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Bridging the Healthcare Gap

Volume 9, Issue 6 / Sivan 5766 / June 2006 

Young, healthy and enthusiastic, “Adana” (name changed to maintain his privacy) arrived in Israel just months ago from Ethiopia. With the help of staff at the Shoshana Absorption Center in Kiryat Gat, he has been maneuvering through cultural and bureacratic barriers as well as most other recent immigrants.

But Adana has had a difficult time being “absorbed” even in his own Ethiopian subculture: One of his eyelids droops heavily, and in addition to partially blocking his eyesight, it also makes him known among his peers as having, literally, an “evil eye.”

Adana never complained about his social problems or inability to see normally. He accepted his drooping eyelid as a problem that simply must be borne.

All that changed last month when Dr. Stephen Kutner, an American opthamologist and founder of Jewish Health International, arrived at Shoshana with an Israeli optometrist. Adana was one of 80 residents who had his eyes checked within a matter of hours, and was one of 27 who walked out of the screening room with a referral for follow-up care. Many patients also were fitted for prescription and reading glasses on site at Shoshana. Thanks to several donors, they had their new glasses delivered to them within a matter of days.

It was only because the healthcare came to Adana, rather than wait for him to come to it, that Adana will now, most likely, have insurance-covered surgery that will improve his eyesight and make a tremendous difference for his social and emotional life. Though Israel has an outstanding healthcare system and world-renowned doctors, there is often a gap between immigrants’ rights and their understanding of how to use those rights. Particularly among Ethiopian olim, there is a large chance that an immigrant with health problems will not think to vocalize his complaint or see a doctor. And if he does see a doctor, he often will have a difficult time understanding the instructions for follow up care. A directive as simple as “come back in three weeks” might stymie a patient who is overwhelmed by the absorption process and the language barrier, and who has a different cultural concept of the passage of time.

The Jewish Agency is working with Jewish Health International (JHI) to study the extent of this problem and create new ways of solving it. A pilot program in which American and Israeli physicians examine the eyesight of hundreds of immigrants is producing data that shows the enormous number of undiagnosed eye pathologies, as well as the cost effectiveness of doing screenings on site in the absorption centers and within immigrant communities.

The goal is to expand the project to other specialties – most immediately primary care, dentistry, and hearing – and create a new paradigm for bridging the gap between Israel’s excellent healthcare system and the vulnerable patients who do not yet understand how to take advantage of that system.

The Jewish Agency has been a partner of JHI since 2002. Jewish Health International enhances healthcare services to communities in need throughout the world by sending teams of Israeli and American physician volunteers to lecture, teach, and donate much-needed equipment to their foreign colleagues. JHI has been particularly active in improving healthcare for elderly Jews in the Former Soviet Union – an endeavor in which connections provided by the Jewish Agency have proven invaluable. One community in Romania had such a high rate of blindness in the Jewish community that the Community Center had a “Blind Club.” After JHI met with community leaders and helped local opthamologists set up different protocols, many people’s blindness was reversed, and that group became known as the “Formerly Blind Club.”

“We always go to all the sites with Israeli colleagues,” said Dr. Kutner, who hails from Atlanta. “It enhances the excitement. We have doctors who made aliyah from the FSU who are so excited about giving back in their former countries as a Jew and as a professional. And it enhances the Jewish identities of the American volunteers; working with Israeli colleagues, you are very proud to be a Jew.”

Now, JHI is bringing their success to Israel itself in order to help the immigrant population. The Israel Ministry of Health, the Israel Nurses Association, and several local hospitals have already signed on to participate in the project. Soon, there will be an established pattern of examining and, more importantly, educating new Israelis so that their health problems, large and small, are caught and treated.

In many cases, that help makes all the difference in their absorption.

“So many older Ethiopians have a hard time learning Hebrew,” Kutner pointed out, “and they chalk it up to being older. They say ‘I’m too stupid to learn a new language.’ But really it’s because they can’t see the letters. We give them reading glasses, and all of a sudden they realize how much sharper and focused the world looks. Giving someone a pair of reading glasses is like giving them a new chance at life.”

In addition to his volunteering and data-gathering at Shoshana, Kutner also announced his intention to launch a new program to give new toys to immigrant children.


Cory Plasker sent 40 soccer balls with Kutner to Israel for immigrant children.

Cory Plasker, 13, of Marietta, Georgia, sent 40 soccer balls to Israel with Kutner, his neighbor. An accomplished soccer player himself, Cory decided that as a special charity project for his bar mitzvah, he would give underprivileged children a way to learn the “Beautiful Game” from which he himself derives much joy. He asked every guest to his bar mitzvah party to bring a deflated soccer ball.

“Dr. Kutner goes to Israel a lot, and I thought Israel would be a nice country to give it to,” Cory said. For his part, Kutner said that it is important for donors to think not only of immigrants’ physical and educational needs, but also the recreational needs of the children.

So, after examining his patients at Shoshana, Kutner and Terri Bagen, JHI’s Executive Director, pumped air into several soccer balls and gave them out to the ecstatic children. A little boy of about 2 – the same age that Cory was when he started playing soccer – immediately understood the joy of kicking the ball to others and waiting for them to kick it back.

“This is amazing to watch,” Kutner said. He announced his plans to encourage other bar- and bat-mitzvah celebrants in the US to donate toys, and is calling for visitors to Israel to help deliver the dolls, games, and balls to the Jewish Agency, who will distribute them to new immigrants.

Cory’s community soccer team, NASA 11 Elite, is tied for first in the state of Georgia. He has an additional 180 balls in his garage, ready to send to Israel as soon as he finds a way to get them there. “And I’m working on getting more,” he said. “I want to do more things like this in the future.”

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