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The lone South African Jew saving lives at the World Cup

  • EfraimKramer4
While a South African sports team is nowhere near the World Cup in Russia, we do have one esteemed representative on the field. His name is Professor Efraim Kramer and he is FIFA’s Tournament Medical Officer. A Shabbos-keeping, kippa-wearing, self-confessed adrenalin junkie, Kramer lives in Glenhazel when he’s not gracing the world’s best stadia.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Jul 05, 2018

This week, the SA Jewish Report caught up with Kramer – who presides over all the medical and anti-doping operations of FIFA World Cup 2018. It happened to be moments before the Mexico v Brazil kickoff held in Samara – the sixth largest city on the Volga River, known as the country’s space capital.

“I don’t do cosmonauts, I do sportsmen and women,” said a chipper Kramer from the Samara Arena, where he was responsible for making sure that all medical operations were in place to ward off any medical disaster during a tournament of this magnitude.

“Every stadium is a small city,” said Kramer, “Someone’s going to trip and fall, someone’s going to have chest pains, someone’s going to have asthma, someone can even have a baby! This stadium is a city of 45 000 people – anything can happen.”

Kramer specialised in sports medicine, and has been passionately involved in emergency medicine for the past three decades. The latter included “mass gathering medicine”, which resulted in him being called on to assist at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

“Since then, I have been involved with FIFA Medical, helping to establish international norms and standards for football medical services and football emergency medicine. I have focused on the prevention and management of sudden cardiac arrest on the field,” he said.

As the retired co-founder and medical director of Rescue South Africa, Kramer specialised in disaster response. He has attended medical emergencies at the sites of earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, hurricanes, and floods. He has also covered events like pop concerts, Comrades marathons, and large cycle tours.

As a FIFA football emergency physician, he manages emergency medical services at several FIFA tournaments, including the FIFA World Cup in Brazil in 2014, and FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada in 2015.

Right now, at the World Cup in Russia, Kramer explains that each stadium requires at least 250 medical personnel. His team get to the stadium three hours before the start of the match, and are present during the match and for about an hour after spectators have left.

“That’s about a six-hour long party. It is a long time with people screaming and jumping up and down,” said Kramer. He wouldn’t miss it for the world, though, saying there’s “nothing to beat” the atmosphere at a World Cup match.

This year, the World Cup has 32 national teams. A total of 64 matches will be played in 12 venues in 11 host cities. Each host city has a FIFA venue medical officer who works hand in hand with the local organising committee. Their aim is to ensure the highest standard of medical services, including first aid and emergency support to participating teams, the FIFA delegation, guests, and spectators during the tournament.

“It’s a gigantic team effort, and it has taken about three years to organise,” he said, “So far, it has been fantastic.”

Kramer spent many weeks in Russia last year holding training workshops and meeting medical personnel to set up the iconic tournament’s intricate medical operations.

Not for one minute does Judaism get neglected in the excitement. On the contrary, Kramer says he has been in contact with “every single Jewish community” through the length and breadth of Russia. And, he has had more kosher food delivered to his hotel door than he “can ever eat”.

He has been warmed by the many secular-looking Russians who have walked up to him greeting him with a shalom aleichem.

“There is a slow migration into the open for many Russian Jews. Many are secular, or they simply do not know they are Jewish, or they are still too afraid to come out,” he said.

During the World Cup, Kramer spends Shabbos in his hotel room at the Radisson Royal in Moscow, reading, relaxing, and recharging his batteries. Shabbos comes in at 21:00 on Friday and ends at 23:00 on Saturday, so he has ample time to prepare for the oncoming “next six days of madness”.

Kramer is the former Head of the Division of Emergency Medicine at Wits Medical School and former head of Thelle Mogoerane Regional Hospital Emergency Department. He stepped down from these positions last year to give others a chance. He is still a Professor of Sports Medicine at the University of Pretoria. These days, he spends half his day in Kolel (a special learning programme) at Yeshiva Maharsha in Johannesburg when he is not running around the world with FIFA.

Kramer, who grew up in Welkom in the Free State, insists he never had a calling to become a doctor. He claims it was “fluke” that he landed up applying for medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand, with one matric distinction. “I wanted to be a traffic cop,” he recalls with a laugh.

Having said that, he loves being an emergency physician, as it “gives me the opportunity to save lives”, although “you’ve got to be a little crazy to do it”.

With many days still to go before the World Cup final, he said his team has treated at least 9 000 patients, and he anticipates many more as the country is hosting more than a million fans.

There are 6 000 medical staff falling under the FIFA medical umbrella who work hand in hand with the Russian healthcare system.

Kramer looks forward to being reunited with his wife, Nadine, and their three daughters and sons in laws who all live in close proximity to each other in and around Glenhazel. He can’t wait to meet his new grandson, whose bris he missed last week.

But he wouldn’t have missed the chance of working at the World Cup for anything. He marvels that “a simple South African out of the Free State can hold this position”.

“Going from sports medicine at Tukkies to the grand stadia in St Petersburg, this is proof that if you aim for the moon, things like a loving family, passion, commitment, and caring colleagues can catapult you there,” he says.

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