By the time US burn specialists had contacted a Romanian hospital to offer help following a tragic August fire that killed four premature infants and injured seven others, Israel’s Dr. Josef Haik was already on the scene.
Haik, director of the Intensive Care Burn Unit at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer Hospital, near Tel Aviv, had left for Bucharest in the middle of the night following a distress call to Sheba CEO Dr. Zeev Rotstein from a Romanian official who had worked with the hospital in the past.
“In just a few hours, we organized and packed in three huge suitcases all the equipment on their list and anything else that we thought would help,” Haik tells ISRAEL21c. “We got carte blanche to take whatever we needed from the Sheba storehouses.”
Long-time tradition of humanitarian aid
Rotstein says Sheba has provided support and supplies to distant areas of need throughout the world, including Kosovo, Armenia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Chernobyl, the Congo and Rwanda. “Sheba is extending its medical services to many eastern European and Mediterranean countries, and maintains a special agreement with the Republic of Cyprus. These commitments stem from our hospital’s concern for the needy, and from the State of Israel’s long-time tradition of contributing to humanitarian relief efforts abroad,” Rotstein states.
Only three weeks previously, Haik’s medical crew had helped to treat some of the 200-plus burn victims of a massive fuel tanker explosion in the Congo.
The August 16 blaze at Grigore Alexandrescu Children’s Hospital is believed to have resulted from an electric short in an air conditioning unit, Haik recounts. The casualties were so severe because a staffing shortage at the hospital left the infants unsupervised for an hour, a situation that caused a public outcry in Romania.
Haik, together with neonatologist Leah Leibovitch and burn-unit nurse Aviva Yona focused on evaluating the injured babies and their wounds. They made plans to transfer up to five of the infants to Israel for further care, although it was later determined that this contingency was not necessary.
Burns on 40 to 80% of their bodies
“Of the 11 premature babies in the nursery, three had already died, one died later, and there were seven left when we arrived – one in serious condition,” he recounts. “You have to consider that these preemies were the size of a hand; the biggest weighed two kilos and the smallest was just one kilo [2.2 pounds]. The oldest was one week.”
Suffering from burns on 40 to 80 percent of their tiny bodies, the infants had already been transferred to a Romanian burn center when the Israelis disembarked after their three-hour flight. At 6 am, they arrived at the center, where they were greeted by the minister of health, the director of the pediatric unit, and the mayor of Bucharest.
“It’s a great unit, treating 1,000 babies a year,” says Haik, “But they really needed our support and second opinions because it was the first time ever, I believe, that so many babies were burned at once with such bad burns. We saw each child and discussed each case. The only one needing real intensive care was too unstable to transfer to Israel. I’m not sure if he’s still alive.”
Neither group of physicians had ever dealt with a disaster of this magnitude. Communicating mostly in English, with a smattering of Romanian, Haik and his team suggested dressings and procedures, diet and medications. The supplies they brought included some new products not available in Romania, such as advanced burn dressings.
“You can always learn more”
The Israelis’ job was not finished until they held a press conference aimed at restoring the public’s trust in the Romanian medical personnel. “We declared that we saw the babies were being treated well, and that the physician in charge was very dedicated. We also offered our help in the future,” says Haik, a father of three who specializes in aesthetic and reconstructive plastic surgery and treats about 100 pediatric burn patients every year.
“There is a lot of respect for us in Romania,” he adds, “They consider us to be better doctors, and modestly I can say we are as good as they are. Sometimes it is a question of facilities more than abilities, but we are known to be helpers and the facts show it.”
Haik and members of his team have traveled to many places in need of emergency assistance for disaster victims, such as Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kenya and Peru. “We usually take residents with us so that they will learn how to help us be prepared for future disasters and work in difficult conditions,” he relates. “The experience is valuable for both sides. You can always learn more, even in the areas of problem-solving and handling the media during a disaster.”
Haik derives personal and professional satisfaction from these humanitarian medical missions. “We don’t do it for profit. But you receive so much in the sense of learning and giving.”