Bill Schecter checks on a patient who was wounded by a Katyusha rocket at a hospital in Safed, near the Lebanon border. Photo by David Blumenfeld, special to the Chronicle
'He's not a doctor, he's an angel,' a patient's mother says
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Wednesday, August 9, 2006
Page A - 1
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Safed, Israel -- Bill Schecter is sanguine about saving the lives of Israeli soldiers and civilians in the monthlong conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon, but minutes after another Hezbollah rocket narrowly missed the Rebecca Sieff Hospital in Safed on Tuesday, he admitted that he wasn't used to operating under heavy bombardment.
"The kind of wounds I'm treating here are not very different from the gunshot wounds I would see on a busy night in San Francisco," said Schecter, who is chief of surgery at San Francisco General Hospital and vice chairman of surgery at UC San Francisco. "But I've never been fired upon. I now have extensive experience."
His closest encounter, aside from two rockets that fell within 100 feet of the hospital, came while visiting a friend on a nearby kibbutz. "I felt a big boom, but I wasn't really shaken," he said.
Schecter was a visiting instructor in a medical course for military doctors at an Israeli army base when the war broke out. He canceled his ticket home and asked where he might volunteer. The next day he was in Safed, a northern Israeli town 20 miles from the Lebanon border where rockets began falling, and civilians were dying, within two days of the start of hostilities.
One of Schecter's first patients was a Lebanese Shiite woman from the Hezbollah village stronghold of Maroun al-Ras. She had been shot by Israeli paratroop commandos when she was caught in the midst of a gunbattle they were waging with Hezbollah militants in a Lebanese village during the first days of the war. The Israeli soldiers in the field gave her first aid, and then arranged for her son to drive her across the border for treatment in Safed, the nearest hospital.
"Before she was transferred back to Lebanon through the Red Cross, she insisted on handing out candy to all the doctors here," said Schecter. "It was a bad wound, but fortunately the bullet didn't enter her chest. She'll have a scar, but she'll recover. Her attitude gave me an insight into how things could be between the people here if there were peace."
The hospital serves more than a million people, equally divided between Jews and Arabs, in northern Israel. One of Schecter's mementoes from this trip is a photograph of his surgical team -- a Druze, a Jew and a Muslim -- waiting arm in arm at 2 a.m. to receive wounded Israeli soldiers.
"The standard of medicine here is spectacular," said Schecter. "Israeli citizens and the mothers of the soldiers can rest assured they are getting outstanding medical treatment."
He said Israeli medicine has been honed to perfection by the demands of war and terrorism. "Israel has the greatest experience in the world with mass-casualty events," said Schecter. "We have a lot to learn from the Israeli experience. They have it down."
He said he has twice delayed his return home and will stay to volunteer his services until they are no longer required. He said his colleagues back in San Francisco have been "very supportive" of his decision to stay.
So have the families of his patients.
"He's not a doctor, he's an angel," said Dalia Golan. "If not for him, our son would be dead."
Golan's 27-year-old son, Shai, was declared clinically dead on arrival at the hospital Friday after a Hezbollah rocket exploded as he was parking his car outside his house in Shaar Yashuv, a village about 40 miles from Safed. The injured man had been given first aid by his mother, a trained nurse, then transferred to a forward emergency room in nearby Kiryat Shemona, where he lost consciousness.
He was airlifted by helicopter to Safed, where Schecter and his team were waiting. A huge piece of metal had punctured his rib cage, slicing across both lungs and causing extensive internal bleeding.
"I knew it was over," said his mother. But the army doctor on the helicopter had been trained by Schecter and knew that if anyone could save Golan, it was the Bay Area volunteer waiting in Safed.
"When he arrived, he had no pulse, but Dr. Schecter decided not to give up. He operated on him for more than four hours and told us, 'Your job now is to pray.' He's still in critical condition in intensive care, but he's alive," Golan said. "It's just our good fortune that my son fell into his hands."