Our ambulance driver hits a switch and the siren blares, bringing a sudden end to the quiet preparation. The on-call medic explains we’re headed to a care home, where an elderly man is experiencing a psychotic episode.
The medic, Nathan Schultzman, says he will let the apprentice take over once we arrive. It’s the best way for Gur Hadar – the young apprentice from Maccabim who was performing a routine check of the equipment when we received the unexpected call – to learn, Schultzman says.
A typical eight-hour evening shift with Magen David Adom in East Jerusalem tends to be quite busy, I was told by volunteers. The outpost in Pisgat Ze’ev, one of the city’s largest neighbourhoods, gets the most interesting calls, they said.
It seems this shift will be no different.
When we arrive, we are told the man threatened to throw himself and a nurse out a window.
He is tied down to a hospital bed with bed sheets, as teenage volunteers from a basic life support unit are huddled next to the door. Stood with them in the back of the room, I watch as Hadar speaks to the patient and takes his vital signs with care.
Then 20 year old Ravit Staub, one of MDA’s 24,000 volunteers aged between 16 and 70+,steps in and administers an antipsychotic drug. While we transport the patient to a psychiatric hospital some miles away, I sit in the back of the ambulance with him and pray a journey on the neighbourhood’s hilly roads will not wake him up.
The next call is unsettling. An elderly patient experiencing pulmonary edema in his apartment suffers rapid heavy breathing and chest tightness. His lungs are rapidly filling up with excess liquid, Staub explains, but lowering his blood pressure is not an option, she adds.
We must take him to hospital. As the patient’s family watch anxiously from another room, Hadar, Schultzman and Staub crowd his living room and lift him up onto a stretcher. While the man’s wife sits in front with the driver, Hadar attempts to stabilise her husband in the back. But I notice sweat dripping down Hadar’s forehead, and I can tell that he is nervous. He finds treating elderly health problems difficult because he did not get any experience treating these conditions in the army, he tells me later.
The next call is the most upsetting. We enter a small apartment on the fourth floor, climbing several steps at a time and carrying heavy equipment. In the bedroom, a pale elderly man with blood smeared around his lips lays completely still in bed. Huddled around him are members of another emergency unit waiting for Schultzman. Stood next to him, I realise that he has passed away and my heart skips a beat.
I retreat to the kitchen, where Schultzman speaks to his wife and asks for her permission to resuscitate him. She attempts to speak to me in Hebrew, but Schultzman tells her that I do not speak the language. She does not give her consent, Schultzman explains later, to lessen his suffering as his case was terminal.
While Schultzman writes a death certificate, Staub tells me significantly, seeing my face, that there is no shame in feeling emotional. I wonder whether any of the 40 Britons who fly in from the UK each year to serve alongside MDA staff agree.
I am also surprised by the remark. Shadowing the group that evening, never once did I see Staub react emotionally. Riding in a mobile intensive unit with Staub, Schultzman and Hadar, I am deeply impressed by the young volunteer, apprentice and medic with me, all several years my juniors, who put on a brave face as they answer life-and-death calls.
Among them, Staub, a 20 year-old volunteer from Elazar in the West Bank, who resembles Natasha Lyonne, has a striking background. She tells me that her hometown is within range of rocket fire, but adds that she tries not to think about it. “You’re a goner if you do,” she tells me.
Meanwhile, Schultzman, 22, from Jerusalem, became a medic after completing his military service. His parents, he reveals, moved here from Lille in France some years ago. “They are proud because they’ve made aliyah,” he tells me in French.
“I have an interesting job and after college, it’s nice to do a job that’s more well-respected than normal jobs,” Schultzman says. “It’s not like being a waiter,” he adds. Besides, compared to the army, it’s not as dangerous.