no better treatment for a tough call than hugging one’s own child.

I wish you a year of counting your blessings… may we all have only blessing to count this year.   

About the Author
Raphael Poch is a Canadian-Israeli playwright, producer, director, actor and journalist. He is the International Media Spokesperson for United Hatzalah and runs the First City Improv Troupe.
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