Visit to Israel Is No Holiday For a Volunteer Paramedic

By Nacha Cattan

Published February 28, 2003, issue of February 28, 2003.
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JERUSALEM — Delivering babies and treating victims of terrorism: Those aren’t the typical activities for a tourist in Israel, even one who has signed on for a rigorous volunteer or study program.

But for Sara Ahronheim, 23, it’s a dream come true.

“To be helping a 20-year-old Israeli woman give birth to a child, it’s beautiful to watch,” the Montreal native told the Forward. “I wanted to be on this program since I was 12 years old.”

Ahronheim is referring to the Yochai Porat Jewish Agency-Magen David Adom Overseas Volunteer Program, under whose auspices she is serving as a volunteer paramedic. The quasi-governmental Jewish Agency for Israel and Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency medical service, train foreign volunteers in first aid and place them on ambulance crews. The program began 12 years ago for Canadians and started accepting volunteers from around the world three years ago.

The number of recruits to the program is at its highest point ever, climbing to about 240 in 2002 from 62 in 2001, and 47 in 2000, according to organizers. These figures fly in the face of the steep decline in participation that is plaguing other overseas programs since the outbreak of the intifada.

“We believe it’s because of the situation now that more people are coming,” said the program’s director, Yael Quinn. “People are sitting at home watching TV and wondering ‘how could I help.’ It’s also very much a word of mouth program. People who come back tell their friends and it spreads quickly.”

The program is named after its former director, who was slain last March by a Palestinian sniper. The training costs $400.

Ahronheim joined the program, despite her parents’ concern for her safety, she said, “because especially now Israel needs moral support in the Diaspora, not just contributing financially.”

Since beginning the program eight months ago, Ahronheim has been called to two births, one terrorist attack and several car accidents. She assisted in the aftermath of a bus bombing in the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood of Jerusalem in November.

“It was surreal,” she said. “There’s blood all over the ground. Bodies, even though they were covered in blankets, were hanging out the windows.”

Ahronheim treated shell-shocked witnesses and administered first aid to soldiers bruised in the rescue process. When a woman in the crowd fainted, Ahronheim “made sure she came to okay and could breath. When she came to, she was screaming ‘my daughter was on the bus.’” Eleven people died in the attack.

A graduate of Queen’s University in Ontario, Ahronheim plans to immigrate to Israel after attending medical school, which she will begin in the fall.

Tough on the surface, Ahronheim acknowledges she has fears about living and commuting in Jerusalem. When traveling on buses, she said, “I think about how I would put my backpack over my head to protect my brain from nails if there’s a bomb.”

Still, there are moments that remind her of the brighter side of life. The only female paramedic on the scene when an émigré from Ethiopia went into labor last year, Ahronheim had to convince the patient to allow the male medics to assist her.

“I talked to her until I could get her to trust them,” she said. On the way to the hospital, the woman gave birth and Ahronheim administered oxygen to the newborn. “I watched the baby’s color change from a bright purple to pink,” she said.

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