Ezras Nashim: EMS by women, for women

Brooklyn EMS volunteers offer services tailored to their New York community

Paula Eiselt’s documentary, “93 Queen” tells the story of Rachel “Ruchie” Freier, a lawyer who fought to create an all-female Hatzolah, or volunteer EMT crew, for Orthodox communities.

Author’s note: Patients’ names have been changed to ensure confidentiality.

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah in Brooklyn’s Borough Park – a predominately Jewish, New York City neighborhood – Miriam P. was cooking chicken soup for her family’s holiday dinner. As she tried to move the pot from one burner to another, she fell. So did the pot. The hot soup splashed her legs and caused second-degree burns.

Rather than dial 911 for help, Miriam called Ezras Nashim, a local EMS agency staffed entirely by women. Answering the phone was paramedic Rachel “Ruchie” Freier, founder of the group.

Although women treating women is a non-issue in secular society, it can be seen as an unwelcome compromise to Hasidic Jewish culture.
Although women treating women is a non-issue in secular society, it can be seen as an unwelcome compromise to Hasidic Jewish culture. (Photo/Ezras Nashim Facebook page)

“Miriam preferred not to be examined by a man,” Freier says. “That’s common in our community, where modesty is essential. You see that in our dress – women covering their hair and wearing skirts instead of pants – but it’s an all-encompassing way of life.”

Cultural adjustment in EMS

Although women treating women is a non-issue in secular society, it can be seen as an unwelcome compromise to Hasidic Jewish culture. That opposition hasn’t dissuaded Freier from offering women less-intimidating prehospital care. “Lots of us feel vulnerable around male responders,” she says. “We may be glad our lives were saved or our babies delivered, but the trauma and humiliation of physical exams by men can be profound.”

“If modesty is preserved while receiving equally effective care from women, why not?”

That question was important enough to take all the way to Israel, where Ezras Nashim (Hebrew for “assisting women”) got an unequivocal endorsement from world-renowned rabbis. “They were very respectful,” Freier reports. “They understood their area of expertise is Jewish law, not medicine.”

Now the challenge, according to Ruchie, is getting male-dominated organizations, such as Borough Park’s Hatzolah volunteer ambulance corps, to view Ezras Nashim as a legitimate emergency medical service. Doing so would help Freier’s squad take their next step: add their own ambulances. “We’ve applied for a license,” she says. “It’s been hard. We’re fundraising, recruiting and trying to learn all the rules as we go along.”

Stethoscope or gavel?

Freier has a healthy respect for rules. As a Brooklyn Criminal Court judge, she deals with right and wrong daily. She even gets to treat plaintiffs, defendants and lawyers.

“I was in court, going through training with my supervisor, when one of the attorneys started acting strangely,” she recalls. “The guy apologized, then said he’s a diabetic and his sugar is probably too low. Meanwhile, he’s slurring his words. I’m thinking, someone should give him sugar, so I ran to a vending machine, got him a soda and made him drink. That’s all he needed. It was a good reminder of how the simplest things can sometimes help the most.

“I keep O2, a defibrillator and a trauma bag in my chambers. The court officers know to call me along with 911 if anyone gets sick or hurt.”

More than midwives

When Freier started Ezras Nashim in 2014, prehospital OB/GYN care was the priority. “Our EMTs get extra training in labor and delivery and have NRP [neonatal resuscitation] certification,” she says. Now her agency’s services are expanding to include other emergent interventions within an EMT’s scope of practice. Her group even offers basic follow-up under physician supervision. “I visited Miriam twice a day after her accident to check on her and help her take her medication,” she adds.

The achievements of Freier and her fellow volunteers have been noticed outside Borough Park. In 2017, Ezras Nashim was named both New York City’s and New York State’s EMS Agency of the Year – awards Freier feels validate her organization as a neighborhood healthcare partner, rather than a Hatzolah rival.

“I love my community,” she says. “I just want to help it make a small change so our women feel less uncomfortable about being treated by strangers.

“One of the higher-ups in the EMS world told me it takes about seven years to change culture. If that’s true, I guess I’m on year number five. It’s going to take time for people here to realize that when you have an emergency, you can feel very confident calling us.”

Freier says she’s hoping for assistance from outside the neighborhood, too. “We have about 30 members, but once we get an ambulance, we’re going to need experienced EMTs and paramedics of any faith who don’t mind responding on holidays and weekends.”

For Ruchie, the importance of providing low-stress care to the women of Borough Park is best illustrated by an encounter with a holocaust survivor. “When these women aren’t feeling well, they call us. One who has a pacemaker and might need an EKG told me, ‘I don’t want a man to touch me.’

“It’s not to take away anything from what a man can do, and it’s not about competition. It’s just about accepting the fact that women sometimes feel vulnerable and prefer the comfort of another woman who also happens to be a trained professional.”

For more information about Ezras Nashim, visit their website at www.ezras-nashim.org or call 718-232-1304.

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