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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

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Former Torontonian talks state of Israeli hospitals

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Dr. Mark Clarfield

TORONTO — Hospitals can be somewhat chaotic, but that’s true doubly so when they’re located in Be’er Sheva and operating during the 2008-09 Gaza war.

Dr. Mark Clarfield, chief of geriatrics at Soroka Hospital and director of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Medical School for International Health, last week spoke about what’s it’s like to work at Israeli medical facilities that are close to the border.

“Tonight, I’ll share with you what it’s like to be a doctor south of Steeles,” he joked to the audience at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue. 

Clarfield, originally from Toronto, said that even in times of relative calm, Israeli hospitals can be hectic. “We’re a very nervous and fast-moving society. People simply don’t wait. Everyone moves fast.”

But when Israel invaded Gaza in 2008, everything changed very quickly.

Clarfield said the hospital put sand bags on its roofs and that helicopters landed nearby to bring the wounded to the emergency ward.

“We were also dealing with [the] constant [threat of] chemical and biological warfare,” he said. “It was kind of a rough neighbourhood.”

One of the greatest challenges was evacuating wards that the Home Front Unit of the army deemed unsafe, including Clarfield’s own geriatric unit. “The grand exodus of the wards was really difficult, because when you have people attached to tubes or in incubators, it’s hard to just move them within the same room, let alone [to the] outdoors,” he said.

On top of this, to empty the hospital in case it had to accommodate mass casualties, some patients had to be sent home.

Throughout this period, university and hospital staff worked around the clock. When all leave was cancelled, they had to find a way to care for the hospital staff’s children. Within 12 hours, an impromptu daycare was created to look after 300 kids. “It wasn’t exactly rocket science,” Clarfield said.

And while the hospital remained operational, the danger of living and working in the area was still very real. “In the media, they called Hamas’ weapons ‘primitive’ missiles, but there was nothing primitive about them. To refer to them as ‘homemade,’ like cake, it really denigrates the danger they posed,” Clarfield said. “We were lucky many more people weren’t killed.”

In Be’er Sheva, residents had about 45 seconds after the warning alarm sounded to find a safe space. In Sderot, that time was a mere 10 seconds.

“I remember thinking, ‘This is crazy.’ My kids could be blown up on the bus on the way to school,” Clarfield said.

Despite these dangers, the hospital’s staff came to work. “We did what we had to do,” he said. “The students all came to classes, and we never cancelled clinical teaching. Our standards were very high – even our double standards were high.”

Clarfield said that although he was describing the Gaza war, incidents similar to many that occurred during the war have happened before and will repeat themselves. A month ago, the hospital’s geriatric ward was evacuated for safety reasons, he noted.

“We’re in it for the long haul and we prepare ourselves for the worst, but we also have to be ready for peace at any time,” he said.

He added that hospitals in Israel are places “where you have Jews and Arabs working side by side with full co-operation.”

Clarfield’s lecture was organized by the Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. 

Soroka Hospital is the bloodline of the city, organizers said, and the Canadian group aims to help promote the hospital’s growth.

For more information, visit www.bengurion.ca.

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