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Bandage that helped save lives in Giffords shooting has Israeli backstory

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Israel changed Gabrielle Giffords’ life when the budding politician first visited the country in 2001 and it drew her close to Judaism.

After the Arizona congresswoman was shot in the head a month ago, an Israeli innovation invented by an American immigrant to Israel may have helped save her life.

First responders credited the emergency bandage colloquially known as “the Israeli bandage” with saving lives in the aftermath of the shooting in Tucson, Ariz., that left six dead and 13 wounded.

Pima County officials displayed the kit at a Jan. 21 news conference in Tucscon, along with other military-grade gear used in ministering to the wounded in the Jan. 8 shooting. The county had switched last June to the upgraded gear, and the shooting was its major first field test.

“Without this care it would have definitely been a different situation,” Dr. Katherine Hiller, who had attended the wounded at University Medical Center, told The Los Angeles Times.

It is not clear if the Israeli bandage was applied to Giffords — the details of the day were lost in the chaos — but the bandage is known for, among other things, its utility in stanching head wounds, one of the greatest challenges with conventional bandages. One model covers both entry and exit wounds, which Giffords is known to have sustained.

The bandage, like others, applies a sterile pad to the wound to stop the blood. What distinguishes it is that a built-in applicator applies the equivalent of up to 30 pounds of pressure over the pad by wrapping it in the opposite direction of the initial wrap.

Head wounds require multiple standard bandages to keep a pad in place. One Israeli bandage, with its elasticized cloth, is enough for a head wound, and the very act of wrapping it around the head applies pressure to the wound. That saves precious time, and the applied pressure applicator, because it is built-in, is more stable than the external pressures used with conventional bandages.

Since its 1993 invention, the Israeli bandage has become standard issue in militaries throughout the world. The U.S. military made it standard issue in 2003, in time for the Iraq War.

The inventor of the pad, Bernard Bar-Natan, is a self-described Brooklyn boy, a son of Holocaust survivors who immigrated to Israel in 1979 and was drafted into the military in 1983, serving an abbreviated service as an adult.

When he was going into the military, friends advised him to get a “job” or a specialty to alleviate the boredom of grunt-level service. Immigrants drafted as adults serve only a few months rather than three or more years, so they rarely serve in the military’s upper reaches. One of the few specialties available at that level is medic.

As the years wore on through monthlong stints in the Israeli reserves, Bar-Natan became annoyed by an anomaly: The bandages available might have manufacture dates as early as 1942 or as late as the previous month, yet they remained essentially unchanged. Medics in the field were required to improvise pressure applicators — magazines, rocks, canteens, whatever was handy.

“The guns we used had improved, the planes flying above us had improved, but the bandages were the same,” Bar-Natan told JTA.

In the early 1990s, the Israeli government was encouraging start-ups through “incubators,” providing them low-interest loans. That encouraged Bar-Natan to jump in the waters with his idea for a newfangled bandage.

In 2000, he took the bandage to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, where the U.S. military trains medics. Soon his company, First Care, was selling the bandage for use by elite units, including the 75th Rangers and the 101st Airborne. Three years later the bandage was certified for standard use.

The Giffords shooting shined unexpected — and unwanted — publicity on his invention.

“The real story is about her,” Bar-Natan said.

He had heard about how Giffords on an American Jewish Committee trip to Israel in 2001 — — shortly after she was first elected to the Arizona state Legislature — had connected with her father’s faith and decided to become a practicing Jew.

Bar-Natan’s success is not going unnoticed.

Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, told the conservative Daily Caller website recently that learning of the bandage’s role in saving lives in Tucson has been a highlight of his stint as ambassador.