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Israeli doctor comes to Canada to discuss disaster relief

Dr. Elhanan Bar-On looks at the devastation caused by an erupted volcano in Guatemala.

From a health-care perspective, a disaster is any event that exceeds a local community’s ability to meet the demand for medical attention. Israeli doctor Elhanan Bar-On is often one of the people who comes to help meet that demand.

Bar-On is an orthopaedic surgeon and the director of the Israel Centre for Disaster Medicine and Humanitarian Response, which is part of the Chaim Sheba Medical Center, the largest hospital in the Middle East.

Bar-On was in Toronto from Oct. 21 to 23, to give a medical presentation to faculty at North York General Hospital and two talks, including one at Adath Israel Congregation on Oct. 21 about his experience providing medical care around the globe.

Before starting work at the Sheba Center last July, Bar-On was the head of pediatric orthopaedics at Schneider Children’s Hospital, the largest children’s hospital in Israel. He has also worked on humanitarian medical teams with the IDF, including serving as head of the orthopaedic department for the IDF’s field hospital in Haiti, following the 2010 earthquake. He has learned a great deal treating patients all over the world.


“People are people, and when they are sick, they’re sick, and you have to treat them,” Bar-On said in an interview with The CJN. “You must realize, especially after a disaster, these people feel that the whole world has forgotten them. Then, suddenly, this team comes from 10,000 kilometres away.… So it just gives them a glimmer of hope, which is as important as the specific treatment.”

During his talk at Adath Israel, Bar-On spoke about what constitutes a disaster, what the health-care infrastructure is like in developing countries, some of his experiences treating people around the world and the Sheba Center’s various initiatives.

He shared stories with the audience about patients he treated who really stuck with him. One of them was a young girl from Nepal who was injured in an earthquake. She was being treated in the pediatric tent, while her pregnant mother was being cared for in the adult tent next door.

Bar-On returned to Nepal a year later and met the girl’s entire family, including the new baby. He also performed a complex limb-lengthening surgery on the young girl.

Dr. Elhanan Bar-On, right, and Rabbi Adam Cutler.

“I didn’t operate on her alone. I operated on her with an orthopaedic surgeon who I met when I was there in Nepal (the year before). He subsequently came to Israel, spent a year with me in Israel training and then we operated on her together back in that place. So that was symbolic and very moving,” said Bar-On.

That story represents two initiatives on which the Sheba Center prides itself: it deploys international teams to treat patients and teach doctors, and invites doctors from other countries to train in Israel.

The Sheba Center also brings people to Israel for treatment, including patients from Gaza, the West Bank and some countries that Bar-On said cannot be mentioned.

“The State of Israel, as a state, has always seen its role as what we call the concept of tikun olam, which is mending the world, as providing help to anyone who needs it in the world,” said Bar-On.

Rabbi Adam Cutler of Adath Israel appreciated Bar-On’s talk.

“It was an opportunity for our synagogue to showcase to our local medical community, and our entire Toronto community, Israel’s tremendous contribution to international emergency disaster medicine,” he wrote in an emailed statement.

“Bar-On was a fantastic presenter who was able to show us the real challenges in responding to large-scale humanitarian disasters. It is clear there is more work that needs to be done, practically and ethically, when it comes to how the world responds to medical crises across the globe and Sheba Medical Center will be leading the way.”