Shmuel Strauss was hired as a driver. His job: to transport the elderly and disabled from here to there. But reading between the lines, he knew that an Ezer Mizion driver could do so much more.
“I often see the same people week after week and develop relationships,” he says. “One of my clients was a young mother of three whose husband had died four years ago. Now it was she who was battling for her life. I take her to the oncology clinic for treatment several times a week. Worries color her every waking hour. Will she…? What will be with her children afterwards…” Shmuel would speak warmly to her. His encouragement left her smiling, albeit wanly. One trip found her even more depressed than usual. He had a scheduled break between this and next call. Breaks are nice. They can be used to buy himself a soda or run an errand for his wife. But like all Ezer Mizion drivers, Shmuel understood that he had been given a wonderful opportunity to make a difference in the life of someone undergoing a horrific crisis. “My time is all yours. What would you like to do?” he asked her. They spent the next hour at the marina, watching the ships slowly making their way over the ocean waves. The calming sea performed its magic and the cloud of depression lifted. A productive break indeed.
And sometimes the roles are reversed and it is he that gains spiritually. “How do you do it,” he asked an oncology patient who is wheelchair-bound and requires a CPAP. “How do you keep smiling?”
“It’s the best way to fight the disease,” she answered… with a smile, of course. She did not allow the disease to encompass her being. She had goals. She wanted to accomplish. She was a physicist, specializing in musicology. Living with cancer day in and day out resulted in her formulating an innovative idea: Perhaps ultrasound would be able to enter the body and destroy the cancer cells. This was her field. It was a theory that made sense to her. But would it work? And so she did her research. After many months, she came across a webinar that was discussing a related subject and enrolled. During the webinar, she was given the opportunity to interact and presented her theory. The response from the expert was, “It makes a lot of sense but no research has as of yet been done.” In a flash, she sent her findings over cyberspace. Further work was done and the idea reached the experimental stage. And at least one patient, a former farmer, underwent what appeared to him to be a miracle. One of the first people she shared her joy with was, of course, her driver, whose encouragement had supported her every step of the way. On one of the subsequent trips, Shmuel asked about her research project. Her face lit up as she joyfully shared the results of the successful experimental treatment.
Ezer Mizion’s Ambulance Division consists of 20 ambulances whose drivers are kept busy all day and part of the night. Almost 79 thousand trips are made each year in both ambulances and volunteer cars. The professionally trained drivers transport the ill and disabled to and from dialysis treatments, physical therapy, chemotherapy, doctor appointments, the occasional ‘make-a-wish’ trip and family simchas. The vehicles are outfitted to handle mobility, respiratory and many other challenges and the drivers are certified technicians, trained to handle any emergency. The cost for the patient? Not a cent.
It’s not an easy job. It’s emotionally draining…but oh, so satisfying when looked at with the right lenses. One day, an assistant was needed and, with none of the regulars being available, a man was taken off from the cargo department and asked to help out on a call. He did his job well but later told Rabbi Strauss that he’d never do it again. “Why? Why do you feel that way?”
“How can you ask such a question? Look at these people. Each one more pitiful than the next. I can’t stand seeing so much sadness.”
“Fine,” answered Shmuel. “ I respect your feelings. I just ask that you repeat the following. Say it three times until it enters your being. It may change your perspective. This is my motto. Now lets say it together: We are not part of the problem. We are part of the solution.
In keeping with his motto, Shmuel leaves his home each day looking to build and his positive attitude filters down to his patients. One of his regulars was bemoaning the current political situation. Using an example from the Torah portion of the week, Rabbi Strauss explained that Avrohom Avinu was told ‘lech lecha’. Each step was a step into what seemed to be nothingness but he knew that it was a step further into building. “Look at those buildings,” he pointed out as they passed by a group of high risers. “They were built upon what had been shanty town. Bad isn’t necessarily bad. It can be a new step towards good.”
Each rider gets Rabbi Shmuels’ individual ‘treatment’ according to his needs. While Daniel, a young man almost fully paralyzed with CP who thrives on inspirational music enters his vehicle, Rabbi Strauss turns the CD volume up— way, way up— as high as it would go. It may be absurdly loud but he knows what will make Daniel happy and that is his goal.
That is his goal with each patient like the wheelchair patient that seemed a bit nervous going up the ambulance elevator. He began singing a famous song about the travels of Sir Moses Montefiore, made popular by Yehoram Gaon. He was gratified to see the patient relax and sing along. However, he was astounded to see the Phillipino attendant also join in singing in perfect Hebrew.
Surprises abound in his job like the chiloni kibbutznik, a professional song composer, who created a beautiful song using the words “Esah einai el haHorim…” When questioned, he answered, even chilonim need something to uplift them spiritually. Only in Israel… Shmuel, who seems to come equipped with everything under the sun that he may need and then some, slid a shlock rock CD into the player. His patient glowed, “That I can relate to. It’s my type of music.”
The ambulance driver/therapist/rov uses his trips to raise the spiritual level of patients when he can. Like the cancer patient who was furious at chareidim due to an abusive, outwardly observant husband and furious at Hashem, due to the many trials in her life. “Yes, you are not dati,” he explains to his patient. “but you are an ‘emunit’. What is your favorite song?. “
“Ayecha,” replies the non-dati patient.
“No”, shouts her daughter who is accompanying her. “Don’t put it on. It will cause her to cry!”
“It’s good that she cries. She is trying to find Hashem.” The CD slid into the player and almost immediately, the tears began to fall.
“See, I told you. She’s crying!”
“Yes, but it’s good crying.”
“He really understands,” answered the patient, her voice choked up with tears.
“Now, do you see why I call you an ‘emunit’?”
The ambulance driver/therapist/Rov/ Yid puts her telephone number on his list to call frequently just to say hello and gives her name to the gabai of his shul for a mishebeirach.
And then there are the times that he is on the receiving side of mussar. A young lady of about 22 is incapacitated by CP. Her appearance is like that of a twelve year old. She cannot stand or do many of the things that we all take for granted but she has plans to become a teacher and is currently taking a teaching course. Rabbi Strauss often takes her to classes. A recent trip was traumatic when the bracelet that had been given as a gift from her husband was nowhere to be found. “Please look for it,” she begged when she realized its loss. Rabbi Strauss combed the vehicle but the bracelet was nowhere to be found. She was distraught and he shared her pain. On their next trip, he asked her, “Did you ever find the bracelet?”
Her bright smiled belied her next words. “No, it seems to be permanently lost.”
“But you seem happy. How come?”
“Well, you see, I had seen a program discussing health issues and daavened to Hashem that he not give me any more health challenges but take my possessions instead. See, He answered my t’filos. Of course, I’m happy.”
Just as he and the other Ezer Mizion drivers love their patients, their patients love them equally. Mrs. S is over ninety but doesn’t let a little thing like incapacitation stop her. She attends an adult day care program and is not only an attendee but gives shiurim to the other attendees. She is meticulous in her preparation and is often found awake at 2:00 AM perfecting the shiur to be given the following day. In Mrs. S.’ pocketbook there is a bag filled with “tzetlach”, squares of memo paper with the names of each of her drivers together with the names of their mothers. “For t’fila, of course,” she explains. “They help me so much. It’s the least I can do.”
A recent patient showed his love in a most unusual way. It was the yahrzeit of the Ben Ish Chai when he asked Shmuel for some water. The ambulance is equipped with water for the drivers who are on the road for many hours and Shmuel was happy to share it. He was puzzled when the patient carefully poured the water into a silver goblet and then handed it to him. “Make a brocha,” the patient invited. “What is this?” “It’s a becher that belonged to the Ben Ish Chai! It is a big segula to drink from it on his yahrzeit.”
And then there are those whose needs require only that he listen. M.D. was a CEO who is used to giving orders. Giving them and having them obeyed. You know, the take charge type. And what he needs is a docile employee so that is what Shmuel provides for him. “Take this route.”
“Yes, sir. Whatever you think best.”
“Switch to the other lane.”
“Of course, you are so right.”
When not giving directions, he spends every moment saying over divrei Torah and Shmuel, himself a knowledgeable Yid, listens carefully like a student.
Each Ezer Mizion driver is a qualified MDA technician and these skills are, too often, needed. It is not unusual to be called upon to respond to a medical emergency at one of the Pre-School programs for Special Children in the Ezer Mizion building. .
A driver must always be on the alert for anything unusual. A routine trip to the oncology clinic turned into a nightmare when the patient seemed flaccid and unresponsive, ‘melting’ into the chair. One look at her told him that a chair will not do and he ran to get the stretcher plus a mobile oxygen tank. After oxygen treatment, the patient became responsive and thankfully, no further incident occurred as the patient was safely brought to the clinic.
For a disabled patient, it is not only the trip that is impossible without the services of the Ezer Mizion vehicle but even getting down to the sidewalk before entering the vehicle can be a major problem. A patient living on the third floor must be carried down. Two drivers will do it together obeying all safety regulations. But safety is not the only issue. Dignity is at stake. In former years, she may have run a home raising ten rambunctious children and he may have been head of a large corporation. To be now reduced to having to be carried is emotionally traumatic. And that is where the driver’s skills come into play. Each technician develops his own mode of showing respect to the patient, reducing the humiliation of the experience. One may ask him to talk about his past as they descend. Another may ask his opinion on Israeli politics. The goal is the same: that each patient feel himself to be a valued human being.
Many patients, although not in any real danger, are fearful. It is frightening to be transported in a wheelchair down a flight of steps. Often there is a blind spot where, from the patient’s point of view, nothing can be seen but empty, scary space. Of course, he knows that there are steps under him but knowledge and feeling them are so far from each other. When Shmuel notices that look in a patient’s eyes, he takes that as his cue to begin his comedy routine. Often a chuckle is all that is needed to disperse the fear. For others of a more serious bent who cannot be cajoled out of their fear, he may inject a bit of mussar as he carries the patient down several flights of stairs. “Really you’re perfectly safe. I know it and you know it. But it seems scary. If you’re going to be scared, why not utilize that fear to daven, thereby gaining in the process.”
Of course, safety is on top of the list for each driver. Sometimes, though, it is necessary to improvise to retain the highest level of safety and still provide the service. Like Mrs. Y who needs dialysis three times a week. She lives in an elevator building so there is no need to send an assistant to carry her down the steps. But an elevator building is only an elevator building if the elevator is working. And one day it was not. Now what? It is essential that she arrive on time as being late will result in her losing her place in the dialysis unit. Mrs Y.’s health precludes her missing a dialysis session. Her 63-year-old daughter had planned to accompany her but was incapable of helping out in lifting the wheelchair. And so some creativity was called for. Shmuel devised a plan. The daughter would stand in front of the wheelchair with her hands on the bars as he lifted the wheelchair down each step. One step at a time. Slowly. But safely. Safe for Mrs. Y and safe for her daughter. Step. By step. By step. What would normally take three minutes seemed endless as they descended. Step. By step. A short drive and then a breathless race into the dialysis clinic. Yes! They were on time.
And then there is Meron. The very name sparks a feeling of awe in the heart of a Yid. It seems as if the whole country makes its way to Meron on Lag B’Omer. But for some, it is impossible. The parking lots are far below with shuttle busses bringing people up to the village of Meron. Even then the busses stop way below the tzion and people are expected to walk. What if one is incapable of walking? Like a young man with CP? Or an elderly Yid who has gone to Meron for the last 60 years and cannot fathom admitting defeat and staying home? Or a wheelchair –bound cancer patient who yearns to daven at this special mokom (place)? That’s where Ezer Mizion comes in. The specially –fitted vehicles meet the patients and bring each one directly up to the tzion. Up and down, up and down. All day long. The vehicles drive from the three parking lots to the tzion and back. Drivers work long hours and then stop for a rest at Ezer Mizion’s tent which is filled with refreshments for the exhausted drivers. A brief rest and they are back again at the job. Another tent provides sleeping quarters for the drivers who work continually for 48 hours without even going home for a normal night’s rest. The crowd is enormous and the police are needed to keep traffic moving. Rabbi Strauss recalls the year that the police system collapsed. A nightmare. A four-hour traffic jam!!! And it became even more of a nightmare for one diabetic woman who was On a shuttle for over two hours when suddenly she realized that she had left her diabetes kit in the car. An emergency call for a medic! Shmuel was available to respond. “What do you need?” he asked the near-hysterical woman when he reached her. “Sugar. I need sugar. I feel as if I’m about to collapse.” Like pulling a rabbit out of a hat, Shmuel reached into his pocket. As hashgacha had conveniently arranged, there were the few packets of sugar that he hadn’t used yet for his morning coffee. With the crisis over, the woman and her friends grinned as the ambulance made its way up to the tziyun, passing all those trudging up the road and bypassing the 4-hour traffic jam.
A familiar sight on the roads of Eretz Yisroel are the Ezer Mizion ambulances. On the outside the well-known Ezer Mizion logo. In the inside caring, giving, compassion.