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I’m an Israeli first responder. The Meron disaster taught me the importance of mental health

I think that it is imperative for any and all first responders to pursue help after having witnessed a traumatic incident.

It’s been a year since one of the most harrowing civilian tragedies ever experienced in Israel — the stampede and subsequent “crush” on Mount Meron that killed 45 people celebrating Lag B’Omer. 

I was standing near the medical clinic of United Hatzalah on Mount Meron as the crush developed. As people attempted to exit one area of the mountain and head to another, several people slipped and fell on a narrow metal stairwell, and were quickly trampled by those following behind them. As the first screams rang out, people began running. 

I immediately switched to mass-casualty-incident (MCI) protocol, in which initial triage is done at the scene while patients are transported to a treatment area. This allows for the fastest possible treatment of the largest number of injured. As triage takes place, the entire scene is overseen by a paramedic or operations chief who gives instructions to the medics in the field and coordinates with other emergency services to create an effective emergency response. 

The loud music continued to play as we tried to extricate people from the crush. As individual responders began performing CPR, I shouted instructions at them to pick up their patients and move to a larger staging location where CPR could be done safely. As my fellow first responders pulled people from the pile-up in the hopes of saving their lives, I jumped into scene management, coordinating our efforts with the police, the ambulances and the fire department.

After the chaos had subsided and the patients were all either declared dead or transported to the hospital, I saw the looks on the faces of my fellow first responders. The emotional toll of what we had just done truly hit me. We not only had a mass casualty incident from a physical perspective, but also from an emotional and psychological one. 

Our Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit volunteers from across the entire north of Israel were mobilized in order to provide emotional support and psychological stabilization to the first responders themselves. Police officers, ambulance staff and our own volunteers —everyone was shattered. 

Almost immediately after the tragedy in Meron, a military conflict began with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This was followed by the subsequent riots in many Arab-Israeli cities. This was followed by a bleacher collapse inside of a shul during the holiday of Shavuot in Givat Ze’ev just two weeks later, killing two people and injuring hundreds. Barely a month later, I was dispatched with the PCRU to assist in Florida after the Surfside condo building collapse, which killed 98 people. 

Dealing with these traumatic events in such quick succession brought me back to the early 2000s during the Second Intifada, when suicide bombings were rampant (I lost my own uncle in a bus bombing in 2003). I never thought I would have to deal with instances of this magnitude again, and suddenly, there I was.

I found myself always on high alert, responding to emergencies immediately and continuously according to protocol and putting all of my emotions aside. I was triggered — many incidents that I had put out of my mind for many years came rushing back to the surface. 

I thought these old traumas had healed, but in fact, they had just been brushed under the rug. There were nights that I didn’t sleep, I had nightmares. I woke up continuously throughout the night on numerous occasions. My wife, who is also a first responder, described it as trying to sleep next to someone dreaming that they were in a warzone. 

Meron made me realize just how much paramedics need trauma counseling. I knew that I had to do some work to heal from these experiences, and I went through therapy sessions with our PCRU unit and privately so that I can be in a healthier, more resilient state of mind for my own family and for myself. 

I have gained a lot more respect for our PCRU unit and now know just how important the work that they do is, both for the people in the field suffering from shock, as well as for the first responders themselves.   

Part of my healing process has been making my own organization prioritize the mental health of our volunteer responders. I think that it is imperative for any and all first responders to pursue help after having witnessed a traumatic incident, whether it is an MCI or even an incident on a smaller scale. We aren’t robots:  We’re human beings and even though first responders are good at keeping our emotions in check during an emergency, we all need to get help in processing what we experienced. 

There is no shame in asking for help, especially when it involves mental health. On the contrary, if we want to be better responders, and be able to help more people next time, this is something that we need to do. 

Dov Maisel is the Vice President of Operations for United Hatzalah. He has participated in international relief missions to Haiti, Nepal, Florida, Texas, Moldova and Ukraine. To contact the author, email editorial@forward.com

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