Monday, March 26, 2007

Western Galilee Hospital: The Little Israeli Hospital That Could And Will Again

For most of the world, there's War and then there's Peace.

But more and more in Israel---a country of 6 million Jews, surrounded by over 250 million Muslims in the Middle East---there's only War and the Preparation for War.
So it is, tucked up in the upper northwest corner of Israel, only six miles from the Lebanese border, near the Mediterrean, lies a little hospital that's existed for over forty years starting as a border birthing center that is perpetually in the zone between War and the Preparation for War.

It's a hospital with a big heart, very tight security, and a deep underground emergency facility that constantly prepares for war, even as it hopes for peace.

Last summer during the war with Hezbollah as hundreds of katyusha rockets flew overhead and bombs and fire spread on the surrounding countryside, years of preparation paid off: life and death went on at this hospital as usual--
---mothers having babies,
---patients undergoing corneal transplants and dialysis,
---men being treated for heart attacks,
---soldiers with battle wounds being bandaged and put back together
---and old people dying of old age.
But, instead of taking place in the hospital's modern, spacious and private above-ground facilities, patient care went on in cramped, dark underground hallways with patients and staff lined up like sardines: medications, IVs, bedpans, heart monitors, trays of food, water went down with nurses and doctors attempting to treat hundreds of patients.

The evacuation took less than an hour, soon after the war began on July 12.
And it all went according to schedule. The hospital had planned for this many times.
However, nothing prepared anyone for the real sights, sounds and smells of birth, death and woundedness all merged for three weeks into a big wartime underground slumber party. Or the setting with its wide underground hallways where emergency ambulances with exhaust fumes drove in and out or generators and air conditioning machines roared endlessly, attempting to cool, clean and filter air and water that was merged and been reused by hundreds of people for days on end.
With its Emergency Facility working at full capacity, last year, this was the best functioning, most overworked hospital in all of Israel.
Today, with a the ceasefire in place, the underground facility stands empty, dark and quiet.
Though the war has ended, the preparation for more war has only just begun here, again.
This is Western Galilee Hospital (WGH) in Nahariya and, with over 4,000 employees,and 700 beds, it serves some 400,000 Jews, Muslims, Christians, and Druze in the northern Galilee region. It's existed for decades with the reality and constant threat of missile attacks from Southern Lebanon and beyond.

"For years we've spent a lot of time and money on war drills," says Judy Jochnowitz, International Liason for WGH. "During war it can mean the difference between life and death whether you're having a baby, undergoing a corneal transplant or hemorrhaging from gunfire."

For this reason WGH is quickly developing a global reputation as one of the best war facilities in the world---for mass casualty events, including injuries from biological/chemical warfare and acute stress syndrome.

"We've had hundreds of people---doctors, administrators, psychologists and government officials---from all over the world visit us since the war ended last year to see how our hospital operates with the kinds of pressures we've been under for years," said Jochnowitz.

"It's gratifying but a bit overwhelming," said Jochnowitz, adding that WGH gives a week-long Emergency Preparedness Course in the fall each year, to teach hospital personnel and staff what they have learned from decades on the frontlines of war and preparation for war.

War drills have enabled WGH to evacuate patients to the underground Emergency facility very quickly. When the war started with a barrage of rockets, Dr. Mosche Daniel , acting director of WGH, gave orders the evacuate patients and staff to the underground quickly.

It was an amazing feat which they had prepared for many times. In addition, a number of children and employees were allowed to take refuge there also for the duration of the war, sleeping and living on mats in cramped quarters.

But Mosche claims it isn't just preparedness that makes WGH a great hospital, it's the eclectic mix of people that makes it feel like a big family:

"What makes our hospital so special," said Dr. Mosche Daniel, "is that both our patients and employees are made up of Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze. We live and work in a peaceful co-existence. As bad as it got last summer, almost everyone came to work during the war because they love this place. Attendance here in the most dangerous zone was the best of any other hospital in Israel."

But feeling like a big family at work, does not keep WGH from having some of the tightest security of any hospital in the world: No one gets into WGH without going through tight security check points, much like going through airport screening.

"Even patients bleeding on stretchers have to go through extremely tight security," Daniel told me when I visited there recently, adding that terrorists have been known to strap bombs and explosives under their clothes and bags when they're carried in.

No one of any age gets a sympathy pass inside the hospital. So far, WGH's safety procedures have paid off.

All of that is in the past and present. What, then is the future of WGH, the little hospital that started out as a border birthing center over forty years ago?

Expansion of WGH's Emergency Department and underground facility is now on the front burner.

With the ever growing threat of war in Israel, coupled with the explosion of population in the Northern Galilee region---including thousands of Jewish Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, as well as refugues pouring in from Southern Lebanon, expansion has never been more urgent.

It's a race against time. The little hospital that serves so valiently now needs whatever support the world community can muster.

WGH is now working on raising the last $2,500,000 necessary to commence a $25,000,000 renovation of its underground Emergency Department and shielded operating rooms, which include expansion of the hallways for ambulances to drive into. If all goes well and enough pledges and donations come in.

Construction is due to begin this summer. And it can only proceed during ceasefire.

For now there's an uneasy peace at WGH. But they live with a sense of urgency, as all Israel does. They know the preparedness and emergency drills they undertake today, could have major impacts on future wartime functioning of their people in the Northern Galilee.

I, for one, am privileged to know about WGH through the wonderful people I have met there, especially my new friend and "sister" Dr. Malka Yaholom, a cardiologist at WGH I met last year in the Istanbul airport. We have stayed in touch with by e-mails. And I plan to continue supporting this worthy cause and my friends there both now and going forward.

Anyone wishing to support Western Galilee Hospital's Emergency Department expansion in or outside the United States may contact Mark Goldstein ( at the Jewish Federation of Lehigh Valley (JFLV) in Allentown, PA. This organization sends 100% of all contributions earmarked for WGH on to the hospital in Nahariya. Donations are tax-deductible.
Or they can contact me.

WGH needs our friendship and support.

The little Israeli hospital that could has big plans, as it hopes for the best, but prepares for the worst of war in northern Israel.

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