It’s not every day my notions are challenged. I’m not sure I believe in such a thing as heroes, and yet, I’m reasonably sure I met one. It’s also not every day I find myself in the Middle East, tracking down a guy from Boston. Yet, there I was, roaming the halls of a Tel Aviv hospital in search of one Dr. Mitchell Schwaber, director of Israel’s National Center for Infection Control and a physician at the Sourasky. Dr. Schwaber had recently returned from Haiti and I wanted to know how he, along with the rest of the Israeli delegation had, in lightning speed, accomplished what no other nation in the world could.
As anyone who was alive and not hiding under a rock on January 12th of this year knows, A magnitude 7.0 quake struck shortly before 5 p.m. in Haiti, centered about 10 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince. Within moments, the majority of that country’s infrastructure evaporated under pancaked ruble and debris. There was no doubt around the world that the death toll would be horrifically high and the wounded would be everywhere.
While countries the globe over were figuring out how to respond and the U.N. was press conferencing about rescue missions, Israel was setting up its field hospital in Haiti, two days after the initial earthquake.
When I called the Israeli army’s spokespeople, asking to interview a doctor from the Haiti First Response team, they sent me to Dr. Schwaber, one of the delegation’s two infectious disease experts. My first questions to the doctor were about the team itself. What few preconceptions I had were quickly shattered. Schwaber explained that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) maintains a rapid deployment group that responds to disasters around the world. In the recent past, this same group has been to Kosovo, India, and a variety of other places hard hit by disasters, both natural and man made.
He explained that the scope of their team was not exclusively search and rescue, but in addition, a mobile field hospital, complete with hospital beds, IV units, a full pharmacy, medical lab, x-ray center and all the equipment one would expect to find in a full hospital, except, he reminded me, “in tents.”
Schwaber explained that the unit was not composed of only doctors, but included nurses, paramedics, medics, and other specialists from the IDF Medical Corps, along with security personnel and search and rescue experts from IDF Home Front Command. The group included 218 Army personnel, reservists and active duty personnel, along with an additional 18 civilians from different specialties.
My assumption was that this group worked together on a regular basis reacting to the tragedies Israelis face too often from terrorists, but Schwaber quickly corrected me.
“Some of these people in the group have experience doing some of these things as part of their background in the Army,” he explained, “but we are specifically a field hospital. When people need urgent care in Israel, there’s already a hospital to take them to. We go and set up where there are no hospitals to treat people. In Haiti we were the hospital.”
According to the IDF, the unit had people on the ground in Haiti the day after the earthquake, to secure a site for their field hospital (a soccer field near the airport), with the rest of the team arriving and setting up the tents on the following day.
I asked Dr. Schwaber how Israel was able to respond so quickly, faster as I understood, then any other country.
“They just started working the phones,” he smiled.
In his case, Schwaber was contacted because of his specialty. The delegation needed two infectious disease experts and was short one. As an officer in the reserve Medical Corps, his name was naturally on the list. He explained that the earthquake struck a few minutes before midnight, Israel time, and by early afternoon, he received his phone call.
Schwaber said he soon found himself sleeping in a tent and seeing more patients in a day than he ever imagined. From the very beginning, he said that it was one of the greatest challenges of his career in practicing medicine.
“There was no one there to receive us,” he explained. “No government, no infrastructure, nothing. It was all gone.”
“How did Haitians know how to find you?” I asked.
“Oh, word got around pretty quickly,” he said.
The hospital would go on to see 1111 patients, conducted over 300 successful surgeries, and deliver 16 babies, including three by caesarian. Their counterparts on the search and rescue team were able to find and rescue eight souls while also having the misfortune of finding countless dead within the rubble during their time in Haiti.
Several days after the Israelis were on the ground, the cavalry showed up, as American, Italian, Columbian, Chinese, and other national and private organizations began to get hospitals up, relieving a lot of the pressure on the Israeli field hospital. Political and social divisions were put aside as the various countries worked together for a greater cause. The Israeli field hospital stayed operational until January 27th but toward the end, Schwaber said, the nature of the medical problems they began to see were less urgent and more of a chronic nature. He cited one patient who complained of a fever that had lasted several months and another who had a long-standing tumor in his jaw.
He told me that one of his greatest personal challenges was not being able to practice medicine the way he was used to. Normally, he explained, doctors release people to their families, and are able to follow up, make sure they are compliant with their antibiotics or other medication and so on. In many cases, there was no one to whom these people could be released. Survivors often found themselves homeless, and with no known friends or family to help them.
In most western countries, even in the most extreme cases, when there is no one to care for a patient, he explained, there are still some kinds of social services that can house them and assist in their recovery. For the survivors of the Haiti earthquake, in the initial aftermath, these sorts of services did not exist.
He told me one of his most difficult cases was a sixteen-year-old boy he saw who had a cast on his arm and a bandage on his leg. He was immobile, lost all of his family in the earthquake, and had no place to go.
Luckily, he said, with a great deal of effort, Schwaber was able to establish contact with an American missionary that operated an orphanage in Haiti that took him in. Doctor Schwaber said a senior physician went to see the facility and was pleased with what he saw. Schwaber said he remains in contact with the orphanage, and will get progress reports about his patient.
“Would you do it again?” I asked.
“If they called up again sure,” he said emphatically, “as long as my wife is okay with being alone with the kids.”
On the January 27, 2010, the Israeli mission was declared over. Patients were transferred to other facilities within Haiti, except for one six-year-old child, who flew back to Israel for surgery to correct a heart deficiency. While the field hospital was dismantled, the delegation left behind 30 tons of medical equipment for use in the aid effort, including bandages, surgical instruments, two incubators, 1150 blankets, 30 large tents, 500 beds, 200 sleeping bags, and kitchen equipment.
Former President and UN Special Envoy to Haiti, Bill Clinton, commented on the Israeli delegation the day after the Israelis disembarked for home. At the International Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland Clinton remarked to Israeli President Shimon Peres, “I don't know what we would have done without the Israeli hospital in Haiti. The Israeli hospital was the only operational facility which was able to perform surgery and advanced tests.”
"In the name of the aid workers that operated in Haiti, in the name of the people who live there, and on a personal level I want to thank, we all want to thank, Israel from the bottom of our hearts," he said.
Doctor Mitchell Schwaber is the director for the National Center for Infection Control and a physician at the Tel Aviv Sourasky Center’s Division of Epidemiology. He has made a mark on his field in a recent publications regarding antibiotic resistance in bacteria. At the end of his mission in Haiti, Dr. Mitchell Schwaber was promoted to the rank of major in the IDF.