For Israeli Global First Responders, Crisis Is Opportunity

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Michael Alkan discussed Israel’s commitment to global health and medicine, as well as his experiences in Nepal and post-Hurricane Katrina Louisiana — just two examples of the Jewish State’s first responders’ willingness to rapidly deploy to humanitarian crisis points regardless of location or affiliation.

As the ground beneath his feet heaved and shook, Michael Alkan found himself swaying and shuddering alongside the people and remaining buildings staggered around him. Alkan, who was in Nepal aiding survivors of the country’s catastrophic earthquake in April 2015, had just experienced one of the countless aftershocks that followed.
“That was the fright of my life,” Alkan said when he spoke at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr on Feb. 3. “I felt absolutely helpless. We felt that there was nothing to hold onto,. You were somewhere between standing and floating.”
Alkan discussed Israel’s commitment to global health and medicine, as well as his experiences in Nepal and post-Hurricane Katrina Louisiana — just two examples of the Jewish State’s first responders’ willingness to rapidly deploy to humanitarian crisis points regardless of location or affiliation. (He also spoke at the Consulate General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region on Feb. 4.)
Alkan is a professor emeritus of medicine at the Medical School for International Health, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is known for being among the first on the scene to provide medical relief to victims of disasters worldwide.
He appeared in Philadelphia in conjunction with the American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which has a regional office in Jenkintown.
Alkan told the audience he was tasked with assembling a team of eight people from the university to provide aid in Nepal for two weeks. When they arrived, they immediately went to help the underserved villages. They hired porters and walked 300 feet up a mountain to a village that was only accessible by foot. It was a disaster, he said.
“What we saw was not only a result of the earthquake, but people with diseases who couldn’t get health care. It was heartbreaking — the Nepali nation was in dire straits before the earthquake and afterward, it was much worse.”
The group also visited another village that was only reachable by helicopter, where they helped a 3-month-old with meningitis.
When the second earthquake hit, it was horrifying, he recalled. After recovering from the initial shock, he witnessed everyone from his team immediately texting on their cell phones to tell people they were OK.
While he and his team did their best to help people physically and spiritually, he does not envision the country recovering anytime soon and described the area as depressed.
“We were a small group,” Alkan said. “The emotional impact on us was more than we could achieve.”
He also reminisced about helping people in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“When Katrina hit, the next morning, I stormed into the office of the president of the university,” he recalled.
There were two options: watch the crisis unfold on TV or take action. He took two students with him to provide relief. One was a Baptist from Kentucky who was a former paramedic; the other, a 42-year-old Catholic from Boston who had just begun medical school.
They replaced a team of doctors and nurses who had not slept for three days. He remarked that all of the people were blown away that they came all the way from Israel to help.
“My big accomplishment was to take a woman with probably tuberculosis in a helicopter back with us,” he said. “She might have died.”
Michele Levin, president of the board directors at Barrack, who is on the National Board of American Associates, Ben-Gurion University, enjoyed the presentation.
“I can’t believe he went to Nepal and gave himself up in such a way that is incredible,” Levin said.
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