NEW YORK — Hurricane Katrina taught Captain Dana Hall that hospital generators must never be located in basements prone to flooding. Working the UN General Assembly taught her it requires clockwork precision to make it possible for the world’s leaders to gather in one place. And observing Shabbat in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti taught her that spirituality can exist anywhere — even amidst devastation and death.
“We were sitting under the flagpole outside the US Embassy. I remember we were with another embassy worker, a civilian, who had just returned to Haiti. She was telling us about all the people she knew who had died in the earthquake. She cried and we just listened. It was deeply moving and I will never forget that,” said the 50-year-old Hall.
This January, Hall will mark 28 years with the US Public Health Service (USPHS). One of seven active-duty branches of US service, the USPHS reports directly to the surgeon general and uses medical expertise and crisis management to help communities in crisis. The 6,500 member Commissioned Corps, which isn’t militarized, is comprised of pharmacists, PhDs, medical personnel, and a solitary Orthodox Jewish female: Hall.
“People really think I’m some kind of anomaly when they meet me, but there are plenty of Jewish officers, as well as in the enlisted ranks. Maybe it’s just more apparent that I’m Jewish because I’m always working so hard to get my food,” she joked, referring to the kosher dietary restrictions kept by observant Jews.
It might also be apparent because Hall has to work a bit harder to ensure she can observe Shabbat and holidays while on deployment. But after decades on duty, Hall has figured it out.
“The first week of any disaster is the most the stressful, and the first 72 hours of that week are the most critical. So if Shabbat comes during that period I work because saving lives comes first,” she told The Times of Israel via telephone from Kansas City.
During her service Hall has been deployed to numerous disaster sites, including Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Maria, the BP Oil Spill, and Superstorm Sandy, where she and her team slept on a decommissioned ship under the Throgs Neck Bridge and worked out of a SUNY college building.
The first 72 hours of that week are the most critical. So if Shabbat comes during that period I work because saving lives comes first
She also helped ensure American citizens returning to the US from Liberia during the Ebola crisis were safely transported by medevac to the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s biocontainment center for treatment.
From farm to frontline
In hindsight, Hall said, it seems she was always on a career path where adversity and the ability to adapt would be part and parcel of the job.
“I lived an austere life growing up on a 200-acre dairy farm in Pennsylvania. We grew all our own food, raised bees and tapped the maple trees for syrup. Then I moved to austere and remote Alaska,” said Hall.
“Along the way I’ve learned to never know what to expect and to be ready for anything. I’ve learned that sometimes you arrive before a storm and you’re at a beautiful beachfront and then a Category 4 or 5 comes in and everything changes,” she said.
Hall joined the USPHS in 1992 after earning her undergraduate degree from Northeastern University. It wasn’t until after the 9/11 attacks that she pursued, and earned, a master’s degree in security sciences from the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterrey, California.
“Everyone has their 9/11 story. I was already active duty then, stationed in rural Alaska, 400 miles [roughly 640 kilometers] west of Anchorage. When they grounded the planes it had a big impact on the health care system there. There were no roads and we needed the National Guard to escort our medevac flights,” Hall said.
Hall spent 14 years in Alaska serving the Yukon Kiskokwim Delta. Situated between two rivers, the region contains 50 tribal villages, mostly Yupik and Cupik as well as some Athabascan.
During that time there were not only professional challenges — Hall and her husband, David Horesh, also faced challenges when it came to observing holidays and keeping kosher.
They flew to Anchorage to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, for the occasional Shabbat, and to use the mikveh, or ritual bath. When they couldn’t make it to Anchorage, Horesh conducted services in their home. And each time they visited family in Lakewood, New Jersey, they’d bring back several coolers packed with kosher food.
In 2005 the couple relocated to Kansas City to give their five children, two of whom are adopted, a strong sense of Jewish community.
When she’s home, Hall and her family are involved in their local synagogue, and both she and Horesh are members of the chevra kaddisha, or Jewish burial society — a role she considers the highest form of service.
In her capacity as captain in the USPHS, Hall has also performed a version of the special commandment of levayas hameis, escorting the dead. For example, after the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Kansas, the state requested her team assist with fatality management, which meant helping identify and unite the dead with their families.
According to the national response framework, the service is only mandated to restore care to pre-disaster levels. That can mean leaving a locale, such as Haiti, with less than ideal health care delivery in place, said Hall. It’s not something she’s gotten used to, but it’s something she has learned to accept, she said.
She’s also learned not to watch the news while on a deployment.
“I don’t want to know the story of the 17-year-old who was killed on graduation night because I need to be focused on my job,” she said, adding that her friends and family usually know more about a particular disaster than she does since she’s focused on her mission and team.
And while almost two decades have passed since their move, Hall occasionally finds herself standing in a big box store overwhelmed by the dozens of shampoo brands or tickled at the thought that mail gets delivered to the front door and the garbage gets picked up at the end of the driveway.
Still, there are days when Alaska tugs. “There was a lot of space there to do and be anything. You could be a DJ. Or, if you want to make a synagogue out of your house, you could do that. But there is a lot I miss about it,” she said. “I was talking about that with my husband the other day, about how much we grew there. It was a lot of work to live there, and you had to fight to get your food and fight to get your fish and fight to do a lot of things, but every experience was unique.”
The intensity of life in Alaska helped the family forge a deep partnership that gives Hall peace of mind when she deploys.
“None of this would be possible without my husband. He even home-schooled them for a while and made sure they had a Jewish education,” she said. “Now he has a job closer to home and my kids are probably mature beyond belief. They knew how to do laundry and scramble eggs at a very young age.”