Becoming a volunteer EMT is certainly not a vocation that is suited for all people. It is a job that is not for the faint of heart nor the squeamish nor for those with a bad bedside manner. It is a calling for those who wish to be more active and make a difference in their own communities, for go-getters, for doers. Often the efforts expended to improve one’s environment result in a fair amount of self-improvement as well, and in the world of a volunteer EMT, the life one saves may very well be that of a close loved one, or even themselves.

Eliana and Avner Ben David are two people who began to volunteer with Israel’s national emergency medical services (EMS) organization, United Hatzalah, some time ago. They began their paths separately but, due to their involvement with the organization, they found each other and began a family that is dedicated to saving lives every day.

Eliana and Avner in their EMT vests during a health fair at the home of the British Ambassador to Israel
Eliana and Avner in their EMT vests during a health fair at the home of the British Ambassador to Israel

Eliana’s story with United Hatzalah began at her workplace, Harel Insurance, which is one of the largest partners of the EMS organization in Israel. “Harel held an EMT training course for its employees as a way for us to be more active in the community. I had wanted to get involved and volunteer in my own community for a while, so I grabbed the opportunity to do the course,” said Elianna, who was one of the first female EMTs in Tel Aviv.

“One of the things that I recognized immediately when I became an EMT was that people suddenly began falling apart all around me. Before I was an EMT I almost never came across someone who needed first aid help. It just didn’t happen. But in reality, it did happen. These things happen all the time and everywhere, it is simply that people just don’t notice. People are a lot more oblivious to their surroundings than we like to realize. Now that I have the knowledge that enables me to help people, I recognize these situations and I stop everything I’m doing in order to help.”

One of the things that astounded Eliana was how much she learned about herself after she became an EMT. “You do your best to help where you can but you can’t always save everyone. People still die, and the EMTs have to live with that. We help whenever and wherever we can, but you take some of it home with you. You simply don’t know how strong you are until you walk out the door and get on the ambulance or ambucycle and head out to call after call after call. Until that happens, lifesaving isn’t real to you. The training course gives you knowledge of what to do when you face a variety of situations, but it is nothing when compared to how much you learn from the experience of going on calls.”

Recalling one of her biggest shocks, Eliana spoke of her first resuscitation call. “On the first resuscitation call that I participated in, a person died in a house of ill-repute. He had no I.D. on him whatsoever. It was the first time that I realized that there is an underworld in Tel Aviv. There are unlucky people in Israel, just like everywhere else, and we have to help them in the same way as everyone else, perhaps more.”

Avner Ben David, a computer engineer with the IDF, has a very different story of how he became involved with the organization.

“My whole family is involved in United Hatzalah. Many of us are trained EMTs and volunteers, and my brother even runs the dispatch center. So it wasn’t a surprise when I joined up.”

Avner began his training with the Israeli ambulance service. “When I was doing my training course, I did it with the Israeli ambulance service so that I could also ride on an ambulance if need be, but I knew that I would also join United Hatzalah, as I wanted to be among the first responders to medical emergencies, even before the ambulances.”

The life of a volunteer EMT can be challenging in unexpected and often eventful ways, but it can also create bonds that last a lifetime. Avner met Eliana via a Whatsapp group that was set up for the local EMTs. “We talked a lot about some medical details and different cases that we had both seen, which then lead us to a private conversation. A week or so later we spoke on the phone, which eventually led to a date.”

Eliana quipped, “While we were dating, we kept receiving calls and we answered them together, as we were often together. I had to keep reminding him that these calls were not considered dates.”

After some time, Avner invoked his brother’s help to arrange the proposal. As both he and Eliana are avid responders who care about their work, Avner had the dispatch center create an emergency call for just the two of them to arrive in the middle of a park. Instead of seeing a stabbing victim, which had not been real, Eliana arrived shortly after Avner to see a candle-lit proposal, complete with a bottle of her favorite wine and Avner with a ring. The two EMTs got married in May of 2014 and they have a 14-month-old son.

The proposal in Gan Hapa'amon (Bell Garden) in Jerusalem
The proposal in Gan Hapa’amon (Bell Garden) in Jerusalem

The young family has now made some changes to their EMT activities, as they have a baby at home. “Avner certainly heads out more than I do,” said Eliana. “In order to create a balance, we have established ground rules for when it is an appropriate time to go out on calls and when it is not.”  Just last week the couple saved the life of a woman who lives nearby their home. “We received a call that we were the closest responders to a woman who was unconscious. We arrived at the scene and learned that the woman was hypoglycemic. We informed the paramedic who arrived after us and he gave her sugar. The woman immediately woke up with a start and was shocked to find us there. When she asked what we were doing we told her, and she exclaimed, “not again!” She was very thankful for our efforts. We helped her recuperate and returned home. It was another life saved.”

“Being an EMT, it changes you, in a good way,” said Avner. “Last Yom Kippur (Jewish Day of Atonement), I received a call during the afternoon prayers. I ran out of synagogue and rushed to treat an unconscious patient. We successfully resuscitated him. Then I returned for the final evening prayers of the holiest day of the year, where we plead with God to give us another year of life, and it hit me just how much being an EMT with this organization has changed me. It is hard to put into words how much, but I guess being a partner with God in helping people to receive another hour, or another day, or even another year of life, is simply something that one cannot go back from.”