Israeli doctor, 65, returns to work - in war's danger zones

Dorit Nitzan has come out of retirement to head the World Health Organisation response in Ukraine


A 65-year-old Israeli doctor has come out of retirement to serve at the humanitarian front line in Ukraine as head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) response.

Having served in senior roles for 17 years with the global health body, Dorit Nitzan had been scheduled to step down in February and take up a prestigious new job with Ben-Gurion University.

But after Russia invaded, the former Regional Health Emergencies Co-ordinator for WHO Europe was resolved to help Ukrainians and volunteered to go to the Polish-Ukrainian border with Israeli disaster relief NGO Natan. Dr Nitzan told the JC: “I came back home after two or three weeks, and then WHO asked me to return to work for them in Ukraine.”

Now she is responsible for co-ordinating all WHO medical responses to the war, the pandemic, and all health emergencies. Her work entails travelling all over the country, including areas that have been hard-hit by the invasion.

Dr Nitzan was involved in the recent rescue of civilians from the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol: “We saw what had happened to them. It was terrible.”

She has also been near the shelling in Dnipro: “The sirens go off very often. You feel the war here. It is such a big country that in some parts you do feel that things are normal, but it’s absolutely not.”

She is clear-eyed about the task ahead for her and her colleagues: “WHO’s biggest challenge is to address the war, I call it a disease. The war is a disease, but the cure is peace. We are providing a life-saving intervention for people, but this is not solving the problem here. We are running, to prepare the health system, the workforce, the people, and then responding… but this will not end, until there is some kind of agreement to allow people to go back to their lives.”

Dr Nitzan and her colleagues deal patients with conditions such as cancer, hypertension, and patients who require dialysis. “Then there are ‘new diseases’, which involve trauma, injuries and mental health” — the latter often involving children, and of which Dr Nitzan, who trained as a paediatrician, is sensitively aware.

Though she is clear that “you never get used to war”, Dr Nitzan, who lives in Atlit on Israel’s north coast, acknowledges the benefit of living amid conflict and completing army service at home: “It helps me to take personal responsibility.  I know that when there are sirens, I go to the shelter, and I make sure that the team knows what to do. In war you cannot trust what happens.”

She has promised her family that she will return to Israel “in a few months”. But she says: “I will always be ready to jump on a plane and go back to help.”

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