On border with Gaza, S.F. surgeon lends his expertise

Dr. Nikolaj Wolfson was supposed to run in the San Francisco Marathon last weekend to raise funds for Friendship Circle, a Chabad-run program that pairs teen volunteers with children with special needs.

Instead, the San Francisco orthopedic surgeon was on the Gaza border, treating injured Israeli soldiers as part of the Southern Command’s medical corps.

San Francisco orthopedic surgeon Dr. Nikolaj Wolfson near the Gaza border last week

“I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport on [July 24] at 1:30, and was in the reserves an hour and a half later,” said Wolfson, 58, who is head of orthopedics at San Joaquin General Hospital outside of Stockton and has his own practice in San Francisco. He spoke to J. by phone from an army base on the Gaza border, where he was examining Israeli soldiers as they entered and returned from fighting.

“It’s mostly minor injuries — sprains, shoulder pain,” he said, adding that he hoped to be moved into surgical work soon. “They carry tremendous weight on [their backs] in the field, 40 to 50 percent of their body weight. It puts tremendous strain on the body.”

Three decades ago, Wolfson graduated from the Sackler Faculty of Medicine at Tel Aviv University and served in the Israel Defense Forces as a military doctor, first with the paratroopers in Lebanon and then as a naval captain, chief of the submarine medical corps.

This was the first time he’d returned to Israel from the Bay Area to serve in uniform since he was demobilized in 1986.

“I felt the urge to go after the three kids were killed, and then the 13 Golani soldiers,” he said, referring to the three yeshiva students kidnapped and murdered in mid-June and a group of Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza on July 20. “It’s my family. And if I can contribute to my family, I should be there.”

This isn’t the first time Wolfson has stepped in to help in a crisis. In January 2010, he flew to Haiti to volunteer his services after a devastating earthquake hit the island nation (www.bit.ly/jweekly-wolfson).

“What I do is take care of people who need my medical expertise,” he said.

After his first three days in Israel last week, Wolfson said he was impressed by the public outpouring of love and care he saw for the soldiers.

“The civilians around here, the atmosphere here, is absolutely amazing,” he said. “Families come to speak to their sons before they go to the battlefield. There are tents where people provide food, clothes for the soldiers, whatever they need. In one special unit, families organized massages for the soldiers before they went off to fight. It’s insane, very special, very different.”

Wolfson said that high-ranking officers are being wounded and killed out of proportion to their numbers.

“They lead their soldiers, and they return to the field after they’re wounded,” he said, adding that the day before he spoke to J. he ran into an officer he hadn’t seen in 30 years, who had been wounded and was already headed back to rejoin his unit. “When I see these kids, I think, ‘What do I do, compared to them?’ ”

Wolfson is scheduled to return home Aug. 5.


Related stories:

Proud but worried: Anxious times for Bay Area parents with kids in IDF

Novato resident launches fundraising drive for lone soldiers

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at [email protected].