When Dr. Avi Schlager, a pediatric surgeon and resident of Florida, spoke on the phone with his family that arrived in Israel on Simchat Torah to bring his grandfather for burial, he did not imagine that a war would break out. But a few days later, when the injured continued to arrive in the hospitals, and the news spread around the world, he understood that he had a mission, and immediately prepared to volunteer at Schneider Children’s. “At this point, everyone is looking how to help and are also ready to make the sacrifice.”
The weather in Palm Beach is very pleasant now. It is not so hot in the city located along the shores in the south of Florida, an hour’s drive from Miami. The views there are also not bad at all. Gorgeous beaches for miles, grand homes, and expensive cars, green all around, an ambience of endless vacation, tranquility, and security. Dr. Avi Schlager, a pediatric surgeon from Boca Raton, adjacent to Palm Beach, a Jewish-American born in New York, didn’t think twice before deciding to leave all this, his thriving clinics, his wife and four children, and fly to Israel to the war zone. In fact, he was the first to volunteer.
“Ironically, the chaos began with us even beforehand,” he said in an interview with Mako-Health after 10 days of volunteering at Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petach Tikva in order to assist in as many complex operations as possible. “My grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. He died at the age of 100 during the intermediary days of Succot. The family’s immediate aim was to bring his body for burial in Israel and that the entire family would fly over for the funeral. While I was unsuccessful in obtaining a flight to get to the funeral, my parents were able to fly as well as my older brother. They arrived in Israel before Simchat Torah, and I was still in Florida.”
With his parents and brother already under rocket attack on Simchat Torah in Israel, Schlager heard what was happening when he went past the synagogue on the holiday. “My friend heard about it and told me at once, and in your head, you immediately think, ‘ok, this is probably another attack, another event’. But very quickly, the headlines began to reach us and we understood that this was a totally different event from anything we had experienced in our lives.”
He lived through what was left of the holiday, and with members of the community, they tried to obtain as much information they could about the situation in Israel. “We wanted to understand at once what we could do,” he said. Dr. Schlager, members of the community and other doctors received requests from local Jewish organizations to volunteer already at the start of the events. While Israeli doctors studying abroad boarded planes to volunteer, the American Jewish community began to try to organize medical teams that could fly to Israel. “All the organizations here united and began to work. They sent us almost immediately a request to register, because it was unclear precisely how many doctors and medical teams Israel needed. So along with others, I registered at once. Later it appeared that what was most needed were surgeons, anesthetists and burn specialists.”
From his standpoint, he would have flown to Israel on the first day of the war, but most of the time until his arrival, he was trying to understand what was happening, what kind of assistance was needed, and dealing with all the bureaucracy. He worked through the Jewish Orthodox Medical Association (JOMA) which coordinated all the requests from Israel for medical assistance, and he also worked with relevant bodies in Israel that could advance the issuing of work licenses for American doctors in Israel. This was a critical connection, he says. Without a license, there was no way to volunteer as a surgeon in Israel. What helped him quickly was his prior contact with Dr. Dragan Kravarusic, Director of Surgery at Schneider Children’s, whom he knew through the international community of pediatric surgeons specializing in minimal invasive surgery. “Dr. Kravarusic sent a request to acclimate me at Schneider, which helped enormously with the bureaucracy and authorities, while JOMA organized and managed my travel arrangements,” he said.
Schlager, 44, has always been connected to Israel, and has even lived here intermittently over the years. “I studied for two years in a yeshiva, and later on, as part of my medical residency, I conducted a period of research at Hadassah Ein Kerem, so I really come and go. My brother and sister live in Israel. My brother-in-law is now in the army.” Currently he works at Palm Beach Network, a chain of hospitals, as well as two clinics specializing in pediatric surgeries. His specialization ranges from minimal invasive surgery, meaning operations requiring minimum intervention, through oncology and internal lesions resulting from games of sport, to complex colon operations in adolescents who receive their lives back.
How did your family react to your flying to Israel?
“My older daughters aged 8 and 5 were a bit worried. My wife fully supported my trip and of course she is also worried. She is already under pressure because her brother is in the army, he conducts missions all the time in Gaza, so this only increased her anxiety. But at this stage, everyone is looking to help and are also ready to make the sacrifice. Even my 8-year-old understands this.”
Two-and-a-half weeks into the war, he arrived in Israel and settled immediately in Schneider Children’s under the direction of Dr. Kravarusic. “This is the largest hospital in Israel for children, and they always cover for all the hospitals in the country. The goal is to ensure all surgeries for children from other hospitals that are unable to function due to the situation or under an abnormal burden such as Barzilai (in Ashkelon) and Yoseftal (in Eilat)”, he explains. The first operation he performed in the first days was on an 8-year-old boy from Eilat who suffered from a blocked colon. “This really is not an ideal condition for a child, so he was flown immediately to Schneider for surgery,” he says. Schlager was especially impressed with the level of coordination and rapid mobilization. In another instance that he will never forget, he operated on an Arab-Israeli 4-year-old girl. “The hospital has known her for quite some time already, and this was the most critical operation that I did. It only exemplifies to me how Schneider is a hospital that almost mirrors Israeli society. All the doctors and staff and employees are both Arabs and Jews, wonderfully mixed and connected and coordinated. It works completely smoothly. This is something that people outside Israel cannot understand, people cannot grasp that here are Arabs and Jews working together for their benefit and everyone else’s. It was great to see this and everyone else’s commitment. I hope also that people outside Israel can continue to give as much support as possible and make a difference.”
He of course does not rule out another round of volunteering, not to mention that he would be very happy if he was called. “Now that the matter of the license is organized, I can come again and quickly if needed. I am very grateful that everything worked out.” He took vacation for the days that he spent in Israel. “I completely cleared my schedule and took vacation on my account. This is not something that should be a gift from someone, this is something that I wanted to give.”
Dr. Miriam (Mimi) Knoll, founder and CEO of JOWMA (Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association), which arranged for Dr. Schlager to come to Israel said, “JOWMA’s mission is to bring to Israel leading American specialists to help bridge the gap in providing standard and critical medical treatment to those injured in the war. It is an honor for us to help our brothers and sisters in Israel in any way we can.”