The most important thing to realize is that we are all people. Last night I hugged a Palestinian man I had never met before outside the southern gate of Efrat, the town in which I live. Other first responders and I had just attempted to resuscitate his father. He’d brought his father to the gate seeking medical assistance, as his father had been suffering chest pains and fallen unconscious.
The situation transpired just as I was leaving a different medical emergency inside Efrat, where a man had fainted. After successfully treating that man, I received the call for the second emergency and raced over to the southern gate, where CPR was already in progress. Responders closer than I also rushed out of their homes, leaving their families, children, and beds to help a man they didn’t know (and sadly never would).
Through 40 minutes of intense CPR, we brought a pulse back for a very short time, only to lose it again. Finally the man flatlined, and the assembled team of first responders—which included a doctor, two paramedics, and a few EMTs—were instructed to stop resuscitative efforts.
By this time the son had been joined at the scene by his brother, his wife, and other family members. They all waited anxiously, watching the CPR, hoping for a positive outcome. They didn’t get it. One of the paramedics walked over to the two sons and explained the situation as kindly and as gently as he could. “We did everything we could,” he said. “We weren’t able to save him. I am sorry for your loss.”
As the paramedic spoke to the family, the rest of the team cleaned up the scene, throwing out the used medical supplies and bringing a sheet to cover the body. The look on the face of one son is one I will never forget: It was a look of a broken heart.
The paramedic left, and a police officer came over to take the son’s statement and help him organize plans for the body. It was at this point that I excused myself and stepped in. “You are the son of this man?” I asked. He replied in the affirmative. I looked into the son’s eyes and, without further thought, stepped forward and gave him a big hug. “I share in your sadness,” I told him.
The Palestinian man was stunned. He was not expecting to receive a hug from a Jewish EMT. It took him a second, but then he embraced me back, strongly. As he cried into my shoulder, he simply said, “Thank you.” We hugged for a minute or so. Then I turned to his brother and hugged him too. He was stunned as well but equally grateful. “Thank you,” he told me. “You have given us some comfort.”
After I stepped away, one of the other EMTs came over and repeated my gesture. During his hug the second EMT, also Jewish, told the deceased man’s sons, “You no longer need to worry, your father is in heaven. He’s up there together with Allah.” I added to the message: “He is also no longer in pain. He is at peace.” This resulted in another round of thanks from the gathered family members.
With this small gesture of comfort, we helped these two men understand that we saw them as people, people who were in pain and needed comfort. It passed on a message that while we may have different nationalities and languages, we respect them and wish to help alleviate their suffering in whatever way we can. We couldn’t change their father’s outcome in this case, but I could help these men by offering some comfort where they didn’t expect it.
For me, empathy surpasses all boundaries, nationalities, languages, religions, and politics. The empathy I felt at that moment is part of the job and part of being human.
Raphael Poch is the international media spokesperson for United Hatzalah, Israel’s national volunteer EMS organization.