It is the first stop for dozens of Israeli soldiers and civilians wounded by Hezbollah attacks. But even Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, the largest hospital in northern Israel, cannot escape the daily threat of rockets. Built between two popular Hezbollah targets (an Israeli naval base and the port of Haifa), Rambam has narrowly missed becoming a victim of the violence as well. Three Katyusha rockets landed on its coastal campus in a single day this week. No one was seriously hurt.
As we approached the hospital to visit with wounded soldiers, I warned my colleagues, photographer Brad Houston and soundman Michael Huntting, that we needed to keep our wits about us, listening closely for rocket warning sirens. It didn't take long. Just as soon as we parked, the blaring began. Doctors, nurses and staff members rushed through the front doors seeking shelter. Left behind, a dozen stretchers parked in front of the hospital in anticipation of the next round of victims.
Sixty seconds passed. No explosion. Almost immediately, everyone returned to their routine.
Eight minutes later, another interruption, another warning siren.
Again, fortunately, no explosion. It was unclear where the rocket landed. At least in our neighborhood, everyone was safe.
Eighteen wounded Israeli soldiers were flown by helicopter to Rambam after Wednesday's fierce fighting in southern Lebanon. When we visited the intensive care unit, we met 19-year-old Evyatar Cohen. Doctors were treating him for shrapnel wounds he suffered during a Hezbollah grenade attack Wednesday near Bint Jbail, Lebanon. He smiled when we asked to speak with him. Evyatar's English was good, but his speech slurred from medication relieving his pain. After more than a year in the Israeli Army, this week's ground offensive into Lebanon was Evyatar's first time in combat. He described the unforgettable moment when he came face-to-face with a Hezbollah fighter less than two miles across the Israel-Lebanon border.
"We were both in shock when we saw each other," he explained. "Nobody shoot [sic] nobody. I never saw Hezbollah. Never saw an enemy. This was the first time. I didn't know really what to do."
After a brief pause, Evyatar says the guerrilla fighter disappeared.
"I started to think, I have to shoot him. I have to kill him."
Evyatar started firing his weapon. He quickly alerted the other paratroopers that the enemy was near. The soldiers threw a grenade at the Hezbollah fighter's location. The guerrillas retaliated, throwing one back, he says. Evyatar remembers the second explosion. Shrapnel hurled at him. He still has no feeling in most of his right arm and hand.
His story was so compelling. Despite a decades old conflict between the Israelis and Hezbollah fighters, like many of his fellow soldiers, Evyatar had only seen the face of the cross-border enemy on television. Today, even as he recovers in his hospital bed, he was stunned by the experience that nearly cost him his life.
Photo caption: Evyatar in his hospital bed. Photo by NBC's Brad Houston.