Volunteering at Galilee Medical Center
Dr. Jonathan Beyer, an emergency physician from Michiana, recently travled to Israel to provide care
Watching the news on and after October 7th, I was struck by emotions that, I am sure, were shared by many who have a close emotional relationship with Israel but live far away. People wanted to help but felt helpless at the same time, watching the death toll rise and the worry about more violence to come.
At first, I did the only thing I figured I could do; I sent a donation to Magen David Adom. As an emergency physician and paramedic, this cause seemed to fit with what I had hoped, to help the injured. If I couldn’t do it myself, I would enable those who could.
On October 17th, I received a text from a friend who works with the Jewish Federation of St. Joseph Valley and has ties to Western Galilee. It was a screenshot of someone else’s computer with a list of medical specialties. He asked, “Are you one of these?” Emergency medicine was on the list, and I said, “Yes.” He asked if I wanted to go to Israel to volunteer as a physician. Without even thinking about it, I responded, “Yes.”
By November 11th, I went from sitting at my home in Michigan to boarding a plane to Israel. Pacing of arrangements had been rather quick. In that time, I’d sent Galilee Medical Center (GMC) every ounce of paperwork that I could imagine, including proof of medical licensure, résumés, and my medical school diploma. I anxiously woke up in the middle of the night knowing the time difference in Israel, checking my email, and sending documents back and forth at 3 AM. Suddenly, one night, I received a temporary Israeli medical license—it was real—it was happening; what had I just agreed to?
I had to tell my boss. I’m grateful it was an easy conversation. He told me, “I know you need to do this. Take as much time as you need.”
And with that, I was off. I landed at Ben Gurion in the evening. As I walked out of the terminal, the causeway was lined with pictures of the hostages held in Gaza. The reality of the situation hit home as I realized I was in a war zone. This wasn’t like the trips to Israel I had taken in my twenties.
Volunteers from the Jewish Agency met me and got me onto the train to my hotel in Acre. In good Jewish-mother fashion, they produced multiple bags with sandwiches, snacks, and beverages. They asked me every fifteen minutes if I needed more food.
When I got to the hotel full of volunteer physicians, I listened to what I thought was a propeller plane overhead—that’s when someone told me, “That’s a drone, hopefully, IDF.” I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
My first day was the most tense. While exiting the car at Galilee Medical Center, another volunteer ER doctor (an Israeli living in Hungary) pointed out distant rumbles—not thunder. Artillery. My Hebrew, decent as a teenager, apparently didn’t age well like fine wine; it was atrocious. I did the world’s more abbreviated hospital orientation, getting an ID badge and scrubs and learning where the ER was. In the first few hours, we had two IDF casualties—their truck was hit by a Hezbollah rocket. They were both badly injured, but they had ample help and I simply watched, figuring the next batch of casualties would be mine. Ironically, they never appeared.
Fighting in the north was sporadic and since the evacuations in Northern Israel, the number of patients that GMC saw was lower than in peacetime. Weirdly quiet, everyone was poised for a catastrophe at any moment. However, people still needed normal medical care, so we all did our best to provide it. For me, this meant teaching ultrasound to the residents and other physicians and seeing patients.
What struck me most about the ER—I think this point needs to be emphasized more than any other—was the multicultural aspect of the staff. GMC’s staff is made up of a mix of Jews, Arabs, both Christian and Muslim, and Russian emigres. Most of the residents I taught in the ER were Arab. They had gone to medical school in Europe where they’d learned in English. They took care of patients speaking Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian. The war swirled around us at the ER, and people from multiple religions and ethnicities worked together as a singular spot of light during an otherwise dark month. People in and outside of Israel said, “Jews and Arabs can’t work together.” While not ignorant of the violence and hatred, I always wanted to point out that I worked with Arabs every day, and we didn’t fight; we worked together to teach, learn, and treat patients. Is this going to bring peace to the region? Maybe not, but I hope people can look at this as something that proves that working together is not only possible but happening.
My three weeks in Israel were spent mostly in the ER, but by the third week, we had found work teaching Israeli army medics and some civilians combat first aid. I traveled as far as the Golan Heights to an evacuated Kibbutz the army had taken over. That was my only exposure to incoming artillery fire, which I think made me more nervous than the IDF medics we taught.
My experience in Israel ended quickly as those three weeks flew by. The generosity and the welcoming spirit of every Israeli I met was overwhelming. I was a visitor; I was going home in a few weeks, yet they always stopped and thanked me for what I was doing. I joked with them that all I was doing was eating (one of the themes of my trip was how aggressively people tried to feed me.)
Israelis felt abandoned by the world. They were attacked, and they seemed to have twenty-four hours of pity from the world before it was quickly followed by condemnation. That people took time to volunteer is so important to them. I was not the only doctor—over 7,000 healthcare providers applied, and I was told 150 physicians went over. This includes Trauma Surgeons, Anesthesia specialists, and ER volunteers from around the globe who returned to Israel to help. I am very grateful to the Jewish Agency that paid for this, my flight, and my accommodations; without them, I would not have been able to go.
When we left, GMC told us they would be in touch and we’re all still waiting. If things get bad up North, if a war with Hezbollah follows this war with Hamas, then we will go back to help again. It’s not something any of us want, but it is good to know there is a global mechanism to help get assistance to GMC when they need it.
Dr. Jonathan Beyer