Here to help

Thoughts en route to Morocco

In Short

Lending a hand to people in need extends beyond politics.

As someone who has spent decades leading “disaster medicine” missions for Israel’s Sheba Medical Center as well as the Israel Defense Forces, I was recently asked whether I have seen the work we do affect the perception of Israel and Israelis among the people we serve.

This is a difficult question. 

As director of the Sheba Humanitarian & Disaster Response Center (HDRC), I join my team to treat people in crisis situations around the world. We also train professionals to build medical capacity where it is needed most – mainly in developing countries and underserved areas worldwide. 

At this moment, I am on a flight to Morocco with a nurse and two logistics experts; we are the vanguard Rapid Assessment Team who will work with local authorities and medical staff to assess the on-the-ground situation in Marrakech and its surroundings. Our assessment will determine whether or not we are able to send a mission to aid the thousands of people reeling from the disaster wrought by the 6.8-magnitude earthquake on Friday.

My experience of the places we work is often limited to the person with cholera who I am talking to, or the local doctor with whom I am performing a complex surgery. When we arrive in Marrakech, where I will land shortly, I suspect the experience will, unfortunately, parallel other experiences. 

One thing I can impart very clearly is that when I meet people who have been subjected to a disaster of this magnitude, I see starkly how their world has collapsed. Worse, they think the world has forgotten them. We get there. We treat them for free. Needless to say, there are countless logistical and legal hurdles to overcome prior to our offering treatment in any country other than Israel; but if we are able to overcome the hurdles we encounter, we will, in short order, offer treatment to those in need. 

Three men and one woman wearing blue shirts with the emblem of the Humanitarian & Disaster Response Center (HDRC) team standing arm in arm in an airport terminal.
The author (second from right) with members of the Sheba Humanitarian & Disaster Response Center (HDRC) team traveling to Morocco on Tuesday September 12, 2023. (Photo courtesy of American Friends of Sheba Medical Center)

From past experience I can tell you that the gratitude I have felt personally in these types of situations is unequal to any other experience I have had in my life. In Ukraine, for example, we set up a field hospital. We would open the doors at 8 a.m. every morning, but by 6 a.m. we would already have a line of more than 100 people. Every day, people would wait hours to be seen, yet there was never any bickering or complaint. Besides the medical treatment we give, we give people hope in their darkest hour. It is a central factor in their long-term health and in building the necessary psychological resilience in moments when many have lost everything: their homes, families, friends, community – literally everything. At the end of the day, a helping hand is a helping hand, and I am grateful for the privilege to be in my role.

I can say wholeheartedly that lending a hand to people in need extends beyond politics. Politics do play a role, it’s true: Our field hospital in Ukraine, for example, was established in concert with the Israeli government as a way of supporting Ukraine. Perhaps 99% of our missions, however, have no political thrust whatsoever. They originate when partner organizations and individual contacts reach out to let us know about a need, the product of a simple phone call from a friend or colleague. 

As an example: I was on the faculty of a surgical field hospital course for the Australian medical emergency team as an orthopedic surgeon. A colleague – an anesthesiologist from New Zealand – reached out to me about an outbreak of measles in Samoa. We did the calculations relative to Israel and realized that what was happening in Samoa would be comparable to 3,000 children dead from measles in Israel in a period of six months. 

What happened? Samoa had previously had a vaccination rate above 90%, but unfortunately a very small number of children who had the vaccine still died from the disease and the reputation for the vaccine plummeted. Within a year, the vaccination rate dropped to 40%; and when a couple of travelers from New Zealand who were infected with measles visited Samoa, children began dying by the dozens. 

HDRC acted entirely independently, sending a vanguard team to assess the situation, working with local authorities and determining what local caregivers needed. While the Rapid Assessment Team was on the ground, our team back in Israel was simultaneously preparing to ship out. They pulled together medications, equipment, air transportation and passports, and they translated and worked to approve licensures in concert with our legal team and local authorities in Samoa in order to be able to practice medicine on the ground in the country. Within five days, we had a team of seven doctors and nurses in Samoa helping local health-care professionals with other teams from around the world to treat these children.

In short, sometimes it is politics, but far more often it is just the right thing to do. It is tikkun olam. It is very Jewish – but it isn’t only Jewish. We are joined by other agencies from countless countries and NGOs around the world. It is definitely universal, and also Jewish. We are proud to participate in the global community in this way.

I gave a course in Marrakech five years ago and became friends with a colleague there. When I heard about the earthquake, I contacted him and let him know we are prepared to come with a team. I’m not sure this will turn into a full mission. They might say thank you, but no thank you. If that happens, I will head home. If we move forward, we will have a team there in less than a week. I don’t know how many medical centers in the world maintain a center for humanitarian outreach, or keep a mobile field hospital at the ready, but I’m proud to be part of Sheba Medical Center, where this is in our DNA.

Dr. Elhanan Bar-On is director of Sheba Medical Center’s Humanitarian & Disaster Response Center (HDRC).