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I know why the coronavirus ward dances

Hospital staff spurred each other on to create videos of the isolation wards that sparked joy, raised morale, and show how they became more than a medical team
Medical staff dance in Keter Alef. (Galia Wollman)
Medical staff dance in Keter Alef. (Galia Wollman)

In Shaare Zedek Medical Center’s first isolation wards for treating coronavirus patients, Keter Unit 1 and 2, there were good vibes.

Yep, that’s right. Good vibes.

Even during moments of tremendous stress, when the number of patients skyrocketed and the outlook felt bleak, the Keter team — nurses and doctors, cleaners and physiotherapists, social workers and Sherut Leumi (National Service) volunteers, interns and receptionists, orderlies and nursing assistants, security, nursing students, and dietitians — found ways to support each other. They rallied around their coworkers, and very quickly, became a family.

That is quite amazing when you consider that this staff comprised volunteers hailing from departments all over the hospital — oncology, the ER, internal medicine, cardiothoracic, orthopedics, maternity, even IVF — united by their desire to serve on the front lines of fighting COVID-19. Each had responded to a text sent out in late February by Shaare Zedek’s administration, calling for volunteers to sign up for the not-yet-formulated popup unit.

And this ad hoc group also worked in irregular conditions, learning things on the job. In contrast to regular units, the medical staff tried whenever possible to monitor patients from the safe distance of the “chamal” (Hebrew acronym for headquarters that literally means “war room”), a small room crowded with CCTV (closed circuit television), installed with monitors and a video intercom system. The patients had sensors affixed to their chest that continuously monitored their blood pressure, temperature, oxygen and pulse, and the results were projected on the screens. However, as patients grew sicker, the staff had to don protective gear from head to toe and go into the ward. That was no small feat. “We cared for our patients for hours, sweating in those hazmats, until we got yelled at to come out for overexposure to the coronavirus,” said Galia Wollman, 31, a nurse who works in Internal Medicine “3” and was among the first to volunteer for Keter Unit 1.

Every time Wollman went in to the isolation ward, she felt like she was stepping into mission impossible.

Galia Wollman in full hazmat suit and protective gear. (courtesy, Galia Wollman)

“We were working in untenable conditions, and had to adapt quickly to a catastrophic situation,” acknowledged Wollman. “Naturally, we sought ways to cope with the difficulties and the complexity. And those strategies often involved cracking jokes and laughter. Another was shaking our bootie.”

Those outlets were necessary because emotions in one 12-hour shift raced all over.

“One minute, I’d be holding the phone to assist a patient too weak to do so, enabling her to speak to her family members. Then I’d be cupping the palm of another patient who was slipping away, taking her last breaths. There’s no family there to say goodbye, and I’m reeling, a face full of tears. But before I could process that emotional roller-coaster, I had to admit a new patient who was just wheeled in.” Wollman released a sigh. “Finally, I’d plop myself down back in the chamal to take a breath, and someone would walk in with six boxes of steaming fresh pizza. I didn’t know what to feel first.  Defeat, laughter, anguish, vitality?”

Galia Wollman, a nurse in Keter Unit 1, holding a patient’s hand. (courtesy, Galia Wollman)

That same pressure-cooker muddle of feelings inspired Shuli Naftali, 32, a nursing student assigned to Keter Unit 5, an isolation ward set up later to accommodate the ballooning number of coronavirus patients, to make a video to lift morale.

“I wanted to bring in laughter and fun where I felt it was greatly lacking,” explained Naftali. “I also wanted patients to see that we’re still human, not just medical staff in space suits. I knew that people all over were deeply afraid of the coronavirus. I wanted to capture the notion that there could also be joy within the walls of hospital.”

Medical personnel wore hazmat suits while in the coronavirus ward that covered their faces except for the eyes. Stickers like this of Shuli Naftali’s face were stuck on the outside of the hazmat suits. (courtesy, Shuli Naftali)

On April 20, Naftali posted her video, Keter Unit 5’s dance-a-long to the song “Happy” by Pharell Williams. The three-minute video includes all of the staff dancing and shimmying at random moments and in different corners. Arms flailing, hips gyrating. Four hazmat-clad employees jutting arms forward, pelvic thrusts and circling their hips, doing the Macarena. Nurses dancing in the medicine room, a cleaner rocking his squeegee. The lyrics also impart a message of hope.

Here come bad news, talking this and that
(Yeah) Well, give me all you got, and don’t hold it back
(Yeah) Well, I should probably warn you I’ll be just fine
(Yeah) No offense to you, don’t waste your time
Here’s why

Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along…

And with a little tongue and cheek, the closing image advises viewers, “Clap your hands, and then wash them!”

The hospital staff embraced the clip. OMG! An in-house video! Awesome!

On regular days, Naftali works with Wollman in Internal Medicine 3. So she forwarded her the video on WhatsApp.

It was an invitation to Wollman, and to Keter Unit 1 and 2: Hey guys, show us what you’ve got.

Shuli Naftali sent this to Galia Wollman after she completed the video for Keter Gimmel, inviting Keter Unit 1 to ‘bring it on.’ (GIF, courtesy, Galia Wollman)

Wollman rose to the challenge. Together with her colleagues, they decided to rock their own video. Wollman texted the COVID-19 nurse’s WhatsApp group and circulated the message to all of the staff. Film yourself doing fun stuff, zany things! She was put in isolation after being exposed to the coronavirus, which put a damper on her filming, so she had to rely on her colleagues to capture some moments.

And the result — a five-minute “sof maslul” (end-of-a-journey) video to Uptown Funk by Bruno Mars — is, in my opinion, unequivocally uplifting.

Paralleling the iconic opening sequence of the official Bruno Mars video of Uptown Funk, Wollman films herself strutting olive-green gym shoes instead of spiked heels. She saunters through the parking lots into the ER entrance.

Opening shot of the Keter Unit 1 and 2 thanks-for-the-memories video, paralleling the opening shot of the official Bruno Mars video of Uptown Funk. Photo courtesy of Galia Wollman.

And then a whole magical world comes alive. Keter Unit 1 and 2, funky style. Medical staff in scrubs cartwheel, toss a ball, shimmy with abandon. They gyrate, isolate their pelvises. Nurses rock two ventilators.  A quartet of hazmat-clad medical staff do the Floss dance, swinging their arms, waist bopping left and right, arms flopping. Medical workers goofing around, cracking up.

Galia Wollman takes a moment to do handstands in the chamal of Keter Unit 2. (courtesy, Galia Wollman).

A snapshot of a time, the video also documents an Israeli Air Force flyover atop Shaare Zedek on Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, on April 29. And a very tender moment of appreciation: patients in Keter Unit 1 applauded their medical caregivers on March 19 at 6 p.m., when the Israeli public collectively went out to their porches and lawns to salute medical teams on the frontlines of battling the coronavirus. “They even asked the staff to congregate in the chamal at 6 p.m. so that we could all be there to witness it,” remembered Rachel Gemara, 33, with a smile. She, too, worked in Keter Unit 1 from the very first days.

Both videos invite the viewers in to see how the coronavirus isolation wards evolved into much more than just a place to beat the pandemic. “Yes, it was harrowing, but it wasn’t only that,” said Gemara. She’s featured in the video, dancing in her hazmat.

On April 23, Shaare Zedek closed Keter Unit 5. On April 26, Keter Unit 2 was closed. And on April 30, Keter Unit 1 shuttered its doors. Some of that closing shop and locking doors is captured in Wollman’s video. Now there are only two coronavirus units left: Keter Unit 3 and the ICU Keter unit. (Hey, guys, we’re waiting for your videos!)

“We knew that these units were temporary, and we’re delighted that they’ve closed,” said Gemara. “We’re just wistful to say goodbye to each other.”

Rachel Gemara cares for patients from the “chamal” headquarters. (courtesy of Rachel Gemara)

What prompted Wollman to make this video? Because, clearly, it wasn’t inspired just by the dare.

“We were forced to treat our patients in hazmats that fully cut us off from the outside and erased our identity. Precisely from the forced distancing comes the uncontrollable urge to freely exhibit who we are, our compassion, and the great warmth and connection that developed among the staff.”

Galia Wollman taken at Internal Medicine 3, her regular unit at Shaare Zedek Medical Center. (courtesy, Galia Wollman)

So there you have it. A video yearbook, if you will, of the light and sweet moments, of the camaraderie and companionship found in Keter Unit 1 and Keter Unit 2. And the same in Keter Unit 5.

Thanks for the memories, Keter Units 1, 2, and 5. And thanks for saving our lives.

About the Author
Ruth Ebenstein is an award-winning American-Israeli writer, historian, public speaker, and health/peace activist who loves to laugh a lot--and heartily. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Bosom Buddies: How Breast Cancer Fostered An Unexpected Friendship Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide. She is also the author of "All of this country is called Jerusalem": a curricular guide about the contemporary rescue operations of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and has written two teleplays for children, Follow that Goblin and Follow that Bunny. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tablet, WomansDay.com, Good Housekeeping, Triquarterly, CNN.com, USA Today, the Forward, Stars and Stripes, Education Week, Brain, Child, Fathom, and other publications. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
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