Last month, my cousin Roee Ziv began studying behavioral science and human resources management at the College of Management in Rishon LeZion, a city south of Tel Aviv. It’s a perfectly natural step for a 23-year-old to take, but this past summer, the classroom was the farthest thing from Roee’s mind.
At about 2 p.m. on a Wednesday in July, everything seemed to be going according to Dr. Joel Feldman’s plan. Four hours earlier, the plastic surgeon from Mt. Auburn hospital in Boston started stretching Roee’s chest skin so that it would cover the tough scar tissue that had formed on the right side of his face. The doctor cut and pulled and stretched and stitched, and shortly after lunchtime Feldman sent his patient to the recovery room and told Roee’s parents, Ginat and Igal, that the surgery was a success.
But when Roee’s mother, Ginat, went to take a look at her son, she noticed something strange. “I knew that his face would be swollen right after the operation,” she told me a few days later when I came to visit Roee. “It looked like he had another head attached to the right side of his face.” Feldman was called in to take a look, and immediately he knew what had happened: A capillary under Roee’s newly stretched skin had burst, and blood was quickly filling the gap between layers of skin, deforming his face.
At around 8 p.m. the surgeon came out with good news. Though all present let out a big sigh of relief, they also knew that it was only the beginning; the operation was the first of three or four that Feldman will perform on Roee’s face in the next two years. There’s still a long way to go.
Two years ago, my younger cousin was a healthy Israeli backpacker in India. The pictures from the trip show a long-haired, green-eyed, handsome young man who smiled a lot at the camera.
Roee, like many recent veterans of the Israeli army (and like me, back in 1994), felt that he needed some time away from Israel after he finished his three-year-long service in August 2005. He served as a tank gunner and had seen lots of action in the West Bank and in Gaza. I haven’t seen him a lot since he joined the army in 2002, but I knew exactly how he felt. He needed some time off.
But in late June 2006, Roee decided that his hiatus from life should end. He landed in Tel Aviv on July 7, but five days later his plans changed. Hezbollah attacked an Israeli patrol on the border, killing four soldiers and abducting two others. Israel retaliated, and within three days the border incident had already escalated into a war.
After three weeks of waiting, Roee got the call for reserve duty. But not a lot happened during the first few days. “For three days, most of what we did was to sleep and hang out and drink Turkish coffee,” he told me.
All this changed on the fourth night. After finishing his guard duty at around 5 a.m., Roee got into his sleeping bag — which he put on the tank’s turret — and fell asleep.
But less than half an hour later, he awoke to a loud bang. “About 2 meters above me, I saw a rain of gold. Millions of tiny stars glowing in the air, making a sizzling sound, and then they hit me and I felt crazy heat on my face,” he recalled.
Roee wasn’t hit by a Hezbollah rocket. An electrical malfunction in the tank that was parked next to his accidentally caused a white phosphorus canister, which is designed to shield the tank behind a screen of smoke against enemy fire, to launch.
His long hair burning, my cousin jumped to his feet and tried to put out the fire while “standing in a crazy cloud of white smoke and hearing the sizzling sound all around me.” He then jumped off the tank and collapsed to his knees, still burning. His friends poured gallons of water on him, and his battalion’s doctor gave him two or three shots of morphine. Minutes later, a helicopter was called. Less than an hour after his injury, Roee was airlifted to Rambam hospital in Haifa.
High on morphine and not in pain anymore, he took a cell phone from a young female soldier and called his parents. It was 8 a.m., and my aunt picked up the phone. “I’ve been hurt,” Roee told her.
“What happened?” his mother asked.
“I’ve been burnt a little,” Roee replied.
“Where exactly?” she demanded to know. But Roee wasn’t sure.
“I heard him ask someone where his burns were, and I said to myself: ‘God, please don’t let it be his face. God, please don’t let it be his eyes,’” my aunt recalled.
“When my parents arrived, my dad looked pretty shocked but my mom kept a poker face,” Roee said with a smile. “They saw to it that I wouldn’t have any mirrors around me so I didn’t know how bad it was until a few days later when I accidentally saw myself.”
During those first few days of treatment, Roee already knew that he was suffering from third-degree burns. The white phosphorous burned holes on the right side of his face. He lost most of his right ear and had bad burns on his neck, chest and hands. But knowing all that didn’t prepare him for what he saw a few days later. “I was in a stainless-steel room while the nurse washed me and scraped pieces of white phosphorus that were still in me. I saw my reflection on the wall and froze,” he told me. “Half of my face was red and black, and it was deformed. I looked like a person who just had a stroke. I was terrified by what I saw. I understood that it wasn’t a minor burn. My thoughts were racing: What will I do? Will I ever look the same? I understood that it would be a long process.”
It still is. In the summer of 2006, Roee had a skin transplant. He was released from the hospital in Israel after a month and a half and wore a facemask to protect his burns during most of the year.
His physical condition improved progressively, but after the pain subsided from his skin, he realized that the injury left him with mental scars, too. He suffers from nightmares about exploding bombs, fires and golden particles raining down upon him.
Roee still goes to the hospital twice a week. He sees a psychologist and receives occupational therapy. In April 2008 he will return to Boston for another surgery. This time, a balloon will be implanted under his neck skin and will be blown gradually over the course of three months. In July he’ll return to Boston yet again — this time for the “big operation.” The balloon will be removed, a few of Roee’s facial features will be reconstructed and the excess skin that will form around the balloon will be cut away. If all goes well, the next step will be the reconstruction of his ear.
Now, a year and a half after he was injured, Roee is optimistic and focused. He says he’s happy at school, and he notes that he was quite surprised that, so far, no one has asked him about his injury. “You know, it’s not a secret and everyone can see it, but I like the fact that no one bothers me and that I’m not being treated differently,” he said.
Shahar Smooha is a freelance writer living in Tel Aviv. He frequently writes for Ha’aretz.