Rachel Gemara, 32, made Aliyah in 2006 from Toronto, Canada, and has been a resident of Jerusalem ever since. Trained as an oncology nurse, she has been working at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center for the past decade; yet since the global pandemic spread to Israel, she has found herself on the front lines of the coronavirus seizing the local community.
At the beginning of February, the medical center had sent out a call to its staff looking for volunteers in case they needed to open a ward to manage patients. Gemara was one of 20 staff members who chose to volunteer for the unit. Three weeks later, despite her disbelief, she was called for duty to the new Keter Unit. Keter means crown in Hebrew, and corona means crown in Latin and Spanish.
The medical team was thrust into the new situation very quickly, and she describes the entire scene as if it’s a war. The only difference is that the enemy in invisible. Based on the highly contagious nature of the virus and the need to protect staff, the team mostly operates out of the chamal, or “war room,” which is connected to various medical machinery which monitors patients’ vital signs based on sensors placed on their chest. They limit interactions with patients, which has 20 beds, all full with the most severe confirmed cases.
When asked why she felt called to volunteer, Gemara said “I saw it as a national calling. The whole country has to come together and everyone has to do their part. I have a certain skillset. I knew it would be challenging, but it was how I could contribute, and so I did.”
Gemara not only selflessly stepped into the unknown, she also began sharing updates on her social channels, hoping to uplift the masses.
“I felt like most of the coverage was negative and fearful. I also felt there were those belittling the quarantine. People were either afraid or not taking it seriously. I wanted people to realize that this is serious, yet look at how these patients are sick and looking for each other. If people can see how the patients can look out for each and how they created their own family, there is so much we can learn from them. I wanted to share their stories and show Am Yisrael (the people of Israel). In Israel, this is our spirit. We care, and we are looking out for each other. That is the only thing that will get us through this.”
On March 20, the first death from coronavirus was reported. Gemara was on duty at the time, and was taking care of Aryeh Even, an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor. In her fifth entry post, she left a beautiful message.
“My dear Aryeh, you survived the horrors of the Holocaust, immigrated to Israel, established a magnificent family and your extraordinary journey ends here, in this new ward we hoped we would never have to open. The circumstances of your hospitalization did not allow for your loving family and caretaker to be by your side. For us and them, this was heartbreaking. We did our best to go in as often as possible. From the outside, we monitored you as closely as we could. In the unit, we were in awe as we watched the other patients care for you, keep you company and help you however best they could. They so badly did not want you to ever feel alone.”
Gemara feels safe despite the overwhelm of anxiety-inducing news. “What makes a difference is people staying at home. Yes, we all have to make a social and economic sacrifice, but that’s the greatness of humanity – that sometimes, we need to sacrifice in order to save lives. “