The 4 Challenges of Being an EMT in Israel

Emergency medicine is a challenge anywhere, and even more so in Israel
Illustrative: A Magen David Adom ambulance. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Illustrative: A Magen David Adom ambulance. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

I always dreamed of a career in medicine. I was fascinated by the idea of deeply and positively impacting the lives of complete strangers, astounded at the knowledge and discipline it takes to act in the tensest of scenarios. I ultimately decided to pursue this dream via a slightly different route and became a certified Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) through United Hatzalah. Throughout my time as a volunteer, responding to emergency calls and providing initial treatments to patients with a broad spectrum of ailments and injuries, I have faced several distinct challenges.

1) With Great Knowledge Comes Great Responsibility

As an EMT, I am responsible for the patients I treat. People rely on first responders to get to the scene of the emergency, assess the situation, and make the right call – all in a matter of minutes. In that short time, it’s on us to determine if CPR is necessary or not, a tremendously significant decision that usually means the difference between life and death. Knowing that any small mistake can be potentially life threatening, knowing that the patient and his family are looking to me to help them, is a heavy burden to bear. Experience in the field along with frequent reviews of the protocols and medical theories helps to boost my confidence during moments of high anxiety and makes my decision-making faster and more precise.

Which brings me to the next challenge:

2) It’s Not Hollywood

There isn’t always a happy ending, even when we do everything right.

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in a Tel Aviv hotel lobby, spending time with family visiting from abroad, when my phone vibrated. I looked at the notification and saw that there had been an accident on the same street as the hotel. Without hesitation, I jumped up and bolted through the door. Aware of the significance of every moment following an injury, I knew that my car with the medical equipment was too far away. And so, I started running, full-speed, to the scene, armed with nothing but my medical knowledge and the unshakable determination to use it to save lives. Only 210 meters from the hotel, a 35 year-old motorbike driver lay on the pavement, completely still. An ambulance arrived a few moments later and together, the paramedic and I prepared the patient for departure. The ambulance roared away and, after a providing a quick report to the dispatcher, I returned to the hotel, caught my breath, and picked up where I left off with my family. Half an hour later, I received another notification. Though we tried our best and did everything in our power, the patient didn’t make it to the hospital.

But we don’t give up. We cannot allow ourselves to be discouraged. And when the next alert arrives, we run with the same speed and act with the same urgency.

In the movies, all CPR’s are successful. In real life, unfortunately, only about 10% of the people who undergo CPR will survive*. It can be disheartening to experience these tragedies again and again, but it is important to remain resolute in our determination to save the lives we can.

3) Be ready – always!

An emergency call can happen at any hour and in any situation. Every night before I go to sleep, I make sure I know exactly where my keys and shoes are in case I have to run out in the middle of the night. It means that my family will sometimes have to wait for me to come back before they start the Shabbat meal. It means, ‘I’ll be there in twenty minutes’ can suddenly become an hour. My time is no longer just my time. It belongs to everyone suffering from shortness of breath, choking, chest pains…

As a Swiss who values punctuality, my new and unpredictable schedule definitely took some getting used to.

4) It’s the Middle East

As first responders, we don’t pick our patients. In November of 2014, there was a terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, in which an Israeli soldier was stabbed to death. A colleague of mine from United Hatzalah was at the scene and was responsible for treating the terrorist. When telling us the story, he reminded us that it is not our job to be political. We must put aside our own beliefs and personal feelings to save the people who need to be saved, regardless of who they are or what they have done. When we receive calls regarding violence and abuse or drugs and alcohol, it is not our place to judge the people involved. Our sole responsibility is getting to them as fast as possible in order to provide them with the proper treatments.

As challenging as it is to be an EMT, especially here in Israel, there is nothing more encouraging and rewarding than catching the looks on people’s faces when we arrive on scene. There is a physical and emotional relief that washes over them. It is a look that says, ‘Someone is here to help.’ I’ve seen strong, grown, Israeli men (most likely former soldiers) cry from pain and I’ve watched worried mothers pace back and forth, helplessly, as their children suffer. But when we arrive, they squeeze our hands and look hopefully into our eyes, and suddenly, we are lifting their burdens and sharing their weight.

Serving as an EMT entails many more challenges than I’ve described here, but they are all – without a doubt – outweighed by the benefits.

The stories don’t always have fairy-tale endings. The timing can be inconvenient and sometimes, we fundamentally disagree with the people we are treating. But we never forget how blessed we are to have the tools, the knowledge, and the resources to help those in need, and to offer hope to the parents, siblings, and children who are watching with baited breath.

About the Author
Cédric Bollag is a partner at Wearable Valley and very involved with United Hatzalah as an EMT. Happy to hear from you and get feedback directly to my email:
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