Ezer Mizion, the largest chessed organization in the country, sets up social service workers in the Oncology wards of Israel’s hospitals who provide support and make wishes come true

“Choose life” is not just a pasuk that we read in parashat Nitzavim on the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah. Choosing life is the guiding goal every day of the year, 24/7, of Ezer Mizion. Since its establishment in 1979, Ezer Mizion has focused on extending medical aid and support to patients and their families, as well as to the elderly, needy, and people in a variety of crisis situations, when they are experiencing personal and family distress.  This work places the largest NPO in Israel in the area of medical support at the helm of all the medical support organizations in Israel.

Ezer Mizion is active in dozens of medical areas, professionally providing a broad range of unique and innovative services, as part of the tremendous effort to give every patient, no matter what their condition, the opportunity to choose life. But this time, we will deal with one aspect of the organization’s work: support of all kinds to children with cancer and their families.

This marvelous work — provided via what Ezer Mizion formally calls “social service supporters” and whom the patients and doctors call “the people who make wishes come true” — are a lot more than what either title implies. They are the only entity providing a humane and emotional embrace for cancer patients. The hospitals deal with the patients’ clinical rehab. But who will give them a word of encouragement? A helping hand? A shoulder to lean on and a listening ear? And who will cry along with them when necessary and comfort and bolster them with a kind word? Who will play Lego or ball with the children? Who will do homework with them? Who will help break up the boredom and offer them beneficial occupation that expands the mind, yet is in a light spirit, for the empty hours between one clinical treatment and the next?

And who will help the family of a cancer patient under age 18, whose parents are compelled to be at his bedside for long days? Who will keep the other children at home busy? Who will support the family when both parents are thrust into a crisis situation and are unable to carry the heavy burden alone? The list of questions is very long, but the answer can be condensed into three words: Social service supporters.

The social service supporters are active primarily within the walls of the Oncology, Hematology, and Bone Marrow Transplant wards of the major hospitals in the country – in the Center, as well as the North and South (Rambam and Soroka). They have become “part of the scenery,” practically a fixture in the medical staff, the humane and caring address that everyone turns to — including patients and their families, doctors, and nurses.

We’re talking about a staff that is on the spot, comprised of an excellent collection of steady workers at Ezer Mizion, whose sole purpose is to serve as a support for patients on the one hand and their families on the other hand. The one who stands at the head of the entire network of aid and support for cancer patients in the organization is Dr. Bracha Zisser, who runs Ezer Mizion’s Oranit Center in Petach Tikvah and is also the director of Ezer Mizion’s International Bone Marrow Donor Registry, which she established together with her late husband Motty z”l. “Our social service supporters are part of the woodwork in the hospital Oncology wards. The connection of patients and their families with Oranit and with the aid and supportive services they offer to patients and their families – mean the world to them,” says Dr. Zisser.

Part of the woodwork? A lot more than that. They are the warm and solid shoulder that patients and their families lean on the entire time they are outside of the clinical treatments room, during the hours that they are free of the clinical effort to conquer the illness, explains Yumi Dzialovsky, director of activities for children with cancer at the organizations. Among other areas, he is responsible for the work of the social service supporters in the pediatric wards. “The message that it is most important for us to convey to families is: You are not alone. We are with you on this journey, hand in hand. We are your shoulder. You won’t be alone for even a second. This is also the message we give to the social service supporters: We will never let these families go through it alone. Baruch Hashem, we are able to do this with the strength and resources of Ezer Mizion, which is the supporting pillar of this challenge.”

At Ezer Mizion, they explain how they came to this area, which had previously been left unattended and fell between the cracks, until Ezer Mizion came along and made a transformational move: “Dealing with cancer is a complex and not simple challenge. For patients and their families, the physical suffering, the upsetting of routine, and the heavy concerns – undermine the normal course of life in the family.”

The work of the staff of the division for support of children with cancer and their families, takes place primarily in two “activity bases”: One, at the Oranit Center in Petach Tikvah, which is there for every single family, helping them in every way possible. The second is in the Oncology wards, where, with the encouragement of the doctors and the ward directors, the social service people help families during hospitalization as well as outside the hospital walls.

The connection between the patient and his family and the social service supporters is forged immediately after diagnosis of the illness. The social worker at the Oncology ward connects the family with an Ezer Mizion social services supporter. The supporter, who has been working on the ward for an extended period of time and knows it inside out, becomes the dominant figure accompanying the family for the length of the treatment period.

After identifying he needs of the patient and the family, the social services supporter helps provide an immediate response for their needs and requests, including aid with daily functioning. The supporters are there for the patients during treatments, providing social and emotional support, helping with various bureaucratic issues, working to identify needs and provide aid also for the family members at home. They also try to fulfill wishes that patients express during the treatments. They’re the ones who connect the patients and their families with Oranit, where the family and the patients receive a broad network of activities, including a variety of classes, emotional therapy of various types, art groups, and a chance to communicate with a “group of equals” who are experiencing a similar type of challenge.

In order to streamline the service, which, of course, is provided with no payment from the patients, all l’shem Shamayim, the social service division people are split into two “arms.” One arms deals with the children, and the other deals with the (healthy) parents of a child under age 18.

Irit Sever tells us about the work of the social service supporters among parents of children being treated at Tel Hashomer Hospital (the biggest Pediatric Oncology unit in the country, where there are four Ezer Mizion social supporters stationed on a regular basis): “Cancer brings with it collapse – both emotional and even financial, in certain families. Our job is to provide support for parents who have been thrust into this unanticipated distress that knocks them for a loop. That’s what we’re here for. We look out for the parents’ needs and even provide a room for two in our “Oranit hotel,” including meals. It doesn’t end there. We offer parents activities at Oranit for their spare time, ranging from Pilates to art. We are assisted by Perach students who come to the families’ homes, help the siblings with schoolwork and provide a shoulder in every possible area. We’re talking about non-stop work from the heart, which basically almost turns us into a part of the medical staff. The staff, in turn, recognizes and appreciates our existence and knows to refer people to us. We don’t take the place of the Municipal Social Services Divisions, nor of Bituach Leumi, but we offer a rich package of services that the official entities are not capable of providing by their very nature.

Meir Odesser, who began his career in Ezer Mizion as a volunteer and eventually became a steady worker in this huge volunteer organization, belongs to the second arm, the one that focuses on  caring for the sick children themselves, who are scattered in various hospitals, primarily in Tel Hashomer, Ichilov, Schneider, and Rambam. Odesser: “We welcome the child and his family and from that moment on, we are at their side until the end – for better or for worse.  Of course, we have no desire to influence the clinical procedures. But beyond that, our goal is to make things easier however we can: with fun days, activities, a retreat for families, a fun day for the child, birthday celebrations – anything that will make them happy and boost their spirit, easing the anguish of the illness and the treatments. We actually become part of the family, both when the child is actively undergoing treatments and the parents are in Oranit, as well as when they come home to recuperate.

At Oranit, between treatments, the children have a rich variety of activities awaiting them, from a Gymboree for the little tots to music, art, and Lego groups, and a Wildlife Pavilion for the bigger ones. The goal is to get them to momentarily forget their distress and to give the child a breather. “There is no one who does not receive a response, regardless of the religion of the child and his parents. Everyone is equal before the Creator,” emphasizes Odesser.

Let’s get back to the support for parents of children with cancer under age 18, who receive the dedicated care of the Division for Young Parents, under the direction of Rivka Friedman. “Our motto,” says Friedman, “is: Being there when it hurts.”   We’re there to allay the pain at all hours of the day and night. “We’re there – in the hospital, at Oranit, or at the family home, for the parents and their sick child. Whatever the request — we’re there, alongside all the other activities.”

In the period before the various chagim, social service supporters act to bring a holiday atmosphere into the hearts of the patients and their families: They set up festively arranged tables with the characteristic holiday symbols. On Rosh Hashanah – it’s an apple with an individual jar of honey and a “New Year’s” greeting card, and on Purim, clowns from the outside create the Purim atmosphere. That is, of course, in addition to the well-known musical artists and other familiar figures who come throughout the year, between the chagim, to raise the spirits of the patients and their families.

Friedman points out that there is also the “fulfill a personal wish” project: a patient who wants to go to the Kotel gets every necessary help, even if his clinical situation is not simple at all. Another patient, who wants only an extra helping of attention, receives a flower and a bar of chocolate — and that makes him feel good. “We do everything in order to embrace the family in its difficult times with a lot of love and attention,” says Rivka Friedman. “The name of the game is the warm human embrace, which comes from the bottom of the heart.”