To volunteer for Israel’s national ambulance service, I took a sixty hour course that lasted just over a week. Morning ’til night, every day, learning everything from CPR to responding to poisonings and septic shock. Passing this course is the minimum requirement to be allowed on an ambulance. It was grueling to sit for such long hours at a time, but proved to be more than worth it.
Working on ambulances was one of the most rewarding but tiring experiences I’ve ever had. Rewarding, because helping people in pain or people who can’t help themselves made me feel good. Sometimes, a call was as simple as helping up an old lady who fell but couldn’t get up herself. Others, as serious as necessitating opening IVs and injecting intense drugs straight into the bloodstream. I’ve cleaned ambulances full of mud and blood, buckled little kids in while we took their parents to the hospital, and witnessed emergency room chaos. Rewarding, but exhausting.
We worked in eight hour shifts: morning, evening, night. I usually had morning or night shifts. Morning shifts meant getting up early in order to be at the ambulance station by 6:45. Night shifts meant being ready to respond to any sort of craziness from 11PM to 7AM. There was no concept of sleep schedule– only on-shift or off-shift. Back-to-back shifts weren’t allowed, but having a morning shift and then a night shift on the same day was allowed. Sixteen out of the 24 hours in a day on an ambulance wasn’t easy. It took a lot of mental toughness to push through the early hours of the morning on a night shift or hear a patient yelling in pain. But nothing else has taught me more about Israeli society.
Walking into random people’s homes at any hour of the day, observing how they live, and hearing their problems forced me to understand the diversity of lives people have. Some homes were cluttered, hoarding, and musty. Some were cramped and reeked of cigarettes lit inside. Some were clean and beautiful, only to find an old man living there alone. On one specific call I remember, our crew walked into the apartment to find a friends-and-family gathering over food and drink, but one lady there needed medical attention. Everyone was friendly, helpful, and polite to our crew. This experience made me think about how much I value having people close to me, and what type of people they are.
Day-to-day, the best part of volunteering was meeting and befriending the Israelis who work as full-time paid employees on the ambulances. The ambulance drivers, medics, and paramedics were friendly and wanted to hear about my life, just as I wanted to hear about their lives. Sometimes, I was able to plan my shifts to be with certain drivers that I had connected with on an earlier shift.
Overall, volunteering on ambulances was addicting and sometimes, exhilarating. I hope this is not the last of me volunteering as a first responder, and I am proud of how this experience has shaped my year.