October 27, 2011

The Bus Ride Home

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It was July 2008. I was 19 years old, having just graduated from high school, and was spending some time in Israel like every good Jewish boy or girl who has the means to do so. Most people hate flying, I think, but for me the journey was imbued with a childlike joy, especially as the aircraft banked down over the Mediterranean. Below me, a brown and green patchwork landscape, the deserts turning into gardens like in days of old.

From the air, just like from thousands of miles away, the “Hebrew School Narrative” — with which every Jewish American child is inculcated — seemed true. Israel is our dream and ideal growing up; our rabbis and Sunday school teachers teach us that there, our ancestors tilled the soil and served God; there, one day, we shall all return; and on that day, peace shall spread over all the earth.

But I wasn’t just content to spend a summer hiking the rocky hills of the Negev desert or lounging on the beaches of Tel Aviv. I wanted excitement and challenge, and had signed up to volunteer for Israel’s ambulance service, Magen David Adom (“Red Star of David”). I touched down at Ben Gurion airport and headed for Jerusalem, where I began an 80-hour course in emergency medical response, crunched into eight grueling days in a quiet neighborhood.

I learned how to take a patient’s blood pressure and give him oxygen, and how to shock a heart back to life with a defibrillator. I learned how to use an “Ambu” bag to artificially fill a patient’s lungs, and I learned how to make a tourniquet out of a torn shirt if I encountered a suicide bombing and lost my medic bag.

I received my certification and was assigned to Ashkelon, a dusty, medium-sized immigrant city near Gaza. And it is there that my story really begins, at the end of a long shift at the understaffed station.

We’re cruising back after countless calls for minor cuts and difficulty breathing and drugged out bums. There I am in the ambulance, two weeks out of training, isn’t it so fun and exciting, and the radio buzzes: elderly woman, difficulty breathing. Pretty standard, probably some oxygen and a drive to the hospital — no emergency, no lights and sirens necessary.

We pull up to a pleasant Mediterranean house on a quiet street, red tile roof and tidy lawn. We hop out and suddenly the driver runs into the house as he hears shouts from within. I follow with the other medic, a teenager like me, but she screams when she sees what’s inside, and flees the scene. Now it’s just me and the driver, and an old woman on the floor, bound with duct tape, dying or dead or unconscious or who knows. Murdered, I’d find out later, by burglars, but at this point I’m not analyzing what happened. The training kicks in, and I’m suctioning the vomit out of her trachea and lungs, while the driver cuts off the duct tape and her shirt so we can defibrillate her.

“Chamtzan!”(Oxygen!) shouts the driver, and out comes the Ambu bag, out comes the oxygen tank. I turn the key and dial the meter, 10 liters per minute, hiss hiss hiss whispers the oxygen. The pumping of the Ambu can vaporize liquid, and my nose stings as I breathe in aerosolized vomit. Blood. Sweat, my sweat. Heartbeat, my heartbeat. Hiss.

I’m there right now, but it’s not the blood I remember so clearly, or the vomit in my nostrils; not sights or smells. It’s the screams, the screams of the old man, the husband of the murdered woman on the floor. He was staring at the wall, pulling his hair out in clumps, before we finally dragged him out. It wasn’t the wall he was speaking to, but a photo of his grandchildren. And I’ll never forget what he was screaming, the same line over and over again: “Eyfo ha’safta shelachem?” over and over, “Where is your grandmother, where is she?”

It was as if he sensed that the body on the floor, from which I was suctioning vomit and into which I was pumping oxygen, was not his wife, not his children’s mother or his grandchildren’s “safta.” He knew. He knew before I did that she was dead, while I and the driver tried and tried for 45 minutes to revive that corpse. For the old man, that body on the floor wasn’t his wife. It was only a cadaver, for something had escaped from it into the ether, something that had made it safta and nobody else.

I remember I rode the bus home that day, thinking. This was it then, life after high school, the real world, the Promised Land too. Life was just a story painted in blood, vomit and duct tape and narrated by the hissing of an oxygen tank, the screams of the departed and those they left behind.

Where is your grandmother? Here, with me, she lives on in silent screams.

Jonathan Panter is a senior in the College of Arts  and Sciences. He may be reached at jpanter@cornellsun.com. The Storyteller appears alternate Fridays this semester.

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Original Author: Jonathan Panter