Behind the Scenes of Hadassah's ICU with Dr. Vernon Van Heerden

Hadassah On Call: New Frontiers in Medicine

Dr. Vernon Van Heerden is currently the head of the Hadassah Hospital’s General Intensive Care Unit. Born in South Africa, Dr. Van Heerden is a specialist in anesthesia and critical care. In this new episode, recorded before the coronavirus outbreak, we chatted with him about what makes Hadassah's ICUs unique, his work and an intriguing study he's working on related to doctor burnout.

About this episode

Dr. Vernon Van Heerden is currently the head of the Hadassah Hospital’s General Intensive Care Unit. Born in South Africa, Dr. Van Heerden is a specialist in anesthesia and critical care. He studied in Johannesburg and completed fellowships in Ireland and Australia. The first person in his family to attend university, he mentions that his goals in the past were to become as well-rounded a medical specialist as he could. For him, this included wanting to succeed in all aspects of medical life -- clinical, academic, management and scientific. He is a doctor of Philosophy and began his career at Hadassah as an Associate Professor of Anesthesiology, while also practicing medicine. Dr. Van Heerden continues to practice, sits on multiple committees and also conducts research which, interestingly enough, focuses on doctor burnout and compassion fatigue.

About the Episode

Dr. Vernon Van Heerden remembers the moment like it was yesterday. He was making the rounds in the Intensive Care Unit where one of his patients had been in a coma for months. "I was walking past this lady’s bed and she had no signs of brain function at all," he recalls. "I noticed suddenly that her eyes were following me."

Calm and composed, Dr. Van Heerden walked up for a closer look. "I could see that she was actually looking at me. And from that point onwards, her brain function improved. She woke up, we could remove her from life support, and she went home. It was an amazing story of someone who we never expected to survive."

For the South African born doctor, who has been working at Hadassah Hospital's various ICUs since 2012, such stories of survival are par for the course. From tales of live organ transplants to near death experiences, the doctor shares some of his favorite patient stories in this new episode of "Hadassah On Call." (This episode was recorded prior to the coronavirus outbreak. These days, Hadassah's ICUs are mostly focused on treating patients with COVID-19.)

Dealing with life and death issues on a daily basis can cause some doctors to experience burnout or compassion fatigue — topics that Dr. Van Heerden and his colleagues have spent a lot of time studying. "It's well-known that you can't keep going at 110% all the time," he says, adding that it is important for doctors to shake up their routine. "The way we do it, for instance, is you might be the attending physician for a week or 10 days, and then you rotate off that position to do something else. For instance, anesthesia clinics — something which is less intense. Just the change of scenery makes you ready for the next time that you are an attending physician."

One thing that ICU doctors around the world stress over is the shortage of donor organs. In recent years, Hadassah has increased the number of live donor transplants. "The amazing thing in Israel is that there's an organization which matches people who want to donate kidneys as an altruistic exercise," the doctor explains. "So this is someone who's totally unrelated to the recipient."

As the head of the intensive care unit at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Dr. Van Heerden is exposed to a diverse group of patients. "It's an amazing environment to work in," he says. "Even if I was absolutely fluent in Hebrew, the next patient through the door might be a Russian speaker. And the one after that, a new immigrant from France and the one after that, an Arab patient from a small village who speaks only Arabic."

Nowhere is this multi-ethnicity more on display than after an attack, where the doctor helps treat both terrorist and victim. "The way I look at it, and the way most of my colleagues look at it, is that we deal with the sick patient in front of us. We make no judgment about who they are, where they come from. And we try and save their lives, regardless of their background. It's training which is deeply ingrained in us and it kicks in."

Further reading and exciting developments with Dr. Van Heerden

The altruism of donating an organ during the COVID-19 pandemic

Hadassah saves mom and delivers her baby in the intensive care unit

South African young people receive insights into Hadassah diversity

Read a transcript of this episode.

Behind the scenes photos of the episode.

"Hadassah On Call: New Frontiers in Medicine" is a production of Hadassah, The Women's Zionist Organization of America. Hadassah enhances the health of people around the world through medical education, care and research innovations at the Hadassah Medical Organization. For more information on the latest advances in medicine please head over to

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The show is hosted by Benyamin Cohen and edited by Skyler Inman and the team at the Hadassah offices in both New York and Israel.

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