The small Negev city of Arad proved itself in a huge way when it came to pulling together for an IDF and US veteran who fell on hard times.
The discrepancy between what “ought to be” and the “reality that is” can prove shocking to new immigrants from North America. But even for hardened Israelis living in the southern Negev city, the summary discharge by Soroka Medical Center of “Natan,” age 63 and medically disabled, outraged both friends and supporters.
And he has many.
Natan (name withheld to protect his privacy) has lived in Arad for decades. Few indeed are the “veterans” of the town who are unfamiliar with his ready grin and warm words of encouragement. A powerfully-built man who served with the IDF as well as with US Armed Forces in Vietnam in his youth, Natan was an asset as a worker in nearly every supermarket or hardware story in Arad.
But he was exposed to Agent Orange while serving in Vietnam, and because he accepted a cash settlement from the government years ago, he is no longer entitled to any further assistance. And now he needs it.
His medical chart reads like a novel, and he's lost track of the number of times he's been in the hospital over the past several years.
As he has become weaker, the modest home he purchased years ago has fallen into disrepair. Natan is no longer able to care for himself properly, and because he lives alone, his friends, fellow congregants and neighbors have become increasingly concerned.
Counted among those friends, however, are his doctors, the staff at the local clinic, social workers in the local department of social services, members of the city's municipal government and reportedly even the mayor herself. In short, most of the town.
When it recently became clear that Natan would need placement at an assisted living residence, local officials began the task of searching for openings in areas at least somewhat close to the community in which he has spent the past 30 years.
The red tape alone, plus the negotiations involved, took weeks.
Meanwhile, rotations to care for their sick friend began, with community members from across the spectrum pulling together to ensure that Natan had food in his home, laundry got done, and that “he didn't get into trouble trying to do things he's unable to do anymore,” as Merav LaFranca, a close friend politely explained.
Another friend – a clinical social worker who does private case management – volunteered to coordinate efforts and provide technical support where needed.
"The thing about him is, there are no lines to cross,” another neighbor commented. “Everyone has gotten involved. There must be 50 people trying to help him, and somehow we are all coordinated – men, women, dati leumi (national religious), Chabad and Gur Chassidim together, modern Orthodox, non-religious, Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Ethiopian, Yemenite, immigrants, Israelis … you name it. We all love him.”
When a National Insurance Institute review committee rejected Natan's application for special services (housekeeping support and transportation) after interviewing him (he told them he was “Fine!” and they believed him, ignoring his 4-inch thick file) phone calls flew across Arad.
The “team” made sure Natan's needs were covered, and that the balls dropped by the gap in government services were picked up by individuals.
It all ended, however, when Natan arrived at the Leumit health maintenance clinic gasping for air earlier this month. He was rushed to Soroka Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure.
"Imagine our surprise when just a week later, they wanted to release him and signed off a form stating that he was able to function independently and was healthy,” said an outraged friend. “He can barely walk across a room without gasping, unless he has his oxygen.”
The city's social services department appealed to the hospital for patience, winning a bare two days' reprieve, and worked tirelessly to secure a placement.
A number of possible openings came up – one in Be'er Sheva, one in another nearby community – but both refused to consider even an interview with Natan, allegedly because he uses a BiPAP at night to help him breathe. BiPAP machines maintain positive air pressure for people who have sleep apnea and other pulmonary conditions, including children. They are simple to use.
Both nearby assisted living residences allegedly claimed that anyone using a BiPAP requires a “skilled nursing home” setting under Ministry of Health regulations, said a source at city hall.
“We begged the hospital to hang on to him, just long enough so placement arrangements could be made. Instead, they sent him home in an ambulance,” said Rabbi Sinai Julian, another friend. "If he needed to come home in an ambulance, how did that indicate independence?"
Natan returned home to find the place a beehive of activity – somehow, the city had arranged for a cleaning lady. Two neighbors had joined her, and a kosher food supervisor from one of the local hotels had brought food – and a willing pair of hands to do any heavy lifting that was needed.
Meanwhile, a lone assisted living residence finally expressed its willingness to take a chance on welcoming Arad's favorite Anglo son into its care for a trial month. On Thursday morning bright and early, the “Parents' Home” at Kibbutz Gesher HaZiv, located at the other end of the country – north of Nahariya close to Israel's northwestern border with Lebanon -- sent a vehicle to pick up Natan in Arad.
His neighbors are waiting for him to come home. They say they miss him already. But ultimately, the problem remains: where can Natan live, close to family and friends, and still receive the care that he deserves?