Even medical professionals need Rx for stress in Israel

The continuing terror in Israel is taking its toll not only on victims, soldiers and those who are less directly affected, but on the professionals they turn to for help.

An Israeli physician and two San Francisco psychiatrists discussed the psychological effects of terrorism on Israeli civilians, soldiers and others during a recent panel discussion at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco.

"We do not go outside as much as we used to. The streets, the cinemas, the shops, they are deserted. We are becoming a bit paranoid," Israeli anesthesiologist Gabriel Gurman told the 40 attendees of the meeting. "I live in intifada. For you, I am the man on the streets."

Serving as a physician and as dean of public affairs at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Gurman has witnessed the suffering firsthand. The university's main campus and medical facility is located in Beersheva, not far from both the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Since the intifada began in September 2000, Gurman has treated many of the 450 Jewish terror victims brought to his hospital.

Gurman said campus life has been seriously disrupted by the ongoing conflict. For one, a tightened budget means fewer classes, cuts in staff and an overall freeze in the development of new projects. In addition, medical students at the university now take classes on emergency treatment of mass-casualty incidents and must periodically miss class for the army's mass-casualty treatment drills.

San Francisco psychiatrist Harry Coren was born in Israel, though raised and educated in the United States. He returned to his birthplace for two weeks to work with members of Ben-Gurion University's psychiatry department.

In conversations with the psychiatrists, Coren found them discussing not only their patients and the ongoing conflict, but their own lives and the worries they share with their families.

"I'm not stressed out. I'm OK," said Coren. "But in Israel, the therapists are stressed out as well."

While post-traumatic stress disorder among Americans spiked following the Sept. 11 attacks, it declined after the anthrax scare, said Coren. In Israel the situation is different, he said, with the threat of terrorist attacks always lurking in the background. "In Israel, it's continuous stress disorder. It's not settling down because it's happening again and again and again."

San Francisco psychiatrist Nathan Szajnberg looked at another aspect of the conflict: the effect on soldiers. In his upcoming book, "The Reluctant Warrior: Becoming an Adult in Israel," Szajnberg will include interviews with former Israeli soldiers to illustrate the accelerated maturation Israel's soldiers undergo during their mandatory military service.

Szanjberg described in detail an interview with a former soldier who had deserted the kibbutz values of his youth and become an Orthodox Jew. Though the man had become a well-respected businessman and had started to raise a family, his combat experiences had left him "rusting away on the inside," said Szanjberg.

Following their presentations, the medical professionals addressed audience questions — many of which pertained to the escalating prospect of war between Iraq and the United States.

Gurman felt that a war in the Middle East, conducted by an American-Israeli alliance, might further depress Israeli spirits. But an American-Israeli-European coalition, he said, would bring a much-needed boost to Israeli morale.

Either way, he said, Israelis are expecting to sustain further losses in the event of a war with Saddam Hussein. However, he noted that some Israelis see even war as a welcome change from the ongoing uncertainty of the intifada.

"Two and a half years of killing brought us into a routine — they kill us and we kill them," Gurman said. "Something serious needs to happen, a catharsis, but I would wish we don't need a war to solve the Israel-Palestine conflict."

The panel presentation was sponsored by American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; the Israel Center of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation; Jewish Community High School of the Bay; and the Jewish Community Relations Council.