Israeli doctor paves the way for treating trauma victims

When he travels around the world, Dr. Ori Better keeps an emergency El Al ticket in his pocket just in case he's suddenly called back to Israel. The good doctor never knows when an act of terrorism or some other calamity will require his steady hand.

This isn't misplaced hubris. He really is that important to Israel's medical infrastructure.

As a world-renowned specialist in crush injury and military medicine, Better basically wrote the book on treating mass casualties.

And that's only his latest accomplishment. Better is also a revered kidney specialist, drawing international attention for his pioneering work in nephrology.

He co-founded and served as dean of the medical school at Technion University (the MIT of Israel and the nation's oldest institution of high learning), where he currently serves as director of the Chutick Crush Syndrome Center.

And for good measure, he manned the front lines, tending battlefield casualties during some of Israel's darkest days.

You wouldn't know it to look at him.

Handsome, courtly and silver-haired, Better could easily pass for Yitzhak Rabin's long-lost twin. His iron handshake sends the message that there's more life in him than in many people half his age.

Better was in the Bay Area recently as part of a U.S. tour to update Technion supporters on the institute's latest medical innovations.

Still, with war raging in the Middle East, he remains, as he says in his flawless English, "on tiptoes." Nobody looks for tragedy, but when it strikes, Better is the go-to guy.

Over the years, Israel's civilian and military medical systems have adopted his protocols for treating victims of terror and war.

His methodology for treating crush injuries was instrumental in saving lives after devastating earthquakes struck Turkey and Armenia.

In 1983, when 241 Marines stationed in Lebanon died at the hands of a suicide bomber, Better's methods saved the lives of others trapped in the collapsed barracks.

It is the dirtiest of jobs, but someone — someone really good — has to do it.

"I learned early on if you come to the patient right away, you can work miracles," he says.

Born in Haifa the son of two doctors, Better received his medical degree from Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical School.

He later worked in border settlements in the Negev and as a member of Israel's 1960 emergency medical team in the Congo. During the Yom Kippur War, he treated casualties with severe burns and other injuries.

Over time, Better began to perceive a link between trauma-crush injuries and the work he had been doing as a kidney specialist.

"Most crush victims actually die from kidney failure," he says. "I wanted to find a way to prevent this. The healing forces of the body are so great."

Thanks to Israel's unique history and geography, Better's techniques easily could be tested in the field.

"From southern Lebanon, it's less than 30 minutes to the hospital in Haifa," he says. "And only Israel has rapid medical deployment. As far as medical treatment on short notice goes, we're No. 1."

Better had an opportunity to greatly develop his ideas in the early 1970s, when he helped build Technion's medical school.

Founded in 1924, Technion was largely responsible for building modern Israel. Its graduates have developed innovations in agriculture, irrigation, city planning, high-tech and biotech, drawing on the country's prime resource: brainpower.

That same spirit carried over to the medical school. Technion has made great strides in diabetes and Parkinson's Disease research. But Better's trauma medicine research is unique to Technion.

Though a patriotic Israeli through and through, Better exemplifies the spirit of doctors without borders. He has consulted with physicians and hospitals around the world, sometimes even with countries hostile to Israel.

That global perspective gives Better an air of authority when he reflects on the current state of affairs back home.

"Palestinians are good, capable, hard-working, pleasant people," he says. "Iraqis are the most capable of all the Arabs. Their engineering and medicine are excellent. But it's not enough to be good; you have to be well-governed."

With 30 percent of his patients Israeli Arabs, Better doesn't just talk the talk. "I love them," he says. "They are better patients then Jews: They don't ask for a second opinion!"

As for the future, Better is proud that Technion graduates have gone on to lead the world in medical innovation. But he is quick to point out that planning only goes so far. "You have to let your creative Ph.D.s run forward," he says, "and not get in their way."

Mostly he looks forward to finding new and improved methods to treat and save young victims of terror, the saddest fact of life in his beloved homeland.

"I do have hope for the future," says the grandfather of five. "If you compute lives saved in terms of years added to life, trauma medicine by far does the most good. You save young people and give them 40 more good years of life."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.