Toronto woman fundraises to build Beit Shemesh hospital

An artist's rendering of the proposed Beit Shemesh hospital.

The team behind an ambitious, international fundraising initiative is hoping to fix the fact that Beit Shemesh, a rapidly developing city in Israel, doesn’t have a hospital and is outgrowing its health-care infrastructure.

Blima Zelinger is the chief fundraising officer in Toronto for a new initiative launched by Rabbi Benjy Kwalwasser, who created Israel Medical Centers (IMC) together with Dr. Efraim Rosenbaum in 2015 to help create more emergency and hospital services in Israel, starting in Beit Shemesh. Working together with government and community leaders, the goal is to raise $60 million (US) for the first phase of a two-phase project that will provide the city’s residents with a hospital.

There are about 220,000 residents in Beit Shemesh and the surrounding area. Within the next 10 years, the burgeoning city west of the capital is expected to double in size, said Zelinger, who plans to move there with her husband from Toronto within the next five years.

“The closest hospital is 45 minutes away in Jerusalem – without traffic,” she said, adding that while the community does have access to an urgent care centre, it’s not a well-equipped facility that is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Zelinger had her own experience with inaccessibility to proper medical care in Beit Shemesh when she spent a few weeks living with a family friend in the community.

Blima Zelinger

“I was on a women’s football team and I sprained my ankle very badly.”

She said the first doctor she saw in Jerusalem put a cast on her ankle “that was causing more damage than was doing good.”

Zelinger recalled her friend’s mother urging her to go to Beit Shemesh’s existing urgent care centre, because she was in “immense pain,” but the doctor on call didn’t have the proper equipment to remove the cast.

“He pulled out a knife and started sawing off my cast. It was a little bit traumatizing,” she said.

But this was a minor incident. Zelinger said that in some cases, the distance and time needed to travel to the nearest hospital can been fatal.

“Rabbi Kwalwasser witnessed an eight-year-old girl who was… hit by a car and was losing a lot of blood, and because she didn’t get a blood transfusion in time, because of the long distance to Jerusalem to the hospital, she passed away. That is something that could have been prevented, and it wasn’t, because there is no hospital in Beit Shemesh,” she said.

“There’s another story of a young mother who was pregnant in her second trimester. She started feeling labour-like pains… She ended up giving birth to a stillborn baby, because they weren’t able to make it in time to a hospital.”

Zelinger said she understands that building a hospital is an enormous undertaking, but IMC is closer to this goal than anyone else has ever been.

“It’s not that it hasn’t been tried before, but we’ve never gotten as far as we have now. We have government [support], we have the land that is zoned for a hospital, and we have the mayor’s backing.”

The hospital will sit on 30 acres of land set aside for the facilities.

Phase 1 of the project is a $40- to $60-million medical facility that will house departments such as pediatrics, dialysis, oncology and cardiology, as well as an advanced laboratory.

“After we’ve developed that, we plan on going into a full-service hospital that we hope will have 300 beds,” she said, adding that this phase will cost about $200 million.

The most pressing need, Zelinger said, is to upgrade the current urgent care centre.

“I’m working on trying to get a CT scanner from somewhere in the U.S. gifted to Israel. I’m working with the CEO of a hospital in the U.S. We need a CT scanner, an MRI, a lab, dialysis, a trauma room, because they don’t have a trauma centre,” she explained, adding that IMC has already raised $200,000 toward that $1-million initiative.

As for the larger ambition to build a much-needed hospital in Beit Shemesh, Zelinger said the biggest challenge is getting people to invest on the ground floor.

“People have made commitments to be involved in the project when it is further along in the process. People need to realize that they need to be the ones. People need to invest in it together and not wait until it’s bigger, because everyone is waiting until it gets bigger.”

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