BY STEVE LINDE
WHEN Eli Beer, founder and president of United Hatzalah, returned to Israel from Miami on April 21 following his remarkable recovery from Covid-19, he was given a hero’s welcome at Ben-Gurion airport.
His wife, Gitty, and five children were there to greet him, as were hundreds of volunteers, ambucycles and ambulances of United Hatzalah, a Jerusalem-based rapid response organisation that saves lives around the clock across Israel.
After saying the Shema on the steps of the plane, Beer was overcome with joy as he embraced his family before being driven off in an ambulance.
“I am happy to be back in Israel among my immediate family and my extended family of 6,000 first response volunteers of United Hatzalah,” he said. “I fought for my life for several weeks. Now I’m returning home to continue saving lives.”
It was with mixed feelings that the 46-year-old had flown to Florida in early March. He had good friends in Miami, but he pined for his family, whom he hadn’t seen for two-and-a-half months.
“I was sobbing like crazy for them,” said Beer. “I missed them so much.”
He had just ended a promotional tour for United Hatzalah that had taken him to India, Qatar, the UK and America, where he held a fundraiser compered by comedian Jay Leno in Los Angeles and attended the annual gathering of the pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, in Washington, DC.
The tour began in December when Beer raised some £5 million for United Hatzalah at two gala dinners he hosted in Israel and Miami.
When coronavirus began spreading, Beer was in the peak of health: he had no illnesses, exercised regularly and never smoked.
He called Gitty and asked her to send two of their four daughters to join him in Miami for Purim, telling her he would celebrate Passover with the whole family in Israel a month later.
To his delight the girls flew in, and they looked forward to spending quality time together, going to a barmitzvah of family friends on the beach in Miami and to a conference in Las Vegas.
Beer went to synagogue for Purim, dressing up as Superman. But a day before the barmitzvah, he had a sore throat.
“I said, ‘Kids, I’m not feeling well and you need to get back to Israel because of this coronavirus outbreak.’ So I sent them home,” he explained.
Beer underwent tests and took antibiotics until the results came out. He stayed in his Miami apartment for three days, “when all of a sudden, I had a really hard time breathing, so I called the doctor, and he ordered me to go to the hospital immediately”.
On March 18, he was admitted to the University of Miami Hospital, where he was told that his life was in danger and he was sent to the ICU.
“I was scared, really scared,” he said. “I called my doctor, Dr Zev Neuwirth, and the first thing he said was, ‘Eli, do they have a ventilator there?’ I said they did. ‘Grab it while you can,’ Zev said. ‘Next week they might not have any’.”
Beer also called his friend Dr Avi Rivkind, the head of the trauma unit at Hadassah Medical Center, Jerusalem, for consultation.
Then, from his hospital bed, he made a video message to his family and colleagues, urging them to do “acts of chessed” (kindness), thinking these could be his last words.
In the message, Beer said: “Hi everyone. This is Friday afternoon, the fourth day in hospital and the worst day. The doctor said they need to put me to sleep. It was announced that I have Covid-19 and my breathing is not doing better. The doctor says if they put me to sleep, they’ll intubate me, and I’ll have a better chance of recovery.
“My worry is United Hatzalah, this organisation that saves lives every day. Almost 2,000 people get helped every day by volunteers risking their lives to save others. So if you really want to do something to help, support United Hatzalah. It’s a critically important organisation in Israel!”
Recalling that traumatic time, he says, “I begged people to give to Hatzalah because of the lifesaving work we do. I also said that I hoped Ya’acov Litzman would soon be out of his job as health minister. A few minutes later, they intubated me and put me to sleep.”
Beer was on a ventilator in a medically-induced coma for three weeks, his life hanging. United Hatzalah and his family posted on Facebook for people to pray for the full recovery of ‘Eliezer Yehudah Ben Chaya’.
When Beer was in his third week on the ventilator and not doing well, suggestions for experimental treatments came in from all over the world.
One was for mesenchymal stem cells and within 36 hours of the stem cell infusion, he was able to be weaned off the ventilator.
After he was extubated, Beer tested negative for Covid-19 and was sent to the regular ICU. Two days later, however, he developed bacterial pneumonia and septic shock after probably aspirating something into his lungs. He was febrile and had much difficulty breathing.
He now tested positive for Covid-19, so he was returned to the Covid ICU, re-intubated, and put back on the ventilator.
He was treated very aggressively by the ICU team with antibiotics and pressors (drugs to keep his blood pressure up). Beer improved rapidly with this treatment and was able to be taken off the ventilator after a few days — this time for good.
“It really was a miracle!” Beer said. “The stem-cell treatment worked and I could breathe again. I was so happy that I could now call Gitty and tell her we could have Pesach together.”
Gitty — director of United Hatzalah’s women’s unit — and their daughter Avigail were on an emergency call that Friday, so they did not answer the phone at first. When they did, they were over the moon to hear that Beer was on the road to recovery.
His eyes welled up when they told him that Passover had passed and that the family had held a seder in their Jerusalem home with a photograph of him wearing his orange Hatzalah shirt stuck to an empty chair.
“I was devastated,” he said. “I had really wanted to be with my wife and kids for the holiday.”
Beer recalls vividly that before he turned six, on June 2, 1978, as he was walking home from school with his older brother, he witnessed the horrific explosion of Bus No 12 near their family home in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vagan suburb.
He had heard an old man calling out for help in the bloody wreckage of the terrorist attack.
The terrorist attack killed six people and wounded 20 others. In his young mind, he couldn’t understand why it had taken so long for medical teams to get to the scene to help the victims.
It was a feeling he never forgot. The helplessness he experienced would later inspire him to learn how to save lives himself.
His parents were Orthodox Jews who had made aliya from New York; his father owned a religious book store in Bayit Vagan. When he turned 15, Beer took a paramedic course and became a volunteer EMT for Magen David Adom in Jerusalem.
One day, his MDA team received an emergency call from the family of a seven-year-old child choking on a hot dog.
Because of traffic congestion from one side of the city to the other, the ambulance took more than 20 minutes to get to the scene, and when the team finally started administering CPR, it was too late.
Beer thought to himself: “This child should not have died. If that doctor, who lived just one block away, had been alerted by someone 20 minutes earlier, he could have saved the child. There must be a better way, a faster way to get help to people in times of emergency.”
At the age of 17, he decided to get together a group of 15 friends, who were all EMTs, and find a way to get to the scene of an emergency within minutes in their Jerusalem area.
He had heard about the Hatzalah initiative started among chassidic communities in Brooklyn in the 1960s.
He approached the manager of the ambulance company and said: “Please, whenever you have a call in our neighbourhood, just alert us by beeper.
“We’ll buy beepers, and working together, we can save lives by getting to the scene much faster.”
The manager laughed, saying: “Kid, go to school or go open a falafel stand. We’re not interested in your help.”
But Beer was a stubborn kid, or as he puts it, “a meshuggener”.
He bought two police scanners, which he and his friends took turns monitoring.
The day after they began the operation, Beer was listening to the scanner when he heard about a 70-year-old man who had been hit by a car just a block away.
Without any medical equipment, he raced there and found the man lying on the ground with blood gushing out of his neck. Beer knew he had to stop the bleeding or the man would die.
Without thinking, he took off his yarmulke and, applying as much pressure as he could muster, pressed it on the man’s neck. Fifteen minutes later, when the ambulance arrived, Beer was able to give the paramedics a patient who was alive.
When Beer went to visit him two days later, the man — a Holocaust survivor — embraced him in tears, thanking him for saving his life.
At that moment, he realised that this man was the first person whose life he had saved after working for two years in an ambulance. Beer vowed that from now on, his mission would be to find a way to save as many lives as possible.
He succeeded in realising his dream in 2006 by bringing together more than 50 independent Hatzalah organisations under one umbrella to form United Hatzalah of Israel.
Recognised by health authorities as a national medical emergency organisation, United Hatzalah grew rapidly over the coming years.
Beer’s revolution was to offer the service to everyone, rather than a particular community.
In his words, “United Hatzalah is not about saving Jews. It’s not about saving Muslims. It’s not about saving Christians. It’s about saving people”.
United Hatzalah has become a model for peaceful coexistence.
Beer has opened branches in America, Canada, South America, England and France.
Following a huge send-off by supporters of United Hatzalah at Miami airport and his flight back to Israel on Dr Miriam Adelson’s private plane, Beer stayed at a friend’s apartment in Tel Aviv to recuperate before returning to his family home in Jerusalem.
On May 8, Beer celebrated Pesach Sheni in Israel. Just as the holiday gave Jews a second chance to celebrate, so he had been given the gift of a new lease on life.
Three days later, he visited the Western Wall to say the Birkat Hagomel prayer of gratitude for his recovery, and to lead a worldwide prayer for healing those afflicted with coronavirus.
“Thank God, I’m lucky to be alive,” he said, echoing the sentence he’s heard from many people whose lives he and United Hatzalah have saved.
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