Canadian doctors to train for possible Israeli disaster

Magen David Adom ambulance

Twenty Canadian doctors will take a crash course in emergency medicine in Israel this fall, with the understanding that they may be called upon to return in the event of a major or prolonged natural disaster or conflict.

This is a pilot project organized by Canadian Magen David Adom for Israel (CMDA), patterned on one launched in France last year. Magen David Adom (MDA), Israel’s national emergency medical service, is trying to develop an international emergency unit made up of volunteer foreign doctors who are prepared to come to the country and assist on short notice.

Daniel Amzallag, who is co-ordinating the project for CMDA, said that although most people immediately think of war or devastating terrorism when speaking of a national emergency in Israel, MDA is actually focused on preparing the country for a possible earthquake.

Israel lies on a major fault line, the Great Syrian-African Rift, he said. “According to scientists, every 100 years [Israel experiences] strong shaking – 6.0 or higher on the [Richter] scale. The last one was 91 years ago.”

An earthquake of that magnitude would be enough, it is estimated, to seriously damage 60-70 per cent of the infrastructure and potentially cause tens or hundreds of thousands of injuries, he said.

“We want to develop an international unit that is ready and motivated in case they are needed,” he said. “They have to know how to use Israeli equipment, ambulances and field hospitals, and be comfortable working with Israeli staff.”

About half of the 10 French doctors who had trained in a pilot project for that country last year volunteered during the Gaza conflict in the summer of 2014, Amzallag added.

This past summer, 24 French doctors were enrolled in the intensive training program the Canadian doctors are taking from Nov. 8-12.

Coming from Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa, Hamilton and the Toronto area, they will fly out as a group from Pearson Airport on Nov. 5 and return Nov. 15, covering their own expenses.

The program, based in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, includes both classroom study and two days of field training on MDA ambulances. On the last day, the Canadians will take part in a mass-casualty drill with MDA workers, as well as police and fire departments.

Dr. Alexander Khemlin, a Russian-born family physician in Richmond Hill, Ont., signed up because it reminds him of the reserve military duty he performed  for almost 15 years in Israel as a medical officer in the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), after regular service.

It’s a way for him to continue to contribute to the country that was his home for 19 years and where he practised medicine, while enhancing skills that can benefit Canada where he has lived since 2010.

Although he participated in all of Israel’s military operations from 1996 to 2011, he never had any formal emergency medicine (EM) training. He gained experience in that field during his two-year residency in Goderich, Ont., before assuming his current position at Mackenzie Health hospital in Richmond Hill, Ont. in 2013. 

He continues to regularly perform shifts in emergency departments in small communities in Ontario. 

One aspect of EM he has never trained in is working on an ambulance.

“After moving to Canada, I missed that experience of going to ‘miluim’ [reserve duty], doing something to protect the Israeli people, serving the country. When I heard about the CMDA project, I thought that’s exactly what I would like to do to keep myself in the loop…” he said.

“Despite the fact that my family moved to Canada, we love Israel and continue supporting it.” He and wife Mirit have two children aged 16 and 14.

“We strongly believe that every Jew has to find a way to contribute to Israel by serving, volunteering or donating. I believe [I] will set an example to my kids, to do some act to support Israel, when they grow up.”

While he prays Israel will never experience such a crisis, Khemlin observes, “All Israeli history and recent changes in the Middle East region indicate that it actually might happen. If such a worst scenario comes true, I will do my best to get ready as soon as possible to fly to Israel.”

The pilot project is now at capacity. Khemlin urges other Canadian doctors to consider enrolling in any future training sessions.

“I believe it is the most meaningful way to give back to Israel while we enjoy a life of peace here in Canada.” 

CMDA national president Norton Segal also says, “God forbid, they should ever be needed,” but the earthquake risk is a very real one.

“Three years ago, when we were at an MDA meeting in Israel, Knesset member Benny Begin, who is a geophysicist, gave us a 45-minute or one-hour lecture on the fault lines…Israel is preparing to make sure there is minimal loss of life and to avoid extensive damage.”

Segal emphasized that the pilot project is about giving Canadian doctors the opportunity to experience Israel in a way geared to their interests, and perhaps forge a lasting bond with the country and CMDA.