Saving Lives in Israel: An Interview with Miriam Ballin
During Miriam Ballin’s first Shabbat as a volunteer medic, she found herself speeding down the street in Jerusalem and providing emotional and physical support to a man whose car had overturned. In Judaism, saving another person’s life is of utmost importance, and Miriam feels thankful to fulfill this mitzvah each week. In addition to being a volunteer medic for United Hatzalah, a volunteer-based emergency medical services organization, Miriam is the Director of the Trauma and Crisis Response Unit at United Hatzalah, a practicing family therapist, a wife, and a mother of five children, all under the age of nine. She shared with us why being a medic in Israel is so special and how JWRP sisters can provide support to people in distress.
Why did you decide to become a volunteer medic?
My husband was a Hatzalah medic in Sydney, and I saw how meaningful it was for him to save people’s lives on a regular basis. I wanted to get involved, but women were not allowed to be first responders at our branch. So, I became a local dispatcher, fielding calls from people in crisis and sending medics to help them. When we made Aliyah, I told Eli Beer, the founder of United Hatzalah, that I wanted to become a medic. At the time, there were female medics all over Israel, but not in Jerusalem. More than half of the people treated in Jerusalem are women, and Eli encouraged me to organize a group of women medics. As a new immigrant with weak Hebrew, I found the medic’s course challenging, but I worked hard, used Google Translate a lot, and passed. A week later, I delivered my neighbor’s baby and saw first-hand how much women medics could contribute. Not only could I help out medically, but I could also hug the mother and provide another layer of TLC.
What are some of the unique aspects of being a medic in Israel?
At United Hatzalah, we are community helping community. We are volunteers who fill the gap until the ambulance arrives, and we help — and often save the lives of — our friends and loved ones. Another beautiful part of our work in Israel is that it truly unites all corners of Israeli society. For example, I may find myself working alongside an Arab doctor to help a Hasidic patient. When we are treating someone, our religion, background, and cultural identities do not matter. We are all working towards the goal of saving lives.
How can JWRP sisters, who are not medics, support people in times of crisis?
Two years ago, I opened the Trauma and Crisis Response Unit at United Hatzalah, which is now comprised of 150 mental health professionals who back up medics in traumatic circumstances. We’ve found that people need support not only for their physical injuries but for their emotional injuries, as well. If you find someone in distress — whether physical or emotional, there are a few things that you can do to help. First, you can initiate contact and engagement. Make eye contact with them and make sure you’re at their eye level. This shows them that they are important to you. Ensure their safety, comfort them, and let them know that what they just experienced is behind them. You can also gather information about their current needs and concerns, provide practical assistance, and connect them to emotional support, whether that means family, friends, a rabbi, or social services. Once you feel that they are in the right hands, wish them luck and hope for the best.
How do you deal with the emotional aspects of your work?
We have organizational protocols in place to help us do our work, as well as a psychologist who is always on-call to support us. We have mandatory debriefs and write-ups, and we are encouraged to write about the positive and negative aspects of our experiences. Personally, I make sure to take time for myself and give myself a break from my volunteer work as a medic. And when I’m in the moment, I focus on my job and do what I can to contribute.
What is your advice to JWRP sisters who want to take action and make a difference in their communities?
When I decided that I wanted to become a medic, the odds were stacked against me. But, as the saying goes, where there’s a will, there’s a way. Judaism shares many stories about women’s unique contributions to their communities. Women really do have a special power to empathize and connect to people. I advise everyone to consider what their contribution to the world can be and to pursue it.