November 20, 2005

Hospital emergency rooms are the great equalizer of Israeli society.Maia’s scream shattered the false calm of an early fall Jerusalem morning. She was clutching her right side and a bit of intuition and a quick Google search confirmed the classic signs of appendicitis.

By 6 am. we were snaking through the Jerusalem forest toward Hadassah Hospital Ein Karem, a surprisingly remote location for a place with the reputation as one of Israel’s premier trauma centers. By 7 am. Maia was hooked up to a glucose drip and the doctors were almost sure they’d have to remove her appendix. They wanted to keep her under observation so we settled in, with cappuccinos and croissants, for a stay in the children’s emergency wing.

It has long been said that hospital emergency rooms are the great equalizer of Israeli society – where the Russian meets the Mizrachi, the Ethiopian meets the Arab, and the Orthodox student meets the secular nose-pierced hippie.

In fact, a quick glance around revealed an Ethiopian couple holding their pajama clad four year-old, an American orthodox couple, with five kids swirling around them, sitting by the bed of a child with a broken an ankle, an extended Arab family accompanying a girl also hooked up to an IV drip, and a modern orthodox family whose 4-month old baby had swallowed poison.

Arab cleaners diligently cleaned the floors and joked with the Ethiopian nurse filing paperwork. Russian nurses on break smoked cigarettes and packed cream cheese and olive sandwiches. Jewish and Arab Israeli doctors and surgeons did their rounds followed by paparazzi of young medical students. A tough looking blonde soldier named Igor waited expressionless for an x-ray.

As Maia’s pain grew worse we were given a ‘room’ with a curtain that served as a door. We urged her to try and rest as it would be hours before the doctors determined the proper course of action. But with the constant burping, beeping, and buzzing of foreign machines, the chatter of the Russian, Hebrew, Amharic and Arabic, the moans of children in pain, the shrieks of bored siblings annoying worried parents, and the constant hum of an inane Israeli morning talk show rendered rest and relaxation a Sisyphean task.

Next to us an argument broke out between nurses and an Arab laborer, maybe 55 years old, who demanded that they let his daughter lie down as he had been there since seven in the morning. The nurses insisted that the room was occupied but it was clear that the bed was empty.

Racism? Lack of insurance? Was the bed being saved for another patient? The truth is I didn’t know and I was tired and worried and not in the mood to advocate for anyone else but my ailing daughter. I tried unsuccessfully to catch some sleep on the pullout couch by Maia’s bed.

Morning beeped into afternoon and Maia’s fever was down. They asked her to eat and if she could hold down her food it was a sign that perhaps it was not appendicitis. I called a friend whose wife worked the night shift in the same emergency ward.

“Yeah?” he barked into the phone. I had caught him en route to Hadera where a suicide bomber had just blown himself up in an outdoor market. He worked for The Boston Globe and this grisliness was all in day’s work for him.

I walked over to the TV corner where the inane talk show had been superseded by the ‘breaking news’ of the Hadera bombing. About twenty people gathered around the warm hearth of TV screen, sucking information like marrow from some warped life-sustaining bone. You know the routine – a hasty map of the bombed area, sounds of shrieking ambulances, spokespeople, hospital scenes. As if this was real news. As if this weren’t part of the cycle of violence itself.

No one spoke as we all played our parts staring concernedly at the screen. Not the Russian nurses, not the surgeons, the cleaners, not the solemn looking Arab teens with scruffy Ramadan half-beards, not the worried parents, not the orthodox women in their sheitl or their husbands hunched over his sacred text.

Soon all the bandaged kids started asking their parents – Arab, Jewish, Ethiopian, blonde – all the obvious questions. “Where is Hadera?” “Who did that?” “Is that close to here?”

I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the emergency room thinking that of the bus had been bombed in Jerusalem we would all be quickly thrown into one of Dante’s rungs of Hell – frantic medics pushing bloody gurneys down chaotic corridors, burnt limbs, torn faces, primal shrieking, roaring security personnel, megaphones, buzzing media. And our kids, now shunted aside for the new emergencies, with tougher, harder, and realer questions. We parents were thankful for the reprieve and hid momentarily behind mumbled half-responses.

The only person not paying attention to the events in Hadera was an adorable orthodox boy, about four, struggling valiantly to be brave in the face of a monstrous looking IV drip machine. His lower lip was pursed defiantly in the battle against tears.

Finally, the Arab laborer broke the polite if awkward silence.

“They should kill every one of the people that sent them,” he muttered both for himself and for the benefit of the mixed multitude in the room. I looked at him, surprised by both the vehemence and the unexpected source. I had never heard that sentiment from an Arab man before. This from the same man who had pleaded futilely for six hours to let his girl lie down.

“Simply kill the animals that sent that boy,” he continued. “If Abu Mazen doesn’t kill these people will ruin two countries.”

I nodded and looked over at the TV. Beneath it, tears streamed down the orthodox boy’s angelic face. The emergency room had gotten to him.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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