DALIAT EL-CARMEL, Israel — Eli Beer still remembers the traumatic experience he had 23 years ago, when the ambulance service he was volunteering with got a call to race to the home of a 7-year-old girl who was choking.
It took his crew 20 minutes to get through the heavy Jerusalem traffic. As they began CPR on the girl, who was no longer breathing and had no pulse, a doctor who lived nearby showed up.
It didn't take the doctor long to determine that the child had died.
“At that moment, I understood that this child died for nothing,” Beer said at a TED talk last year. “If this doctor, who lived one block away from there, would have come 20 minutes earlier, not have to wait until that siren he heard before coming from the ambulance, if he would have heard about it way before, he would have saved this child.”
“I said to myself, there must be a better way,” Beer recounted.
Inspired by a desire to prevent such a tragedy from happening again, Beer founded a rescue service, which he called United Hatzalah —"hatzalah" means "rescue." It relies on community volunteers, a sophisticated dispatching system, and “ambucycles” that hold a rescue kit on two wheels, to save lives before full ambulances arrive at the scene.
Beer, just 17 at the time, and a dozen of his friends — all trained medics — decided they needed to find a way to shorten the response time to medical emergencies.
Armed with youthful optimism and Israeli “chutzpah,” as he described it, Beer approached his dispatcher at the ambulance service to ask if he and his friends could be alerted to emergencies in their neighborhood as a stopgap measure before the ambulance arrived. His suggestion was rebuffed, so Beer purchased two radio scanners and began eavesdropping on police frequencies.
"`The hell with you, if you don't want to give me information, I'll get the information myself,'" Beer said of his attitude.
Using the scanners, he and his friends started running on foot to accident scenes in their neighborhood and used their first aid training to help those in distress. Among the more memorable dramas, Beer ran to the scene of a car accident where he found a 70-year-old man bleeding profusely. Beer learned that the man was on an anticoagulant, so he applied intense pressure to stop the bleeding using the only spare piece of fabric Beer had on him: his yarmulke. Had the man been forced to wait the 15 minutes it took for the ambulance to arrive, the story could have ended differently.
While Beer was at first focused on Jerusalem, members of the Druze community, who live in villages in northern Israel, were also looking for a way for their first responders to overcome an unusual challenge.
“We don’t have addresses. My house doesn’t have a number. … It’s hard for a stranger to get here,” Sheikh Yonis Mreh, a Druze religious leader and a volunteer medic told TheBlaze about his village, Daliat el-Carmel, near Haifa.
As with many Arab villages in Israel, Daliat el-Carmel has no street names or house numbers. Visitors must ask locals where families live to reach their destinations, a critically time-consuming process when residents call for emergency help.
Mreh and several of his friends heard about United Hatzalah and found its flexible, rapid response procedure to be a perfect fit. Being intimately familiar with the twists and turns of the village's roads, they became volunteers themselves. But there was reason, too.
“We have neighborhoods that are ancient” with narrow, winding streets paved snugly between rows of houses, Mreh said. That makes the passage of cars — not to mention ambulances — nearly impossible.
“The ambucycle can maneuver there, which helps a lot,” Mreh said.
United Hatzalah now has 2,300 volunteers, including Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze.
“The ambucycle has all the equipment of an ambulance besides a stretcher, because the idea of United Hatzalah is to arrive in the first minutes, to administer the life-saving medical aid in the first minutes until the ambulance arrives, then the ambulance moves the patient to the hospital,” spokesman Motti Elmaliah said.
[sharequote align="right"]"If you are in need, these volunteers will respond, regardless of your faith.”[/sharequote]
Many of the volunteers are deeply religious, but while of different faiths, they've found common cause: saving lives. The joint effort is all the more remarkable considering the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not to mention the targeting of minority communities by Islamic State militants in next-door Syria.
Last week, Mreh and his family hosted a party to honor the volunteers and to mark the Jewish new year of Rosh Hashana as well as the Druze and Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha. Ultra-Orthodox Jews with their earlocks and long black coats mingled with Druze men wearing their navy blue robes and white Fez-like hats and celebrated their success together.
Among them was Mreh’s father, Sheikh Foad Mreh, who had a close encounter with the group last month. The elder Mreh was overcome with emotion as he told the gathered crowd he had been in a car accident on his way to work. Minutes later, volunteers with United Hatzalah, including his son, were at his side treating his head wounds, long minutes before the ambulance arrived.
“I get very emotional thinking about the fast help and the sacrifice these people make for other people. I thank them from the bottom of my heart,” Foad Mreh said. “It’s really moving to feel the people who care about saving every man, it doesn’t matter what he is or what he belongs to. Everyone in this country where we live, both Jews and Arabs, the team treats with sincerity."
For the volunteers, it’s all about transcending their religious and cultural affiliations and finding like-minded people from within the community to help others.
Beer, the group’s founder, told TheBlaze, “This is our dream of United Hatzalah: having volunteers in every community and every street in Israel to respond quickly to everyone.”
“Yonis didn’t go to treat his father because it was his father, he went to treat a victim of a car accident,” Beer said. “He goes to treat everyone. It could be a Jewish guy, it could be a Muslim, it could be a Christian, it could be anyone. That’s what he does. He does a great mitzvah,” the Hebrew word used to mean a good deed.
The organized effort to do the ultimate good deed – saving a life – was appealing to Mercury One, Glenn Beck's disaster relief and charity organization. Over the summer, Mercury One donated an ambucycle and 10 defibrillators to the group, which were immediately put to use.
"Our goal is to find those in the community doing essential work and empower them. In Israel, both citizens and soldiers need to know Americans will stand with them," said Quinn Cotter, Mercury One's assistant director of corporate outreach. “United Hatzalah is a volunteer-based organization that holds sacred a principle that is increasingly rare in the Middle East: the value of a life. Because of these volunteers, any time of the day or night in Israel, if you are in need, these volunteers will respond, regardless of your faith.”
Cotter said United Hatzalah is like a microcosm of Israel itself.
"A country that has limited resources, but relentless in its defense of individuals and their right to live,” Cotter said. “Mercury One is grateful for the work they do and honored that the generosity of our donors allowed us to assist United Hatzalah in their mission."
Beer said he's been grateful for the support from Mercury One.
“When I met the folks from Mercury One when they came to visit, I felt like they really came to make a change, to really make an impact in the lifesaving work that we do and we connected right away,” Beer said. “They look for projects that can make a big difference in Israel and the fact that this organization is across borders, across communities — it’s a grassroots organization that people who want to make a difference, who want to change the world can join in and be part of this organization, be part of this family and start saving lives right away is something that Mercury One felt very comfortable to be part of.”