By Laura Porter
Last April 25, Meital Tzur, her husband and their baby son were driving to share a Shabbat meal with friends and family when the news came over the radio.
In Nepal, an earthquake of 7.8 magnitude had devastated Ghorka near Katmandu, killing thousands and injuring even more.
The news would have been met with dismay by anyone, she told a group of avid listeners in the Federation offices in Worcester on Nov. 16th.
But Meital Tzur, from Tel Aviv, is a major in the Israel Defense Forces. A pharmacist, she heads the army’s Medicine and Bandages Department and is responsible for providing medical equipment to all IDF units. She served as an active soldier in Gaza operations in 2009 and 2014.
She was well aware that Israel would immediately send a medical mission to help the Nepalese and that she would be required to organize its supplies.
Soon her commander was on the telephone, asking her if the IDF had enough vaccines, “the first thing anyone needs in a disaster.”
She assured him that “we are ready and we can go,” she recalled.
Then she added: “And I haven’t been to Nepal.”
Then she went home to pack.
By the time the authorized mission prepared to depart from the airport the next morning, Major Tzur had arranged for medicines, supplies, and “everything we needed for a field hospital to treat 200 patients a day.”
The contingent included 122 medical personnel: doctors, nurses, paramedics and “one pharmacist.” There were some active duty soldiers and some in the reserves. 39 women were part of the group. The youngest person was 19.
Israeli search and rescue teams brought more than 130 additional people, with dogs.
Major Tzur’s group was the first and largest medical mission to arrive, and they stayed for three weeks. By the time they returned home, they had helped 1600 patients, performed more than 200 surgeries, and delivered 18 babies.
It was, she said, “amazing that a country so small can be so effective.”
That point is, in essence, the heart of her trip to the United States. She spent the latter half of November traveling and speaking in a number of communities in the Northeast.
On Nov. 11 Tzur was in Springfield where she spoke at both a Mensch breakfast meeting and at a Women’s Philanthropy lunch.
In Worcester, she spoke to members of the Federation Board at breakfast and to the staff at lunchtime. That evening, she met and talked with health care professionals in the community.
Her goal was to highlight the vital role that Israel, with one of the top disaster relief teams in the world, plays in international rescue and recovery. Often the first to respond, Israel is willing to send medical missions all over the world, no matter if the recipient is a declared enemy of the Jewish state. She cited the Golan Heights as an example.
“The decision was not made now but many years ago,” said Major Tzur. “One of Israel’s principles is to help those in need at their hardest time. It is one of our core values and that is why we do it.”
In Nepal, the Israelis set up on a large grassy field outside Katmandu. There was no electricity, and they had only tents and supplies.
While they waited for cargo planes to arrive, carrying 40 tons of supplies, every team member jumped in to help set up.
Major Tzur recalls thinking, “‘Am I over my head? All this has to turn into a hospital and I have to make it work.’”
But seeing even the commander of the hospital carrying boxes helped her to focus, and by the next day, the hospital was completely set up.
“We started seeing patients by noon,” she said. “100 hours after the earthquake.”
The only mission with a full hospital, the camp included a medical lab, imagery capability with portable x-rays, a pharmacy, neonatal and children’s units, an operating room and an ICU.
Five days after the earthquake, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs published an infographic showing the Nepalese relief effort as of April 30: the Israeli medical team, with its 122 members, was the biggest and most sophisticated operation by far, with Taiwan a distant second, with 37 health workers. (The United States, at least at that point in the disaster, only had 15 people on the ground.)
Major Tzur described the outpouring of volunteers who arrived once the Israeli field hospital had been set up. A team of medical clowns from Israel came to dance and sing for the patients. Hikers from Israel, in Nepal after their IDF service, showed up to help.
“Doctors came from everywhere,” she said. “An orthopedic surgeon from San Francisco flew in and said, ‘I’m Nick and I’m here to help.’”
The outpouring was “part of a community spirit,” she said. “Whether Israeli or not; whether Army or civilian.”
The working assumption of the mission was that “we don’t say no to anyone.” They performed at least an initial exam and triage for every patient who arrived, sending some to the local hospital and usually retaining the more difficult cases.
“Being there the first three weeks gives you the best chance to treat people hurt by the disaster,” she said. “After that you’re treating more day-to-day patients.”
Inevitably, crises arose.
At one point, the head of the ICU informed her that the oxygen supply could only last two more days at the most. Although the local hospital offered full access to their oxygen factory, “there are two countries in the world that use a different adapter to connect to the canister, and of course one had to be Nepal,” Major Tzur said.
Knowing that the clock was ticking and that ventilated patients needed to stay ventilated, she was forced to entrust a Nepalese man she had never met with empty canisters that had to be returned to Israel for medical inventory.
She gave him three as a test, and though he didn’t return in three hours as promised nor the next morning, he came back at noon the next day with the cylinders filled.
“A situation like this makes you figure out creative solutions,” she said. “At home, you have backup and superior officers. Here I had to take a chance; there wasn’t a choice.”
As a mother of a ten-month-old, she found the absence of Wi-Fi a personal challenge.
“One of the deals I made with my husband was that he had to send two pictures a day of our son in case he did anything new while I was gone,” she said. “But without Wi-Fi I couldn’t see him!”
But “watching patients leave our hospital is what makes this part bearable,” she said. “You know you’ve changed their lives.”
When they returned to Israel, they left 70 percent of their supplies for the Nepalese, taking back only equipment that was difficult or expensive to replace.
At the welcoming ceremony at the airport at home, they heard that Nepal had been hit by another earthquake.
“If we had had to go again, we would have,” she said.
This medical mission to Nepal will be followed by other earthquakes, other natural disasters, that require Israel to respond – and respond it will.
“The reason I’m here is that not many people know these beautiful things about Israel,” said Meital Tzur. “It’s important for you and for your community to tell your friends and families.”
CAP: Major Meital Tzur, shown here in the Federation offices in Worcester, spoke around the Northeast about the work done by the IDF’s Medicine and Bandages Department.