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A life-saving friendship that lives on after death

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A Johannesburg doctor is battling to come to terms with the tragic passing of his esteemed colleagues who died in a fatal helicopter crash last week. Had he not been attending the funeral of a close friend and patient who died of COVID-19, he could have been on that rescue flight. He had participated in so many of those flights before.

Dr Ronald Hockman’s longstanding friend, Ian Shapiro, 69, was laid to rest at Westpark Cemetery last Thursday, 21 January, at the exact time his colleagues left Johannesburg on board a Netcare 911 helicopter. He had cared for Shapiro night and day for three weeks as he battled the virus, managing to save his life on two separate occasions. Hockman was distraught when Shapiro, in spite of a monumental effort to try to save him, slipped away, unable to “turn the corner and get over the hump”.

Hockman’s colleague with whom he worked side by side, Dr Kgopotso Rudolph Mononyane, and two other respected co-workers, cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Curnick Siyabonga (Sia) Mahlangu, and specialist cardiothoracic and transplant theatre nurse Mpho Xaba were on the fatal flight. They were en route to a hospital in Hillcrest, west of Durban, to transfer a critically ill patient to Netcare Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg for specialised care.

Filled with mixed emotions, a devastated Hockman said, “I could have been on that flight.”

He was one of four (sadly now only three) cardiothoracic anaesthetists that could have been called on the rescue mission. The close-knit team take care of COVID-19 patients needing critical intubation and ventilation procedures in the intensive-care unit at Netcare Milpark Hospital.

Two of his colleagues were in theatre at the time, which left him and Dr Rudolph, as he was affectionately called.

Now Hockman and two of his colleagues are finding it unfathomably hard living with the heavy burden of survivor’s guilt.

This week, as Hockman together with Netcare Chief Executive Dr Richard Friedland stood at the crash site alongside members of the victims’ families during a special memorial ceremony, he wondered why he was spared.

“I almost wish it had happened to me,” Hockman told the SA Jewish Report. “The pain of losing a dear friend on the one hand who I battled to save, and dear colleagues whose death I cannot make sense of, is unbearable.

“We are all walking around in mourning. Some of us have survivors’ guilt,” he said.

His friendship with Shapiro started when the two were at Greenside High School many years ago. “We became close during our bi-weekly gemara shiurim, which we attended for more than 35 years.

“Ian was the star of the shiur. He had such an inquiring mind. He was a remarkable person. I cannot imagine the shiur without him, in the same way I cannot imagine surgery without Drs Rudolph, Sia, and sister Mpho,” he said.

Shapiro’s son, Daniel, said his father’s relationship with Hockman was special. “Dr Hockman saved my father twice. He is an exceptional doctor who would work tirelessly until the early hours of the morning, keeping us informed of his condition, which helped so much. I only hope that by him coming to my father’s funeral he will have the chance to save countless more lives. This is a small comfort.”

Shapiro was this week described by friends and family as a “warm and caring true mensch”, who treated everyone equally and never “uttered a bad word about anyone”.

The longstanding attorney was the father of three sons and the grandfather of six, and an avid Arsenal Football Club supporter. He had a love of Yiddishkeit, and many varied hobbies including music, history, and sport.

He and his wife, Anne-Louise, contracted COVID-19 while holidaying in Cape Town.

Hatzolah Medical Rescue advised them to drive home, which they did, going via Beaufort West. When they reached Beaufort West, Ian’s condition started to deteriorate, which set in motion a mammoth 36-hour emergency operation to get the couple back home as fast as possible after Ian’s overnight stay in a government facility.

Hatzolah helped to facilitate an ambulance transfer for Ian to Bloemfontein, while Anne-Louise drove ahead in the rented car. In a dramatic twist, the ambulance experienced a blown tyre which delayed its arrival by several hours. In the meantime, Hatzolah volunteers Josh Green and Netanel Azzizolahoff travelled by ambulance to fetch Ian upon his arrival in Bloemfontein. They travelled through the night.

“Hatzolah was incredible,” said Daniel.

They got my dad to hospital, and checked in with my mom several times a day as she remained in quarantine.

“Volunteers even offered to do her dishes and sit with her in full PPE [personal protective equipment] to keep her company. They are on another level.”

Hockman said it was a traumatic time for the Shapiro family, who are picking up the pieces of losing Ian, and for his medical colleagues after the crash.

The helicopter crash sent shock waves through the medical community, which is still reeling from the tragedy.

The aircraft crashed near Bergville in northern KwaZulu-Natal, claiming the lives of all on board including Sinjin Joshua Farrance, an advanced life-support paramedic at Netcare 911, and pilot Mark Stoxreiter, who worked for National Airways Corporation.

“All this takes its toll, but you have to carry on. I feel desperately sad for the families left behind. These people were loved by everybody. They were the cream of the crop. I feel profoundly sad and vulnerable.”

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