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A forensic volunteer from afar

Help was needed to identify bodies murdered by Hamas on Oct. 7.

Trucks filled with dead bodies from Israeli communities near the Gaza border arrive at Abu Kabir Forensic Research Laboratory in Tel Aviv for identification, Oct. 16, 2023. Photo by Gideon Markowicz/TPS.
Trucks filled with dead bodies from Israeli communities near the Gaza border arrive at Abu Kabir Forensic Research Laboratory in Tel Aviv for identification, Oct. 16, 2023. Photo by Gideon Markowicz/TPS.

Even before the death toll from the murderous Hamas assault on communities along the Gaza Strip border came into focus, it was clear that this was the deadliest terror attack in Israeli history. And so, the Jewish state would clearly need help identifying bodies so they could be given a dignified burial.

When Dr. Judy Melnick saw that American Healthcare Professionals and Friends for Medicine in Israel (APF) was sponsoring a delegation of doctors to assist in humanitarian aid, the forensic pathologist from Wellington, New Zealand, signed up.

“At the top of the list, they were asking for forensic pathologists,” Melnick told JNS. “I am an American board-certified forensic pathologist, but I am also Israeli by birth and fluent in Hebrew. I figured I could be of some use.”

Melnick, who spent a week volunteering to help identify bodies brought to the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute in Tel Aviv, has returned to her home in Wellington.

She had previously carried out forensic work at other major disasters, including the destruction of New York’s World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and the New York crash of American Airlines flight 587 in which 260 people were killed two months later.

“The practice of medicine itself is often detective work; deciphering clues in the symptoms and signs that patients present, and identifying a likely culprit you can treat,” Melnick explained to JNS. “Forensic pathologists don’t just do autopsies and look at a microscope. They go to death scenes, counsel the families of the deceased, and testify in legal cases. It is a much more diverse and exciting job than what is portrayed on television.”

‘Gurneys were lined up outdoors’

Melnick and three other doctors from the United States were taken to Abu Kabir, but the forensic center was swamped.

“The building is very old, and the facilities are in need of an upgrade to appropriately respond to the country’s dead respectfully and quickly, even when there isn’t a war. There were few autopsy rooms, and they were poorly ventilated and cramped. There was insufficient refrigerated indoor space for the bodies, so gurneys were lined up outdoors, in the hot sun, waiting to be scanned,” she said.

To streamline the work, bodies were brought to Camp Shura, a military facility near Rehovot. Only bodies that couldn’t easily be identified were taken to Abu Kabir for more in-depth examination.

“The four of us were assigned to an autopsy room and went through the body bags that were brought in by ZAKA volunteers,” she said.

ZAKA is a volunteer emergency response organization that aids in the identification of victims of terrorism, road accidents and other disasters.

“Each pouch was opened, and its contents examined forensically and photographed to reveal any identifying information and also to document traumatic injuries that could be assigned as the cause of death. The remains we examined were the ones that could not be easily identified based on the initial round of inspection in the field. Most were massively charred, decomposed or badly traumatized,” Melnick said.

“Even while we were working in central Tel Aviv, sirens rang out overhead intermittently, and we had to go to shelters until the ‘all clear’ was sounded,” she noted.

“What moved me the most was that on the day we arrived, one of the staff members had just come back from a funeral and was being comforted by another staff member,” Melnick recalled. “This terrorist attack struck at the heart of the Israeli people, and every single person I met on this trip knew someone who was injured, dead or kidnapped. In a country of fewer than 10 million people, there are only two degrees of separation for most, so an attack of this magnitude compares to eight times the personal impact of 9/11, if you compare it to the population of the U.S.”

Having returned to Wellington, Melnick was asked how she was decompressing from the experience. She replied: “Fresh air, walks with my dog, and time spent with friends and family do wonders to restore the soul. I am also grateful that I had some time to visit my family in Modi’in-Reut and see my 90-year-old Aunt Sarah. I also find that it helps me to write down my thoughts to get them ‘out of my head,’ so to speak.”

But even though her forensic tour of duty is finished, Melnick stresses that humanitarian needs are still urgent.

“There are wonderful organizations, like APF, that will arrange your travel. Those with experience in orthopedic surgery, physical therapy and rehabilitation medicine are needed for the next mission, to help the survivors. To volunteer, you can contact APF,” she recommends.

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