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An oasis of calm in a fraught city

Judith Yovel Recanati ... chairperson and founder of Natal

Tel Aviv is a vibrant, lovely city that pulses with energy that is mostly good. But the center of town can be rough: drivers become entangled with their car horns as pedestrians stray into the roads; cars vie for parking spaces where there are none to be had; harried hi-tech moguls bark into cell phones. Yet right in the middle of this action, on one of the busiest thoroughfares in the city, stands a serene and welcoming oasis with an aura of tranquility that embraces you as your foot crosses the threshold. Natal, the Israel Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War, is a healing space of airy rooms and wooden decks. Bright kitchens and clubhouses exude a rustic calm, and the treatment rooms are homey and comfortable. Each week 350 patients pass through this haven, where 150 therapists of all types are on hand to help them rehabilitate from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

PTSD is not your average stomach clamping lurch as a bad driver honks while cutting you off. The syndrome is terrifying and debilitating, and it doesn't pass with a strong cup of coffee. Being acutely stressed for a long period of time can ruin your life. And too many of us are sufferers.

According to Judith Yovel Recanati, Chairperson and Founder of Natal, ten percent of Israelis suffer from Post-Traumatic Syndrome as a result of war or terrorism. This excludes those who are fighting the after-effects of traffic accidents, abuse, neglect or any other events that shock the system. When we factor in the effect of the Holocaust on the population here and the trauma of being uprooted from one society to another, Israel becomes one pretty dramatic place in which to live.

"There are those that say that the whole country is a post-traumatic society," explains Judith. "Natal tackles the six to seven hundred thousand victims of war and terror who otherwise would get no help."

PTSD triggered by terror is not hard to define. The average person who witnesses a bombing or experiences the horrors of war first-hand will usually shake, feel depressed and have trouble falling asleep; every little noise will make him jump. This acute reaction to stress usually passes after a month or so, and most people gradually get back to normal. When the symptoms persist for longer the condition could become chronic and continue unabated. PTSD can be devastating; often victims can no longer work or families fall apart. Sometimes people huddle at home all day, unable and unwilling to face the world. And while the government treats those who were directly involved in terrorism or war (like those who were admitted to emergency wards in hospitals), people who were close by or affected in other ways are not recognized as victims.

In the early 90s Dr. Yossi Hadar, a psychiatrist at Bar-Ilan University, identified this gap in services. He turned to Recanati who was studying psychotherapy under him at the time, with the idea of establishing Natal. When Hadar tragically died of cancer soon afterwards, Recanati continued implementing his vision.

"We started in 1998," she recalls, "and we had high hopes of healing the country." Post-Oslo Israel was daring to hope that Rabin would finally welcome the "no more war, no more bloodshed" era that Sadat and Begin had promised. Recanati recalls that she dreamt of helping the people who were already suffering from stress, and then eradicate this trauma from our society. "We thought that once they were cured there'd be no more victims; peace was just around the corner."

Then the Intifada broke out.

And the Second Lebanon War.

And Operation Cast Lead.

And the rockets on Sderot and the South.

Events like these do not pave a yellow brick road to a healthy, happy environment.

Natal, it seems, will probably be in business for a while to come. And, like all businesses, funding and administration are the key. Patients pay according to their ability. In the open market, psychologists, for example, can charge hundreds of shekels; at Natal a session costs 50 shekels or 25 or nothing at all. The annual costs total 15 million shekels, of which the government pays 70,000.

The shortfall is made up from donations, and Judith Yovel Recanati herself funds the entire operating budget every year, including providing the building and paying all the overheads. 

Care givers working with PTSD patients in the South

In addition Recanati, who has won too many prizes for volunteering to list here (including the President's Award and one from the Tel Aviv Municipality, the Adler Prize and Yakir Hatsofim) is utterly hands-on. Film-star beautiful and entirely 'present' as she chats to patients and donors, journalists and staff, Judith has facts and figures at her fingertips and is involved in every facet of the place. The mother of three daughters and widowed much too young from her gynecologist husband, Israel (Rolly ) Yovel, is part of one of Israel's leading philanthropic families. Together with her late husband, she also founded the Gandyr Foundation and gives generously to countless causes in the country. And with all her myriad activities (she is also a granny of seven), Recanati knows everything that transpires within her walls.

"One Chanukah," she recounts, "our Helpline got a call from a man in his mid-thirties. He wanted to light candles but was all alone and feeling too miserable to negotiate Maoz Tzur alone. Our volunteer spoke him through the ceremony, and sang the blessings along with him, through the phone line. So he got to light his chanukiah after all."

Natal's free helpline (1800 363 363) is open from 08:00 – 23:00 on weekdays and on Fridays till 14:00, but an emergency line stays active at all times. Trained counselors work in Hebrew, Russian, French and English and treat adults and kids; volunteers keep in touch with patients and even on occasion visit them at home. A mobile unit of professionals also tours the country helping wherever they are needed. Sderot, for example, has had more than its fair share of trauma; Natal staff were called in to help a little boy who would not step out of an iron cage after his house was demolished by a rocket. After one year of work, the child finally agreed to put on pajamas and go to bed; until then he had not wanted to waive his vigilance in case his home was blasted again.

As I type this the news is all of Assad's defiance in the face of Obama's threatened attack; our government is debating gas masks and contingency plans. We are two days into the New Year. What can I say? May this be a year where no more names are added to those treated by Natal, may those already in treatment heal quickly, and may Obama, and Assad and all the leaders of the world lead us all into an area where PTSD is a phenomenon of the past.



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Monday, 22 July 2024

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