Israel Independence Day, just after noon – “Today I got a call that put what is important to me into perspective. As I was just beginning my family barbecue in honor of Israel’s Independence Day, I received an emergency call to respond to a death that had taken place in Kiryat Gat, a city 40 minutes to the south of where I live in Beit Shemesh. I’m not a first responder. I am part of United Hatzalah’s Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit. Our job is to head out to calls at a moment’s notice and provide psychological and social stabilization for people who have undergone a trauma or are suffering from a traumatic situation. Family members of those who suffered a trauma, as well as friends, neighbors, and eye-witnesses are the people we help in the field.
My partner Elkie Grossman and I left our families, got in my car and headed down highway 38 southbound towards Kiryat Gat, a city that we have gotten to know well after responding to many incidents there in the past few months.
On the way, we got updated regarding the situation in question. A man – a husband, father, son, brother, brother-in-law, nephew, son-in-law, neighbor, friend, community member – fell out the window of his 5th-floor apartment. One of the reasons I give all those descriptions is because all of those connections were at the scene. When we arrived at the scene just behind the ambulance, that had also left from Beit Shemesh, what we found was complete chaos.
United Hatzalah EMS volunteers and police were all over the place trying to help whomever they could deal with what had just happened. I was approached by a number of people as soon as I got out of my car. I had to ask them to speak one at a time.
The wife of the man who had fallen as well as one of their daughters was upstairs and I was told that they did not yet know that their husband and father was deceased. Outside, gathered around me were family members from the side of the deceased, an eyewitness who saw the fall and death, and other bystanders who came to see how they could offer help.
I went first to the sister of the man who was a 10+ on our scale of traumatic suffering. She was screaming and trying to get over to where the body was. There were other people telling her that she should go back to her family’s apartment. I told those around her to settle down and not try to force her to do anything. I told her that she could stay where we were as long as she didn’t keep trying to break through to get to her brother. I began treating her. I did some tapping, had her look at me and try to focus on the here and now. At one point it seemed as if she might faint. We got her water and did some breathing exercises to stabilize her. She calmed down somewhat, and I was able to bring her back to deal with her own surroundings. There were people around supporting her and I quickly enlisted their help to maintain the calm surrounding her and enabled them to provide her support when she needed it again.
I went over to where the man’s mother was sitting in a car. She also wanted to go over and see her son. People were preventing her from doing so. I tried to speak with her, however, she physically pushed me away and told me to leave her alone. I decided to go elsewhere as she had family members with her acting as her support group.
I went over to a person who witnessed the incident and who was quietly crying. She told me how she had been coming home with her little boy and saw the man plunge off of the building. She opened up to me about it a little. She was responsive when I asked her about her son and told me her older son, had come and taken him upstairs. She did not believe that the boy had seen what happened. I asked her to tell me about her children and she smiled and began to tell me about them. I worked with her a little bit, we did some breathing and tapping exercises and she seemed to return to herself. I asked if she wanted to go up to her son, and she said she wasn’t ready. I told her to take her time and not go until she felt up to it. Her sister was there with her and I spoke with her also. She said that she was going to stay with her and I gave them a card and told them they could call if need be. The witness visibly relaxed when I told her how normal her reactions were.
Elkie went upstairs and I went up to join her. The wife and 19 and a half-year-old daughter of the man were there. The wife was off the charts by our scale. She kept calling for her husband. Fixing his side of the bed and calling for him to come in. Her daughter was in and out of the room trying to calm her down.Elkie and I took turns trying to help the two of them. At certain points, she would acknowledge that her husband was gone, but then she’d regress.
She asked her husband out loud what he had done to them. A city-appointed social worker was also present and was helping stabilize the family.
The son came in and had not yet been told the outcome of the incident. His sister and mother would not tell him, so the social worker did. She was very kind. First, the son went to his mom and held her. Then he wanted to tear his clothes (the Jewish ritual sign of acknowledging the death of a loved one), but his mother wouldn’t let him and got hysterical. He didn’t do it. There was a lot of emotional back and forth about blame, feeling guilty and asking for forgiveness.
We continued to work with the mom, practicing the exercises that we were trained to do to stabilize a patient hysterical with grief known as ISP. I validated her feelings, while gently telling her that if she wanted her children to stay near her she would need to calm down. Also that they would take their cue from her. This worked for a short time, but she often relapsed and became agitated.
Some time later, the second daughter came home as well. I met her downstairs with her twin sister and brother. Her teacher, uncle, and grandfather also came with her. At first, she didn’t want anyone to be near her. Then she broke down and cried on her brother’s shoulder. She came upstairs and went to her mom for a while. But she needed to take a step back once her mother became hysterical again. We did some more ISP and she calmed down somewhat.
At this point, a local Rabbi who knew the family joined us. He was a good friend of the son’s and was friends with other family members as well. We handed the situation off to him and to the social workers from the city who arrived and were already present at the scene and were helping care for the distraught family and neighbors.
Elkie said that she felt it was a good time to bow out – which was totally true, and I’m glad she said it because I was so focused that I could not even fathom leaving. But that is what we were supposed to do. That is what we are trained to do. We go to stabilize those who need us and we help them figure out their next steps in the face of the tragedy and trauma that they just experienced. We help them build a support network around them to carry them through the next couple of days. That is our job and that is what we did. We spoke with various people who were present who took upon themselves helping to care for the family, we gave them our cards and told them to call us if they needed us again.
It is always important that there be at least two of us volunteers present, in order to be able to help one another and keep each other from getting so wrapped up in the emotions of the people who were suffering from the grief that we might say something that could inadvertently make the situation worse. We relied on our training and on each other. Elkie and I kept switching off and staying abreast of what was going on in different parts of the apartment with different members of the family.
This call was incredibly intense. Thanks to our extensive training, the debriefs and the write-ups that we constantly do as part of the unit, I felt competent in doing what I was doing even with all of the chaos that was going on. To leave our family on the holiday was unfortunate. But this incident certainly put into perspective how grateful I am for the family that I have. As volunteers, we leave our families in order to help those who need us, but we know that we can do it because our families are behind us and provide us with our own support systems when we need them to.”