Ruven Gelfond has changed surgical nails into complex screws and converted regular equipment into tools for eye surgery. He has helped blind people see, delivered babies and set scores of bones.
His day job is a nurse in charge of running the hospital surgical unit at Hadassah Mount Scopus. But in between, he has been on the scene for victims of the earthquake in Haiti, Typhoon Haiyan and the war in Syria.
“I’m needed, I go,” summed up Gelfond, who believes it is his job “to save the life of every child, woman, man and dog. Everyone who comes, we treat them.”
His nursing knowledge and military expertise in setting up field hospitals has taken him to many places on a moment’s notice, usually to work long hours dealing not with just injuries inflicted by natural disasters, but also to help people receive good 21st-century medical care.
Gelfond recently returned to Israel following a 12-day stint in the Philippines, traveling with a group organized by the Israeli Defense Forces and consisting of 64 medical personnel and many others who rebuilt three badly damaged schools. He was the chief nurse of the surgical room.
While on a vacation at the Dead Sea last month, Gelfond received a call and was given about an hour to show up and join the delegation, he recalled. Upon arriving in the Philippines, the first job was to set up a field hospital, next to a devastated hospital in Bogo City. That rural, poor area received incredible damage. Most of its buildings were destroyed by high winds and rain. Crops were ruined, and roads were blocked.
“We were without electricity, without water,” he said through an interpreter. But the Israeli delegation had brought with it the means to bring in electricity, and the group soon had a triage area to examine patients.
As if the injuries weren’t severe enough, the Israelis were also faced with extreme heat and humidity and wild dogs.
While the medical team worked, others turned to the nearby hospital, doing all they could to construct one surgical room and one delivery room.
Like every emergency situation in which Gelfond has worked, there were two scenarios. Part of the day the Israeli delegation worked to heal those injured by the storm. But the medical team also found itself handling health problems that should have been attended to long before that typhoon hit.
During its stay, the Israelis conducted 60 surgeries, including emergency C-sections, skin grafting and the repair of a club foot. They inserted rods to heal many broken bones, Gelfond recalled.
“Because of the disaster, the situation was very hard. With this population, everything is worse,” said Gelfond. Working in Haiti had prepared him for the poor conditions, and he made sure the Israelis brought with them enough supplies to sterilize all the equipment they used.
One surprise was the large number of people coming to their field hospital with eye tumors. “The people came practically blind. We took the tumor out. Suddenly a person started to see. When you come to a catastrophe, you are not planning on eye surgery.”
“It’s a great thing, especially the eye surgery, to give the person a whole new life,” said Gelfond, who found himself honing some surgical equipment into tools that could be used during eye surgery.
Gelfond also was on the scene following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, performing multiple orthopedic surgeries on broken bones, he recalled. At that time, Gelfond was called upon to create special medical tools. When they began running out of surgical screws, Gelfond worked to turn simple surgical nails into more complex screws to work on many broken hips.
The 41-year-old father of two is also part of a team that goes to the Golan Heights to help injured Syrians who manage to make it to the border. “We are still doing it. They are in very serious condition. They are war wounded, coming after bombing. Some are unconscious,” he said. “Some are very wounded because of explosions.”
When asked how Israelis are greeted when helping foreigners, many of whom don’t consider Israel favorably, Gelfond replied, “They were more than welcoming and nice. There were very thankful.” The Filipinos “saw all the units that came from Israel. They were very thankful.”
Gelfond is a skilled craftsman who enjoys glass blowing and winemaking. He grew up in Soviet Georgia and became a nurse in Israel following a retraining program conducted by Hadassah. His son is a soldier in the tank corps, and his daughter is a cadet in the special Air Force high school.
In a note Gelfond sent to his Hadassah fellow workers while still in the Philippines, Gelfond wrote, “Women and children who might have died without us. What can you compare to that?”