Stepping Up: Stories of Hope from Israel’s Civilian Frontlines part II

For many South African Olim this war marks the first time they have been called to civilian duty. But for one South African Olah, life at the civilian frontline is all too familiar. In fact, it is quite like home. 

Gila Nussbaum is a woman who knows her mind. At only three years old she decided that she wanted to become a doctor, a goal she fulfilled brilliantly, completing her medical studies and doing her internship in South Africa. It was when she made Aliyah with her husband and two of her children almost seven years ago that the opportunity for her to step into her chosen specialisation – emergency medicine – arose. 

It wasn’t luck or coincidence that brought Gila closer to her dream. As a new Olah and mother of three young children (she had her third child in Israel) she undertook the long and demanding path to specialising in emergency medicine, passing her exams and doing a residency under Dr. Deborah West, an Australian Olah who was starting up an Emergency Department in a new hospital in Ashdod. After four and a half grueling years Gila had achieved her goals, becoming a Senior Emergency Physician at the hospital where she still works. 

Only 26 kilometres from the northern border with Gaza, at Assuta Ashdod Hospital Gila and her colleagues saw a fair amount of traumatic injury before October 7th. Even so, they were emotionally unprepared for the events of that dark day. Gila was in South Africa at the time, and like many others was enjoying a quiet Simchat Torah morning. It took her a frustrating three extra days to get back to Israel, and when she did she hit the ground running. 

Gila went straight to work at the Emergency Department, although it has been nothing like business as usual. Her shifts have been extended from eight to twelve hours and while helicopters used to land maybe once a week before the war (and often that was a training exercise), they are now arriving three to four times a day, bringing anywhere between three to six patients at a time. Their lead time is minutes, and they often hear the helicopter as the alert phone is ringing notifying them of incoming injured. 

They are seeing injuries that have never been seen in the country before, and they are devastating. A cool, collected, and highly organised woman, Gila is usually able to separate her emotions from her work. “The war has made that so much harder,” she says quietly. 

Dr. Gila Nussbaum

When she is not in the hospital treating the casualties of war (along with the usual emergency patients they would normally see), Gila volunteers her time to travel the country with her department head and mentor, Dr. West, training physicians in emergency care techniques. With funds donated by the  Australian community, Dr. West set up a Mobile Simulation Centre, and they go into both military and civilian communities to upskill doctors and paramedics in life-saving medical practices. 

For military units, they are upskilling the army doctors and medics to conduct life-saving field procedures. While all medical students learn these techniques along the way, army doctors are usually reservists, and are specialists in other fields –  they are family physicians, orthopaedic surgeons, or gynaecologists – and it is unlikely they would have needed to use any of these techniques for years.  While the Army has its own training, they have needed urgent assistance to supplement it in the wake of October 7th. Gila also trains military doctors on how to handle mass casualties and prioritise patients for extraction to hospital. 

For civilian communities, particularly those on the periphery, there now hangs a dark shadow, the terrifying question of “What if it happens again?”. Gila is there to answer part of that question. At local hospitals, they are sharing their mass casualty training – something they practice regularly at Assuta Ashdod and which Gila believes had them fully prepared for what was to come on October 7th and the weeks after. They are also engaging ‘kitot konanyot’  – on-call units comprising local doctors and emergency workers that have been formed to respond to incidents in the area when getting to a hospital is delayed or not possible, as was the case on October 7th. As with the military units, they train them on life-saving field techniques. 

“We really hope that what we are teaching is never going to have to be used, but G-d forbid it is needed, I hope we have imparted some useful skills,” Gila says. There is no question that Gila is doing life-saving work, and in doing so she is changing worlds. In her fearless response to the call of October 7th, she has modelled bravery, selflessness, and generosity of spirit, not only to her community, her children, and her country but to all Olim making Israel their home.