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The Reprieve: United Hatzalah Boss Survives COVID-19 Battle

Originally published on Mishpacha.com.

By now everyone has surely seen, or at least heard about, the image of indefatigable Israel’s Ichud Hatzolah (United Hatzalah) founder and head Eli Beer walking off the plane at Ben Gurion airport, after surviving a critical bout of COVID-19 which nearly left him as another tragic corona statistic.

And for his wife, Gitty Beer, an ambulance driver and Hatzolah medic herself who was on the tarmac to bring him home while surrounded by an orange sea of Hatzolah vehicles, it was like techiyas hameisim [a resurrection of the dead].

Gitty told Mishpacha she’s used to Eli being gone for months at a time—he spends about 200 days a year abroad raising funds for Hatzolah and helping create emergency medical services around the world similar to Israel’s most sophisticated and well-oiled rapid emergency medical first response service (“Our kids call him avinu shebashamayim" [our heavenly father]) and had been gone since Chanukah—but who would imagine that her young, healthy, hyperenergetic husband would be felled by a microscopic virus, unconscious for over a month, fighting for his life in a Miami hospital?

“I was traveling around and was hearing about corona, but I never thought I’d get it—I’m a healthy guy, don’t smoke, never get sick, never need help, I’m busy saving others,” says Eli, talking from a friend’s quiet elevator-accessible apartment where he’s staying with his family, as the 80-stair climb to their fourth-floor home in Jerusalem’s Ramot neighborhood is right now not an option.

He had been in India for a TED talk, then traveled to England, New York, L.A., the AIPAC conference, and had stopped for some events in Miami including the bar mitzvah of a good friend scheduled for the day after Purim. “I missed my family, so I told two of my kids to fly in and join me in Miami for Purim,” Eli says. “The next day I didn’t feel well, saw I had fever—I don’t remember ever having fever as an adult—and so on the spot I called El Al and got my kids out on the next flight. Right away I isolated myself for three days, skipped the bar mitzvah because I didn’t want to put anyone at risk, and waited for the fever to pass. But it didn’t.

“Because,” Eli continues, “what happens is that meanwhile the disease is destroying your lungs, so really what you need to do is check your oxygen levels. Had I done that, I would have known how sick I was. But luckily, I had some good medical friends who told me to go straight to Miami University Hospital.”

After a chest x-ray, Eli found himself being whisked into the ICU. “I was there for three days but wasn’t getting better. Then the medical team came to me and said, ‘We have to put you to sleep and intubate you.’ Now, I know what intubation involves, and I was pretty nervous, but the truth is, I was fighting for every breath at that point. Still, I was sure two or three days later they’d wake me up.”

Eli woke up 18 days later. But two days after that, he had a crash and was reintubated, with the doctors debating the possibility of a tracheotomy. “I was confused and out of it, but I heard them talk about calling my family to say good-bye. I thought I was finished,” Eli remembers. But he says he had angels looking after him, advocating for him, including Dr. Miriam Adelson [a doctor of internal and emergency medicine and the wife of billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, together giving millions to Jewish and philanthropic causes] and Dr. Joel Sandberg, a well-connected Miami physician who spent hours every day pushing to find a way to heal his critically ill friend. Sandberg was instrumental in obtaining a lifesaving experimental drug, based on stem-cell therapy, which received a one-time FDA approval for him. The drug, which is being researched by the university hospital, is not in a clinical trial.

And then, says Eli, “the miracle happened, and the medicine worked. The next time they woke me up, I could breathe on my own—I didn’t even think I was alive! The first thing I did was call my wife. I was so excited—I told her we could now spend Pesach together. The only thing was, Pesach was over. I couldn’t believe it.”

It took a while to locate Gitty for that phone call, though. “I tried her a few times, but there was no answer, so I got to our CEO, Eli Pollack, to tell him I was alive. Boy, was he happy! And then I said, ‘I can’t reach Gitty.’ He told me, ‘Gitty and your daughter Avigayil are delivering a baby right now. There was a woman who didn’t think she’d make it to the hospital in time and called the women’s division of Hatzolah. And I want to tell you, Gitty has been doing chesed [acts of kindness] nonstop since you’ve been sick.’”

“We’re a family that just does what has to get done,” says Gitty, “so we didn’t have time to dwell on our own tzaros [problems]. Eli was fighting for his life, but we were joining the fight on our front—we’re all involved in Hatzolah and were going out on more calls than ever. During these crazy weeks, Hatzolah opened a humanitarian dispatch as well, which meant our volunteers received thousands of calls from people who needed all kinds of help. Homebound people were calling to ask us to bring medication, people suddenly left to their own resources—the elderly who would normally go to their children, mothers right after birth—were calling for food. We advertised all over, and it was the busiest time we’ve ever had. And everything Hatzolah’s 6,000 volunteers did in the past months was in the zechus [honor] of Eli, for his refuah [healing]. Because all this is him, everything he built. He was sleeping, but his hand was still working.”

Once Eli woke up, what he needed to do was get out the hospital and back to Israel (“And,” he says, “I really needed a shower. Thankfully, a friend gave me his home for the day”). Eli’s insurance would pay for a doctor to accompany him on a commercial flight from Miami to New York and on to Israel. And then Miriam Adelson called Gitty with an offer the family couldn’t refuse: “I’m sending Eli my private plane,” she said. “Eli has saved so many lives, let’s just do this the right way.”

Eli says he’s overwhelmed by the love of the Miami community, who came out in droves to escort him to the plane, and is ever-grateful to his two attendants on that magic-carpet flight—Dr. Zev Neuwirth, who started Hatzolah in Montreal and is now a physician in Miami, and Simcha Shain, a world-class flight paramedic from Lakewood who flies with patients all over the globe, and who loaded up the plane with all the equipment to turn the cabin into a mini-hospital.

“During the 12-hour flight, they took care of me, made sure I had my meds and everything else to keep me comfortable,” Eli relates, “and then as we were about to land, seeing the land of Israel and seeing my family outside—Gitty, who’d been doing nonstop chesed for weeks, there with the ambulance to pick me up—I just broke down and began to cry. I didn’t think I’d ever see them again.”

For Gitty, seeing her husband in a physically weakened state is a novelty. “Eli has always been unstoppable,” she says. She mentions how he was once running to a call of an unconscious child at a special-needs daycare center when he slipped and broke his ankle. But ignoring the pain and swelling, the adrenaline and realization that a child’s life was on the line kept him in motion, propelling him forward onto the scene, where he treated the boy until the ambulance came. Only then did he go to the hospital and get his own ankle casted.

“He still needs to work on his body weakness because he was sedated for so long, but from the minute he woke up, he’s been moving. It’s like one of those dolls with a battery in the back—you take out the battery and it stops, put the battery back in and it just starts from where it left off. That’s Eli—he’s got back his battery.”

People might think, Oh, Eli Beer, he’s done so much for saving lives, of course Hashem won’t let him die. “But of course that’s not true,” Eli ponders. “Look at all the tzaddikim [righteous people] and activists that have passed on from this terrible disease. Because when the malach hamaves [angel of death] has your address, there’s nothing you can do. But I feel like I got a reprieve. Why was I spared? Because now I really have to get to work. I haven’t done enough. I need to keep pushing more. So now I know I have to redouble my efforts.

“But one thing was bothering me. When I walked down those steps, the happiest man in the world, seeing my family when I thought I’d never see them again, at that moment I realized what it was. For the first time in my life, I missed not only being with my family at the Seder, I missed the Seder. I woke up the last day of Pesach.

“So I decided then and there I’m doing a Pesach Sheini Seder. A real Pesach Sheini, for those, as the Torah tells us, who were ‘far away.’ Next Friday I’m going to have a real Seder and recount the miracle of my own personal salvation.”

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 808.

Photos: Flash90, Shira Hershkop, Yechiel Gorfein

©The Mishpacha Group Inc. All rights reserved.

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