Five years ago, Benny Gustafson’s brother died while studying abroad in an incident that might have been averted, if only paramedics been called sooner.
Now a junior at Marquette University, Gustafson is on a mission to assist those in need as an emergency medical technician in both Milwaukee and Israel. He said he aims to prevent families from experiencing the same tragedy his family endured.
“Helping people by preventing unnecessary harm is something that I’ve been really passionate about,” Gustafson said. “The reason I really fell in love with the job is just being a calming force in a very hectic situation. Calming everyone down and doing what I do best.”
A Madison local, Gustafson spends the school year working as an EMT in the Milwaukee area. Last summer, he volunteered for Magen David Adom in Tel Aviv, to build his skills. He now longs to return there to assist Israelis, with the country at war.
Gustafson obtained his firefighter and EMT licenses through a dual enrollment in Madison Area Technical College while he was still a high school senior. Since starting at Marquette, he has been working part time as an EMT on an ambulance in Milwaukee, most weeks working one 12-hour shift. But a Birthright trip to Israel prompted him to think about how a new environment could aid his work.
“I went there in search of something spiritual, and also to take advantage of the relationship that every Jewish person has with Israel,” Gustafson said. “But I just really fell in love with the culture there and the people, the human interactions and the vibe in Tel Aviv was very upbeat. I also thought it would be a good opportunity for me to expand my knowledge of emergency medical services and patient care by working in a different environment.”
So, this past summer, Gustafson returned to Israel to participate in the MDA Overseas International Volunteer Program, coordinated by Israel Experience, which consists of a 10-day emergency medical training course in Jerusalem in which participants earn a First Responder in Israel certificate, followed by five weeks working eight-hour shifts on an ambulance. Gustafson chose to be stationed in Tel Aviv.
While working in the city, Gustafson said he experienced more intensive patient care situations than he typically experiences while working in the United States. He added that he was instrumental in assisting with severe trauma cases where the EMTs employed services that helped the patient survive, something he said is rare in Milwaukee.
“Above 90 percent of my patients that I have [in Milwaukee] are both diabetic and have high blood pressure. Many of our patients are obese,” Gustafson said. “In Israel, it just seemed like everyone was just in a lot better shape. And they also seem to call ambulances only when they really needed it. So it was interesting to see the different healthcare systems.”
He also said the sometimes high-pressure environment in Tel Aviv helped him practice remaining calm when tensions are high. “It was a pretty normal thing for everyone to be yelling at each other over in Israel on the scene of an emergency, which is just not a thing that we do here,” Gustafson said.
While he continues to attend school in Milwaukee, hearing stories of his MDA coworkers who have been called for IDF reserve duty or continue to operate everyday ambulance calls amid falling rockets has made him feel “helpless.”
“They continue to answer the call, responding with their helmets and bulletproof vests, ready to help however they can regardless of the security situation,” Gustafson said. “I would give anything to buy a ticket to Israel and get back on the ambulance.”
Gustafson has always dreamed of becoming a paramedic full time after college, before transitioning to use his degree in economics and international affairs. His summer in Tel Aviv solidified his plans.
“It was just such a privilege to be able to help Israelis during the worst time, during their worst hour,” Gustafson said.