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I Don’t Go To Uman Just to Pray, I Go to Save Lives
“My name is Avi Tenenbaum. I am a United Hatzalah volunteer and I was spent the past week in the Ukrainian town of Uman as a mispallel as well as a volunteer first responder, acting both as an EMT and the head of our Psychotrauma and Crisis Response Unit during the Rosh Hashanah holiday, and the Aliyat Hamonim L’Kever of Rebbe Nachman.
Since my first day volunteering with United Hatzalah I have merited to take part of some large scale operations, such as our Lag Ba’omer operations in Meron, the Haifa wildfires of 2016, the rescue mission of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, and more. Each operation has its own unique qualities, challenges, & stories.
This past Rosh Hashanah, Some 50,000 Jews came from around the world to a shabby muddy obscure town in Ukraine to spend the holiday by the graveside of Rebbi Nachman of Breslov.
I have been to Uman nine times so far, I can describe it quite well. It is essentially a third world backwards town with outdated technology and development, chronic rain and mud. It is a place that often reaches sub-zero temperatures and has harsh weather conditions. There isn’t anything at all pleasurable about the place.
One doesn’t go there to shop, sightsee, or do anything for that matter. The locals don’t speak a word of English or other languages aside from Ukrainian and Russian and the policemen there often hold up both citizens and travelers to make a bit of extra income. One cannot even flush tissues in the toilet because of Uman’s uniquely poor sewage system and even tap water is not safe to drink. Yet tens of thousands of Jews will travel to this place for the sole reason of praying by the grave of the beloved Rebbe Nachman each and every year.
This year, United Hatzalah took the initiative to send medics for the chag and supply them with medical equipment, communications gear, and everything else that they would need in order to keep the 50,000 visitors safe during their stay in this backwards town.
By the end of just a few days our medics had treated over 1000 people in Uman. I myself can think of over 25 calls I responded to, including a handful that were literally life-threatening.
It was remarkable to see the nature of injuries which came in and be able to trace them back to being generally caused by the Uman experience. Asthma attacks skyrocketed because of the lousy air in Uman, those with food allergies came in droves because they were eating food which they were not used to, adults and children fell off of two-meter high bunk beds they were renting during their stay. There were those with breaks, sprains, gashes, and lacerations from metal objects laying around or on the building rooftops as they climbed up to the roofs to watch all of the action. Overdoses by people who tried a little too hard to have a good time, terrible stomach pains for those who drank the local water or had food poisoning. Diabetics who weren’t eating right and whose sugar was too high or too low because of the different mealtime schedule. Several searches for missing people in the small hours of the night. And then there were all of the regular calls like chest pains, strokes, and more.
Add to all of this a few more unique factors of the Uman operation and you compound the complexity of the organization’s life-saving mission. Most people visiting the town don’t have a cellphone with local service or roaming so they cannot call for help. Many don’t know what number to call even if they have a cell phone. No one has a house phone and no synagogue has a phone either. Consequently, most of the injured simply walked up to us asked for help because they saw us wearing our bright orange vests, a sign hanging over our door stating that a medical volunteer was at that location.
A Ukrainian worker in a kitchen which prepares food for the visitors approached me in the street. He doesn’t speak a word of English or Hebrew but he rolled up his sleeve and showed me he received burns on his whole wrist.
A Jewish visitor approached me stating that he had been vomiting blood for the better part of a day and asked what he should he do?
We came with radios from Israel and received hundreds of calls from United Hatzalah’s dispatch center in Israel which had set up a special hotline for Uman for the week surrounding Rosh Hashanah. The organization also dispatched volunteers based on their GPS location via its advanced phone application technology.
Another challenge was transporting the patients to our field hospital. There was a dearth of ambulances in service, but the roads were slippery, narrow and muddy, and were filled with hundreds of people walking in the middle of the street both day and night. Because of this, we often had to transport people via stretcher or even on our backs. Whatever was needed, we did.
We had deposited medical equipment all over the town in various accessible places in order to be able to quickly access them no matter where we were.
In order to bolster our manpower and effectiveness during Rosh Hashanah, the organization invited medical professionals who were coming to Uman from around the world to receive life-saving equipment and join our operations. This relates to the most memorable call that I was a part of during this operation.
At two in the morning on the second night of Rosh Hashanah we received a call that a man had overdosed on alcohol and was unconscious. When we arrived on scene we saw an American emergency room doctor who had signed up to be part of our Uman mission. Due to the organization’s foresight, we had exactly the right expert at the right time and place. While transporting the patient I was busy translating the doctor’s commands from English into Hebrew so that the Israeli EMS personnel could carry them out. At one point the U.S. doctor and the EMT who hailed from Bnei Brak discovered they both know Yiddish and the duration of the call was carried out in Yiddish!
Another instance also involved a cross-continental medical rescue. We had received a call that a man was having severe chest pains. Although I was relatively far from the location i managed to dash between the crowds and filthy water puddles on the road, and I arrived quite a while before any other units.
After I did a full interview of the patient a Hasidic crew of Paramedics and Advanced Life Support from Monroe arrived with a heart monitor and other life-saving equipment that they had picked up from United Hatzalah. They too had been invited by United Hatzalah to join our team and they came just in the nick of te to save our patient’s life. I acted as a translator the whole time until the ambulance crew arrived to transport him for further tests and examinations by the doctors in the field hospital.
I am so proud to be part of United Hatzalah, whose only goal is to save lives, who demonstrate over and over their genius, ingenuity, flexibility, and ability to overcome all odds and save lives! I am so inspired, I am speechless! Wishing you all a healthy new year!”