As head of the general surgery department and the Shock Trauma Unit of Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, which has earned an international reputation for its state-of-the-art techniques, Dr. Avi Rivkind has treated, by his own count, at least 10,000 victims of suicide bombings, war, traffic accidents, tsunamis and other disasters. His patients have included soldiers and civilians and Palestinian terrorists. A Sabra, he has done his life-saving work in such countries as Kenya, Argentina and Sri Lanka. At 61, he has trained a generation of physicians and nurses, and also taught at the University of Southern California. Dr. Rivkind spoke with The Jewish Week in New York last week.
Q: Why did you choose such an emotionally draining medical specialty?
A: I’m the son, the only son, of two immigrants from Poland, Holocaust survivors. It was very important for them that people should survive. In the army, I was in a special unit — a doctor described to me [his duties]. I was fascinated by what he was doing. I came home and said, “I’m studying medicine.”
Do you have nightmares; do you get burned out?
Not yet. Every day is another person [to save].
What was your hardest case?
A [bomb] blast in Jerusalem. This girl, a beautiful girl, blonde, long hair, came by ambulance, she spoke with me. I could see that something was wrong. From outside, pristine, nothing. But I could see from how she spoke, something was fishy.
Then we went into the operating room. She died on the [operating] table. Her sister was a medical student in our school. I had to go and tell her that her sister died. It took me more than a half hour to overcome my emotions. I cried.
You’ve treated terrorists, who may have Jewish blood on their hands. Are you ever tempted to turn around and just walk away?
Once, I was awakened at 2 a.m. on the Sabbath to do emergency surgery on a terrorist who had been injured while he was being apprehended. I had seen the grisly results of his bus bombings. Because I’m a doctor, a believing Jew, a human being, I would never allow a patient to die whom I could save.
Saving of life is more than my medical requirements: It’s a mission. Each person who comes through our doors is treated to the best possible care. By fixing the holes in their chests and bellies, I’m making a statement that I’m not like those forces of darkness that want to engulf this country in blood.
Do they understand? I haven’t the slightest doubt that they do. They thank me. They look at me differently. My people and I are no longer the demons of their ugly propaganda.
There isn’t always an emergency or crisis in Israel — at least, not one in the headlines. What does a trauma doctor do when things are calm?
Unfortunately, we have many car accidents in Israel — 400 to 500 victims are killed every year and at least 40,000 are injured. As head of surgery, alternating between emergency work and routine surgery, thank God, I’m not usually short of things to do.
What about the victims of violence or terrorism, like Sderot? Do they continue to have nightmares or other symptoms after the “crisis” is over?
Yes, especially the children. We follow up with them. [Hadassah Hospital’s] department of psychiatry deals with these victims.
What does a trauma doctor do to relax?
There’s not a lot of time to relax. Occasionally I’ll go to concerts, listen to classical music, or from time to time go to Betar Yerushalayim soccer games. During one of the games, a Maccabi Tel Aviv player collapsed on the pitch [field] and I had to give CPR. Luckily, he survived.
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