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Even when rockets strike, Israel’s Galilee Medical Center doesn’t falter

By Andrew Adler - Jewish Federation of Louisville, Community Editor


 

The Galilee Medical Center is a nearly 800-bed facility located in the city of Nahariya at the northern tip of Israel. That by itself is unremarkable. What is remarkable is that this hospital in the Western Galilee region – one of Israel’s largest and most sophisticated – must contend with rockets that Hezbollah periodically lobs in its direction from Lebanon, a mere six miles away. 


No wonder, then, that the hospital was the first in Israel to build an underground complex capable of accommodating several hundred beds and ancillary equipment – essentially, an entire subterranean hospital. But such once-and-future construction costs money, lots of it. So does modernizing above-ground infrastructure, buying expensive diagnostic and treatment hardware, and expanding those below-ground facilities. 


Enter the American Friends of Galilee Medical Center, which since 2014 has raised just short of $11 million for the hospital. Senior administrators of GMC have been visiting the U.S. this month, and last week (July 19) were guests of Ralph Green and his wife, Shellie Branson, in their Glenview home. 

 

The medical center opened in 1956, and while there has been frequent expansion during the ensuing decades, some buildings haven’t been modernized since the early 1980s. Currently there are major plans to revamp its internal medicine building ($29 million), its surgical facilities ($27 million), establishing a PET-CT scanning center to treat cancer patients ($7 million), as well as a host of smaller projects. While the Israeli government covers GMC’s basic operating costs, these capital projects rely largely on private donors for funding. 


Among these is adding to the existing underground hospital facilities. Though officials don’t believe Hezbollah deliberately targets GMC, the hospital hasn’t entirely escaped the ravages of conflict. In 2006, a rocket hit the hospital dead-on, causing significant damage (but thankfully, no casualties) to its Ophthalmology department.  


Here, the business of healing is inextricably bound up with the business of warfare. During the 2006 Second Lebanon War, GMC was the epicenter of treatment for wounded Israeli soldiers. A 2015 article in the journal Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness summarized the “extraordinary circumstances” this way: 


 “(The hospital) was able to utilize a 450-bed underground facility that maintained full hospital functionality throughout the conflict. In a major feat of rapid evacuation, the entire hospital population was relocated under the cover of darkness to these bunkers in just over 1 hour, thus emptying the building prior to the missile impact.” 


Now all Israel hospitals are required to have similar defenses against rocket, chemical and biological attack. The threats are ongoing – on a Shabbat during this year’s Passover holiday, 32 rockets landed in the vicinity of the hospital. 


“We had great luck because we’d exactly finished renovating the underground NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) for the little babies,” Moshe Meyouhass, a retired Israel Defense Forces colonel who’s now the hospital’s chief operating officer, said while attending the Green/Berman reception. 


In what he called “a very speedy process,” Meyouhass recalled, “we took all the babies down, and they stayed there for a week and a half. This is a symbol of what can happen in this area.” The Syrian conflict of 2013 was another test of the hospital’s resources.Not surprisingly, the hospital is renowned for its successful treatment of trauma and battlefield victims. 


Reflecting the population in the Western Galilee – Jews, Muslims, Christians and Druze, many of whom are economically disadvantaged – GMC serves one of Israel’s most diverse constituencies. Notably, the hospital’s chief executive officer – Dr. Masad Barhoum – was the first Israeli Arab ever to lead one of the nation’s hospitals. 


Trained as a family medicine physician, Barhoum has shepherded several major projects since becoming CEO in 2007. The hospital is affiliated with Bar-Ilan University Faculty of Medicine, a conduit for medical students, residents and fellowships. In 2022, GMC’s dental program entered into a partnership with the University of Rochester (N.Y.)’s Eastman Institute for Oral Health. The partnership has made GMC a leading destination for maxillofacial surgery. 


“We recruit very good doctors and they become stars at our hospital,” Barhoum said, mentioning its neurosurgery program as another achievement. The hospital also is one of the few that has a da Vinci robotic surgical system (cost: $2 million). And “we are first in interventional neuroradiology – we do 600 procedures – the highest in Israel.” 


Agencies like American Friends of Galilee Medical Center are critical to the success of GMC’s planned infrastructure modernizations (“We’re investing in cement,” Barhoum quipped). But beyond bricks-and-mortar, the ties between the two groups are emotional as well as fiscal. 


Alan Engel, a longtime leader in Louisville’s Jewish community, now serves as AFGMC treasurer. He became involved more than 10 years ago when organizers asked him to shepherd the process of gaining tax-exempt status. The more familiar he became with the hospital’s core mission, the more he was impressed. 


“The fact that they served everybody,” Engel said, “it wasn’t just Jews. That was the real hook that got me because I thought, ‘My God, these people, who are under such duress every day.’ So when they asked me I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do it. Because I really believe in the hospital, and I believe in their mission.” 


Engel was especially taken with a collaboration between AFGMC and the hospital: “the emergency response group program.” 


“That was where we took doctors from all the Partnership2Gether communities to Israel for a week, and they got training in emergency-response medicine. The idea, originally, was that if there was a war in Israel and the hospital was involved, and its doctors had to go out in the field, these (Partnership) doctors could go over there and fill in for the regular doctors. Fortunately, that never happened.” 


Updating existing surgical suites is crucial to the hospital’s financial health. “It’s a big issue for us,” Barhoum acknowledged. “Because (elective) surgery brings money; internal medicine doesn’t bring money.” 


Still, tending to the population of Western Galilee remains the hospital’s defining imperative. “They are our family,” Barhoum says. And we have to take care of them.”


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