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03 July 2009

Return To French Hill, part 1

Erev Shabbath Qodesh Parshath Balaq 5769

When I tell people I was a victim of a terrorist attack in Jerusalem in Giv'ath Tzarfatith (French Hill), people always have to ask me, "Which one?"

There have been so many.

It was seven years ago. On 9 of the Fourth Month (Tammuz)/June 19, at around 7:00 pm, a Yishma'eli (Arab) blew himself up at the trempiada. Seven Jews were murdered as a result. Many Jews were also injured. I was one of them.

For seven years, I have wanted to write about this experience. For seven years I haven't. Shifra Hoffman of Victims OF Arab Terror [VAT] and SHUVA, and Gila of the My Shrapnel Blog have encouraged me to do so.

So, here I am,...finally....

The Attack
I was waiting for a "tremp" (ride) back home to Ofra, where I was living at that time. People waiting look for stickers on windshields, indicating the hometown of the driver, and probable destination. Everyone is focused on getting a ride, and holding on to their places in line, pretty much oblivious to anything else, including suspicious-looking individuals and activities.

All of a sudden there was a blast and clouds of smoke. A glance behind me revealed a chunk of something flying toward me. I felt the force of impact on my hip.

All of a sudden I could not hear anything, but a buzzing in my ears.

As a former lifeguard, my instinct was to see what I could do to help the injured. That was only after coming out of minutes of being frozen on the spot, not understanding how I ended up in this "movie," albeit with very realistic special effects. That was what it was like,...like being in a movie. Then countless news reports of previous terrorist attacks came back to me,...interviews of paramedics being interviewed, reminding people what to do:

Get out of the way! Allow the professionals easy access to the attack site, and let them do their jobs. Only afterwards, see what you can do to help.

After looking around at the dead bodies, and unrecognizable pieces of dead bodies, I knew that there was not anything that I could do to help anyone. I did not even have a spare piece of clothing to offer the screaming young lady, whose skirt seemed to have been blown off by the blast.

I left the trempiada, and started walking south in the direction of town, although I had absolutely no idea as to where I was going. I am not sure why, but I called a friend, let him know what had happened, and told him that I would call him later. I was surprised that I got through. The bump in cellular phone usage after terrorist attacks usually causes network overloads, and then it's impossible to get through to anyone. My friend told me to go to the hospital and get checked out. I told him not to worry, that I was OK, and did not need to go to the hospital. He reiterated his advices once more, then let it go, knowing how stubborn I can be.

My walk southward turned into a circular wander. A paramedic approached me, asking me how I was. I said I was OK, yet to him it was obvious that I was not. He began insisting that I take my pants down, which threw me. He was religious, and thus must know that would not be the most tzanu'a (modest) thing for me to do in the middle of the street. He said that he had to check to see if I had been injured, and that if I did not take my pants down, then I would have to go in an ambulance to the hospital. I thought he was crazy, until he showed the gaping hole in back of my pants with blood seeping though.

"I'll go in the ambulance," I said, figuring I needed a ride back to town, yet not knowing why needed to go back to town. In retrospect, I still cannot believe just how clouded me thinking was at the time.

In the ambulance, I was met by three young female volunteers, all very nice. I insisted on speaking Hebrew. Part of me may have been injured, but the Hebrew chip on my shoulder was still there. Then the one in the skirt mentioned that she was actually from Chicago. I had not been in the U. S. for years, and had no interest in an American identity, yet suddenly, I felt less alone. I do not remember what we talked about, probably nothing. But I remember beginning to feel better. I remember the kindness of all three of them. I remember thinking that Chicago was just around the block from my hometown of San Diego, even though it's not. I remember thinking that young lady from Chicago was my neighbor's daughter or even my neice I hadn't seen in a long time, even though she's neither, and I don't even have a niece.

As I later learned, she was not the only special person HaQadosh Barukh Hu (The Holy One, Blessed Be He) would be placed in my path that day, that week, and that first year afterward.

The Hospital
I was taken to Biqur Holim Hospital in the center of town. I given a bed in the emergency room, and a place where I could put my things. I remembered that I had done my Shabbath shopping that day. The nurses let me put my groceries and chicken into their tiny refrigerator, so they would not spoil.

Biqur Holim HospitalThen, almost immediately, doctors and nurses started poking and prodding. I was take for x-rays, brought back, and given hospital clothes. I saw that the backsides of my clothes were soaked and caked with blood and guts (I am afraid I did not know how to be any more delicate about this.).

The nurses, Sefardi Chen and Russian Svetlana were the next "angels" sent to me.

I mention the their backgrounds to emphasize how diverse the involved with my treatment were. Later the American sonogram technician and French, haredi psychiatrist were to enter the scene. Many were visiblly religious; quite a few were not. See what I mean? In addition, at least half of the staff I was to encounter was made up of olim (immigrants), just like myself.

My initial emotional reactions to the attack were that I was worthless and undeserving of anything. Literally, I felt damaged and no good. For some reason, the nurses were able to relieve me of these feelings temporarily (I am tearing up as I write this. It's been seven years already, yet I still tear up when I think of those nurses and what they did for me.)

Chen held my face, encouraging me to look at her, and not satisfy my curiosity by looking at the procedure to remove the shrapnel. With every "ow" that came out of my mouth, she insisted that the surgeon shoot me up with more anesthetic. It's OK, I said. It felt more weird than painful, even though it was definitely painful. The amazing thing was that after the local anesthetic wore off, I did not need anything more than Acamol (similar to Tylenol) to get relief from the pain. Meanwhile, Svetlana was careful not to startle me as she aided the surgeon by maneuvering my hip and leg to his specifications. She had a pleasant face.

I will spare you the details as to how long it took to dig around the tissue of my gluteus maximus to find and remove the elusive of shrapnel implanted there. When it finally was removed, it was clearly recognizable as a mangled screw. The Yishma'elim pack their bombs with screws, ball bearings, and other assorted for maximum destructive effect. The surgeon washed it off, placed it in a corked test tube, and presented it to me, almost as if it was a souvenir from a very bad vacation. Actually, it was a souvenir of sorts, a souvenir which which I could showed to others, and to look upon myself, as proof that what happened to me, actually did happen. I have since lost that "souvenir." But, I don't really need it anymore.

At this point, I received a few phone calls of support, and two visitors from Ofra. They were strangers to me. I also had a couple of friends visit, my former roommate and former neighbors from Jerusalem.

Several hours after my arrival, things began to calm down. As is standard procedure, I met with the psychiatrist on duty. I just wanted to go home. But the decision was his, and his decision was no. I had no choice but to stay overnight.

I opened a siddur to say Qeri'ath Shema'. When I looked down at the page to find my place, I saw that I had opened the siddur to a song many Jews sing on Moss'ei Shabbath.

אל תירא, עבדי יעקב
(Do not fear, My servant Ya'aqov)

I could not sleep that night, but only because of lights that were on. After seeing the above song in my hands, though, I felt at ease.

When I woke up the next morning, as you could imagine, I was still sort of just moving through time, less like the movie that was the attack itself, but similar. The night before, I saw the blood all over my sandals, and washed them off. I only had one pair. Although I prefer to go barefoot anyway, I doubted I would be allowed on the bus without shoes.

Before I could think about going home, I had an early appointment with an ear, nose, & throat [ENT] doctor across the street. Everything was arranged for me, and I wasn't really given a choice. That was probably a good thing, as I was not in a position to make these kinds of decisions for myself. Several of us entered the ENT clinic. An announcement was made to those waiting that the victims of last night's attack would have priority in receiving appointments that morning. Everyone else would have to wait. Entering the waiting room, I could see from the Arabs' faces that they were none to pleased. The Jews maintained pleasant faces, yet faces of curiosity. Focusing on the Arabs, a leer and a grimace were all that I could muster up against the cousins of the Yishma'eli who killed seven Jews, not to mention shooting a piece of metal in my backside, and taking away my hearing.

The ENT was patient and gentle. She told me that my right eardrum had been blown out. Actually, there nothing left to speak of. Her instructions were simple. Don't get it wet, and it should grow back within nine months. If it didn't, then grafts were in order. She was optimistic that those would not be necessary.

Rather than get angry at HaQadosh Barukh Hu, I thanked Him for not taking away my eyesight instead. I have always been more visual than auditory, depending much more on my eyes than ears. I do not care to think what it would have been like the other way around.

I am not a terribly grateful nor spiritual person, or at least I wasn't at the time, but that thought just came to me. From where? I don't know. It just came to me.

Waiting IMPATIENTLY for the resident surgeon's final OK to be released, I received another visit from my former roommate. Upon hearing what had happened to my beged tzitzith, which was rolled up with my other bloodied clothes, he told me he would "be right back." Ten minutes later, he returned with a brand new talith qetanah. He knew me well enough to know that I did not like receiving gifts. So, he did not bother to mention what he was doing. He presented me with the new garment, saying that I had no choice but to accept it, as I had to perform this misswah. I begrudgingly accepted it with a half-smile on my face, and said thank you. He could tell I was grateful nonetheless.

After my friend left, a nurse asked me a how I was getting home, anticipating my imminent release. I said by bus. She pressed me to think of someone I could call to give me a ride. There was no one. I was getting back by bus or tremp. Not yet ready to go back to the trempiada, I chose the bus. Although uncomfortable, she knew she could not stop me. I would soon be released unconditionally. She had one last card to play. "You are NOT going on the bus in hospital clothes," she said, and picked up the phone to make call. I couldn't hear her. She explained that a man from the Electric Company would be coming shortly. Huh? What did the Electric Company have to do with anything? Was I that out of it?

The nurse explained that the Electric Company had a special charity which provided clothes to victims of terror attacks. Did I actually think I was the first to get my clothes plastered with blood and guts of murdered Jews?

The tall, curly-headed, headband-clad man in his 20's came bouncing into the hospital, smiling with a package to present me. It was an Electric Company uniform. Almost in tears, I asked him where I should return it. He said, no, it's yours. (Thinking and writing about the guy from the Electric Company is the other memory which never fails to make me tear up.) You don't return it; it's yours. He shook my hand and said refu'ah shlemah (complete recovery). It was obvious he had done this before. I took the clothes.

I was released shortly after noon. I picked my groceries, a plastic bag filled with my bloodied clothes, and made my way through the corridors to the exit.

I knew deep inside that this was only the first stage in a journey I would not recommend to anyone. But I was not thinking about this at the time.

To be continued...

Cross-posted on Esser Agaroth.

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