It is a well-known fact among oncology patients, that one of the effects of chemotherapy, is that the patient’s immune system shuts down for the duration of the treatments. Thus “if an oncology patient develops even a slight fever, they need to rush to the emergency room in order to undergo observation and receive treatment via antibiotics if necessary”, explained Michal Geller, mother of Raaya Geller. Raaya is a 16-year-old young woman from the town of Hispin in the Golan Heights who is so full of life and hope but has been living with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, for the past year and a half. “ For an oncology patient, making it to the myriad number of appointments is hard enough, but if a patient gets an illness on top of their treatment, even a strong cold, then they have to go back once again to the hospital,” Geller explained. “Normal treatment sessions, follow-up appointments, and testing can often last up to several hours.” 

This is a very difficult situation for people who live close to the hospital. But for patients living in the periphery, where the closest hospital option for them may include several hours of driving in each direction, the situation can quickly become untenable. This issue is of course compounded for families with small children. What should take just a few hours for the treatment or appointment, is now an all-day event, and can even result in the patient needing to sleep in the hospital overnight if there are follow-up treatments the next day. 

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Raaya getting on board the helicopter in Hispin

“My husband and I often have a tough time deciding which parent should go with Raaya to her treatments, and which parent should stay home in order to care of our other children. It is heart-wrenching every time.” 

This problem has existed for a very long time and until now there was no solution in sight until recently, when the CEO of United Hatzalah Eli Pollack, and the organization’s President and Founder Eli Beer, decided that they were going to pick up the gauntlet and assist oncology patients living in the periphery by doing what the organization does in the field. “Our goal, together with our partner Lahak, is to cut down response time so that people don’t have to wait to receive medical treatment. While we have been focusing on emergency medical response, we decided to undertake a new pilot project involving our helicopters that will cut down on travel time for families and children living with cancer, to and from the hospital. We hope that by cutting down the transport time, the patients and their families will benefit from a much easier journey and that it will free them from the time constraints included in traveling 3-4 hours to the hospital.”

Beer added that the project is still in its testing and pilot stage, but if it works, then the organization hopes to be able to launch the project permanently. “This is incredibly important and even results in lives being saved, because if these patients are exposed to germs or viruses while traveling to or from the hospital, the results can be catastrophic. These children deserve a faster way to receive their treatments. If a way exists to get them to the hospital faster, whether it is an urgent emergency, or just for a regular treatment or checkup, then we need to do it. The country needs to do it. Until that happens, United Hatzalah is stepping in to fill this essential service and cut down the travel time for these children.” 

Dov Geller, Raaya’s father added: “This is an incredibly important project, especially for children, because the hospitals in northern Israel, Poriya, Ziv, Emek, and others, do not possess a pediatric oncology department. So the challenge is doubled, because we must go to the center of the country to receive treatment. We shouldn’t live in a society where a child’s life from Givatayim is worth more than one from the periphery, but that seems to be what is happening in practice. I remember one time Raaya got a fever and we had to take her to the hospital. We went to Poriya medical center, as it was the closest one. After waiting for a while, they sent us back to Safra Hospital in Tel Hashomer for treatment as they couldn’t help us.”

“This is scary for me,” Raaya added. “We are told that we need to be in the hospital within half an hour, and there is simply no way to do that. It was a bit weird for me now arriving in 40 minutes. I recall one trip back from the hospital after a treatment cycle that lasted a week. I was feeling awful. I was suffering from severe nausea and I vomited a lot on the ride. It took hours of suffering through that trip just to get home so that I could recuperate a little. Had there been a helicopter available to take me then, it would have helped immensely, because, even though I likely still would have been nauseous, my suffering would have been cut down to 40 minutes, instead of four hours. This is an incredible project, truly incredible. ”

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Raaya after seeing the helicopter in Hispin that would take her to the hospital

Last Thursday, Raaya was flown in one of the helicopters run by Lahak and United Hatzalah and was able to reach her appointments on time and return home by mid-afternoon. “The program is incredible,” Dov said. “Instead of taking 3-4 hours for Raaya to get to the hospital for treatment, it took us 40 minutes. Raaya wasn’t quite sure what to make of it, but it really is incredible. Being accompanied the entire way by an expert medical team, and the Lahak pilot, who were all personable and caring, was simply a great experience. Much better than driving down the highway which was full of traffic jams. This is the first time that I feel that someone out there is seeing us, seeing what we’re going through, and finding a way to truly help us..” 

“This challenge isn’t something that just affects us as a family,” explained Michal. “It affects every person, every child, who is living with cancer anywhere in the periphery of Israel. The distance to the hospital is difficult, even life-threatening. For a child that has to travel two or three or four hours to get treatment and then return home that same day, it is incredibly difficult for them and for their entire family. Cutting down travel time to and from the hospital is a true gift for that child and their family. This is the first time that I feel that an organization understands the depths of the challenge and pain we feel, and found an exact solution. They hit the nail on the head. It is exactly what we need to help alleviate so much of our suffering. Just to see Raaya’s face during the flight was incredible. All we can say is thank you to Safra Hospital, Lahak Aviation, and United Hatzalah.” 

The pilot project will continue with another flight for a young cancer patient from Israel’s southern Negev region in the coming weeks and after that, the project will undergo a final review before becoming a regular mainstay of operation for the organization with the hopes that it will include other hospitals in addition to Safra Children’s Hospital in Tel Hashomer. 

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