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Side By Side with Heroes:  Stories of an Ambulance Medic in Israel

Dr. Sara R. Ahronheim is an Emergency Physician at the Jewish General Hospital,  trained at McGill University. Aside from patient care, she teaches medical students and residents how to become compassionate, knowledgeable physicians. She also runs the Physician Well-being program at her site, and is passionate about maintaining work-life balance and promoting joy at work. An alumnus of Queen’s University, she studied Wildlife Biology there while dipping her toes in medicine as a volunteer with the First Response Team.

After graduating from Queen’s and before being accepted to McGill Medical School, Dr. Ahronheim  spent a memorable period of time as part of the Overseas Volunteer Program for Magen David Adom, the Israeli national ambulance service. This may have occurred   20 years ago, but Dr. Ahronheim wrote diary entries and emails  that she sent out to friends and family.

“Some are emotional, and some may feel very disconnected,” she shares. ‘Being an ambulance medic in a tumultuous time, as a young person with no actual experience of death and suffering, my words, at times, might feel callous. I saw a dead person for the first time, held my hand to a gunshot victim’s bloody chest, and didn’t write about how I felt. I just described the scene, the excitement of it, the rush. I didn’t delve into my soul, and how these moments changed me. “

Dr. Ahronheim’s new book, Side By Side with Heroes:  Stories of an Ambulance Medic in Israel , will be formally launched at Côte Saint-Luc City Hall via our Public Library on Monday evening, February 13 (6:30 pm). She will be recognized at the start if our public council meeting at 8 pm.

Please watch my video interview with her  and Samuel Moyal of Canadian Magen David Adom for Israel right here.


 The book chronicles her daring journey as she follows her cultural roots into the chaos and tragedy of war. Set in Israel in a country fighting for its identity, she searches for her own identity as she bravely explores the human condition through her ambulance work. Torn between her peaceful life in Canada and the adventures that await her, she  learns who she is through the mirror of tragedy, chaos and connection half way around the world. Navigating her own personal journey into womanhood and independence, while risking her life for others, this is where she found her life’s passion in emergency medicine. That and the fact both of her parents were pediatricians.


“I have presented and treated people at three births, one CPR, two bombings  countless other interesting and not so interesting other calls,” Dr Ahronheim wrote upon the completion of that trip in 2002-2003. “I have treated police, terrorists, soldiers, politicians, homeless people, Jews, Arabs, tourists, you name it. To my patients: you taught me about human nature, strength, resilience, triumph, fear and sorrow. You formed me like playdough, into the physician I have grown to be. You trusted me with your stories, as much as you did with your bodies. I can only hope I have described you faithfully.

“Israel in 2002 formed me into the woman, physician and mother that I am today. The people, places and experiences in that time molded me, trained me, grew me into someone who doesn’t give up, someone with grit and the fortitude to do what I have to do every day. The devastation and the passion I experienced back then, I carry forward into my work, my children, and our future.”

The primary objectives of MDA are defined in the Magen David Adom Law, passed by the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) in 1950. These objectives are to provide pre-hospital emergency medical services, to provide the country’s blood services, and to assist the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) during times of war. Dr. Moses Erlanger, a Jewish ophthalmologist in Lucerne, Switzerland, conceived the idea of MDA in 1915. He created MDA in order to help Jewish wounded soldiers and prisoners of war during World War I (WWI). In 1918, MDA was established in the USA and expanded to Canada, England and Tel Aviv. After WWI ended, MDA was dismantled as the need for a Jewish rescue organization faded.

A dozen years later,  MDA was founded again in Tel Aviv. It was formed out of necessity, due to the Arab riots against Jewish settlements. World War II (WWII) brought misery to Tel Aviv, when the Italian Air Force bombed the city. Thankfully, MDA had trained 50 physicians and 600 nurses and volunteers. 

After WWII ended, MDA sent support units to European countries to help treat the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.

MDA  remains a unique organization because it relies heavily on the use of volunteers to staff its medical crews. High school students, from the age of 15, make up the foundation of MDA. Students are trained as first aid responders, and often use their experience at MDA as their high school ”Personal Commitment” assignment.  

In 1991, shortly after the end of the first Gulf War, the leaders at MDA Jerusalem were approached by a shaliach in Montreal  about an idea he had to send volunteers from Canada to Israel to volunteer at MDA. The group at MDA Jerusalem was excited about this opportunity and agreed to help set up this program. The pilot program was launched in the summer of 1991, and ten McGill University science students participated. They each had basic knowledge of Hebrew, passed the training in Montreal, and flew to Israel to complete a final round of training.  

As demand increased, the program began to gain traction, and it was opened to participants from other countries.   

“I first learned about MDA when I was a kid at sleepaway camp in 1992,” Dr. Ahronheim recalls. “I sat cross-legged on the sweet-smelling grass in the warm sunshine and listened, enthralled, to the stories some counsellors shared. They were among the first batch of Canadian students who had flown to Israel to give their time as first responders. The memories they shared with us that summer lit a fire in me, and created vivid hopes and dreams that I carried with me until my turn came, 10 years later.”

In the book, Dr. Ahronheim writes about what it was like to be part of the organization. “Wearing my Magen David Adom jacket around Jerusalem is an intense experience,” she noted. “ It singles me out as an individual who is actively involved in helping her people. I become as visible as a soldier, or a police officer; each of our professions is equally respected and appreciated by the people of Israel. In Canada, ambulance workers are respected, but nowhere near the way they are here. Israelis know that those of us wearing the MDA uniform are there on the front lines. Israelis know that each MDA worker or volunteer is prepared to jump in to help in any crisis. We are treated so well here, and I feel truly loved in this country.”

Dr. Ahronheim’s tour of duty coincided with the United States attack on Iraq. “Well, why did I come to Israel in the first place?” she asked. “To work on the ambulances and save lives, and to contribute in any way possible to the security and moral support of my people. I am here because I love this place, this country, this nation. I am staying because I love all the above. I cannot leave. Could you abandon a loved one in time of need? Obviously not — and as such, I cannot abandon a country full of loved ones in this terrible time of uncertainty.”

What were her most memorable experiences?

Saving a life?

Transporting a terrorist?

Being pelted with rocks by Arab students at an East Jerusalem school?

In medical school interviews she was asked  what she would you do if she was face with treating a wounded terrorist. “I answered the safe way,” she said. “I answered that I would treat her as if I would treat any human being.”  

And that situation did in fact arise for her.

The book is available at Kidlink on Monkland in NDG, Bonders on Westminister  in Montreal West and on Amazon.

Dr. Ahronheim blogs at myblackscrubs.com, where she ofen posts short essays about experiences in the Emergency Department. She has had stories published in the Canadian  Journal of Emergency Medicine, as well as in many other journals, newsletters and websites.

Dr. Ahronheim is a mother to two wonderful, rambunctious children and a lovable tiny golden doodle. Married to the love of her life, Elie, for the last 14 years, she enjoys spending winter date nights in the backyard hot tub and summers out on a nearby lake

Log on to  https://saraahronheim.com/books


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