Running to make a difference
Director of the Emergency Department at Assuta Ashdod, Dr. Debra West’s favorite day of the week is whichever day Harel Elementary School’s 5th and 6th-grade students visit.
“There are many children in this school who never dared to dream about becoming a doctor,” said Dr. West. “We believe that this experience not only teaches kids about healthcare but also introduces them to new possibilities and aspirations.”
The “adopted school” curriculum between Assuta Ashdod and Harel School includes interactive learning at the hospital combined with weekly classroom sessions with the ER doctors. Students learn about how the heart pumps blood and how to measure a patient’s vital signs. They observe how ultrasound and other medical equipment function and absorb crucial information.
“Every Hanukkah,” says Dr. West, “The ER team lights candles together, dedicating the lighting to Hanukkah miracles – such as people whose lives we saved in the Emergency Room, or Hanukkah angels – such as our coworkers in the hospital.”
Dr. West continues, “On the last night of Hanukkah, after learning about how to save a choking victim, the students surprised us by joining us with their parents and teachers for the candle lighting ceremony.
On that night, the ER treated a 60-year-old man, Yair, who choked on a Hanukkah donut (sufganiya). Saved by a paramedic, Yair survived and was rushed to Assuta Ashdod. The children met Yair in the emergency room.
“The kids were so excited about the interaction. It created a tangible connection between all the things we do. It was very emotional.”
For Dr. West, creating those connections is essential.
From Melbourne, Australia, Dr. West grew up in a Zionistic home and was actively involved in her local youth group, Bnei Akiva. By age seven, she knew she wanted to live in Israel and after joining a pediatrician family friend on ward rounds, she knew she wanted to study medicine. After earning her medical degree in Australia, she immigrated to Israel and began her medical residency.
Before Assuta Ashdod opened in 2017, Professor Bitterman, Assuta Ashdod’s CEO at the time, along with Professor Joshua Shemer, Chairman of Assuta Medical Centers (and Chairman of Assuta Ashdod at the time) proactively recruited Dr. West to head the Emergency Department. Dr. West was hesitant at first because she had already decided to focus her time on clinical work as opposed to management. But she soon changed her mind; she asked Professor Bitterman, “Can I use this opportunity to do something brand new and change the way emergency medicine is practiced in Israel? Do I have a blank page?”
As visionaries themselves, Professor Bitterman and Professor Shemer agreed to empower her with tools, technology, backing and freedom.
Since then, Dr. West has created an emergency department that is unique to Israel and modeled after the emergency departments in the US.
Unlike other EDs in Israel, Dr. West’s emergency department is staffed solely with emergency-trained doctors, specialists, nurses, residents and PAs. In other EDs throughout Israel, the emergency departments are staffed up to two-thirds of the time by trainees from other departments – internal medicine, orthopedics and surgery - who are not trained in emergency medicine.
In addition, Assuta Ashdod’s ED staff work during the same shifts with a senior doctor on-site 24/7. As a result, all the staff follow the same policies and protocols.
“It makes a big difference,” says Dr. West. “There’s no one working in the emergency department that was trained in orthopedic surgery but has to do weekly shifts in the emergency room as part of his job requirement. It’s much more efficient. They do their job, and we do ours. ” Even more, Dr. West insists that the entire ED medical staff joins together to review cases, perform simulations and train on procedural and technological innovations.
Dr. West’s goal was to cultivate a cohesive team, which is especially important during times of war.
Fortunately, Assuta Ashdod’s emergency department is completely protected, enabling the staff to treat patients even under missile attack.
However, there are still challenges.
“You hear the alarm signaling incoming missiles and at the same time, the patients are coming in. You don’t have half an hour to prepare. You sometimes have just two minutes. Also, many of our staff members live in Ashdod and are worried about their families or come to work overtired after staying up all night with their scared children. Separating work from family during wartime can be a tremendous challenge.”
Even with these challenges, according to Dr. West, the most important thing they can do as a team is to prepare.
“During quiet times, we do mass casualty drills together all the time.” They train often so they know how to address any and all potential scenarios.
Being an ER doctor and experiencing wartime in Israel are not the only experiences that have brought Dr. West in touch with her mortality.
At age 36, she battled cancer.
“While I have never had a problem feeling empathy for my patients, being sick taught me about what patient suffering really means. As a patient, you are hypersensitive to the things around you. You feel vulnerable and isolated. As a result, you’re more deeply affected by the way people respond to you in different situations. Not just during your medical treatment.”
Even though her experience in the medical system was very positive, she understands on a deeper level how a person’s nausea and other symptoms can be painfully aggravated by what’s going on around him/her.
But perhaps the most important point Dr. West absorbed during her illness was that life is finite.
“I have since been on a treadmill, but in a good way. I constantly ask myself,
“What have I already accomplished, and what can I do now?”
Between her own family, her young students from Harel elementary school, her ER staff, and her patients, Dr. West will not step off her treadmill anytime soon.
And that’s a good thing.