Neta was injured in the Kfar Gaza massacre – a new Technion invention helped her walk again

by Eitan Gefen

TRIGGER WARNING! This story contains descriptions of gun violence, including shootings, injuries, and death. It also describes the emotional and psychological impact of these events on the characters. Please consider your own sensitivities before reading.

On October 7, Neta Portal and her partner Santiago found themselves in the heart of the inferno of the massacre in Kfar Gaza at the hands of Hamas murderers. After a heroic escape story, during which she was seriously injured by seven bullets in her leg, she is in the midst of a complex rehabilitation process. An innovative brace developed by the Department of Biomechanical Engineering at the Technion helps her regain the ability to step on her foot. Dr. Amir Haim, Director of the Biomechanical Rehabilitation Unit at Beit Levinstein: This is a revolutionary device, the first of its kind in the world”

On the evening of October 6, Neta Portal was in the youth apartment she rented together with her partner Santiago Peres in Kfar Gaza. It was another normal, sleepy October weekend, nothing too special. The two had no far-reaching plans. Later in the evening, Portal’s best friend came to visit, on her way to the Nova festival near Reim. “We debated whether to travel and in the end we decided not to,” Portal recalls. “We stayed at home and went to bed really, really late.”

At half past six in the morning, like everyone else, the two woke up to the sounds of the sirens. “My partner Santi still ran to the door to try to see the interceptions, I told him to immediately enter the MMD (the safe room) and there we remained locked,” says Portal. 

“Around seven o’clock in the morning, we received a message in the group of the kibbutz that there was a fear of terrorist infiltration. By then we heard explosions, we realized that something was wrong, but at that moment we realized that something much bigger was happening.” The echoes of the explosions grew louder. Around eight o’clock in the morning, Santiago sent a message to a member of the kibbutz, the late Nitzan Liebstein, son of the head of the Shaar HaNegev Regional Council, the late Ofir Liebstein. “He asked him what was going on, if he knew what was going on outside, and Nitzan reassured him and told him not to worry, that army units were on their way,” Portal recalls. “We stayed closed in MMD, I even worried about my girlfriend who is in Nova. I spoke to her on the phone around half past seven, I told her to come to us in Kfar Gaza, that there is a medical center and everything is fine. She answered me while running that she couldn’t speak and that’s where the connection was actually cut off.”

They met at the “big trip” to South America and decided to move to Kfar Gaza. Neta Portal and Santiago Peres (Photo: Raphael Shahri)

At that time Portal and her partner started hearing shouts from outside. “An apartment next to us was hit by a missile. We started to be really quiet and stressed. I corresponded with my family, I told my mother that I heard gunshots and she told me that it must mean that the army is fighting, that I should not worry and that I should be strong. At this point we no longer answered the phones. Santi sent another message to Nitzan . He replied that his father and grandmother had just been murdered and that we should not leave the house because it is dangerous. This is where the token has already fallen for us that there are terrorists in the kibbutz.”

At that time Portal and her partner started hearing shouts from outside. “An apartment next to us was hit by a missile. We started to be really quiet and stressed. I corresponded with my family, I told my mother that I heard gunshots and she told me that it must mean that the army is fighting, that I should not worry and that I should be strong. At this point we no longer answered the phones. Santi sent another message to Nitzan . He replied that his father and grandmother had just been murdered and that we should not leave the house because it is dangerous. This is where the token has already fallen for us that there are terrorists in the kibbutz.”

Santi got up from the bed and held the door of the safety room. I just wanted someone to know that we were in trouble. I wrote in a group of good friends to call the police, that the terrorists were here. I understood that they were close, but I had no idea that they were going door to door and murdering people. One of my friends responded In a private message, she wrote to me that the police were not answering and that their call center had collapsed. It was around ten thirty in the morning. She asked me to write to my father, who is a police officer. I texted him that I was in Kfar Gaza and there were terrorists and I needed help. He answered me that a tactical force is on the way, and it is coming.”

Two minutes later the power went out. “We had no way to communicate,” recalls Portal, “we sat quietly in the dark in alert MMD.” We have already heard them shouting near the window of our apartment. Santi briefed me that they were going to break the window of the apartment. Ten minutes later that’s really what happened.

“They entered the apartment shouting, reached the lock and tried to open it. Santi wouldn’t let them even move the handle. A second later someone fired a bunch of bullets at the door. Santi got hit by two bullets in his right leg and was injured by a bullet rubbing his head and started bleeding. I got hit by a bullet in my right leg that was shot through the door and got stuck in my knee. At this point we were in trauma, unable to believe that we had actually been hit by bullets. Who even knew it could pass through the door of the MMD?”

She says: “I tried to write to my father again even though there was no reception or electricity. I wrote ‘Dad, I got shot. Save me’, and I sent the location of our apartment. Santi beckoned me with his eyes and whispered to me to open the window. I saw about 15 terrorists in the parking lot, watching the vehicles, smoking cigarettes and laughing. Some with green Hamas ribbons, some with IDF uniforms. I couldn’t believe it, I froze. Luckily there was a small tree that hid our window. I saw the border fence completely breached, the entire back gate was destroyed.

“At that second, Santi, who was still holding the handle of the MMD so that the terrorists would not enter, heard something metallic being thrown at the door, probably a grenade. He let go of the handle, threw me out of the window and jumped himself. He didn’t know there were terrorists out there. We started running deep into the kibbutz in the opposite direction from the fence.”

The terrorists noticed the couple fleeing the apartment, but chose not to pursue them. “They just opened a line of shooters and shot huge amounts of ammunition at us with automatic weapons,” Portal says. “Six more bullets hit me, three in the left ankle, two in the left thigh and one in the hand. I fell on my face, Santi passed me a few meters, saw that I was not next to him and went back to pick me up. At that time he got hit by a bullet in the back and shouted at me: ‘Neta, if we are not running, we’re dead’. Everything happened in seconds. We managed to run two blocks and reached the entrance of a house. Santi tried to open the apartments and failed. We also didn’t want to make noise – at this point we didn’t know if they were running after us or not.”

They found a temporary hiding place between two apartments. “Santi took off his tank top and put a tourniquet on my left leg, which took five bullets and had an open fracture in the ankle. The house was slightly elevated. There was a space underneath that you could enter. He took out all the garbage that was there, we went in and hid there for three and a half hours.”

Eventually, after a nerve-wracking wait, Portal and her partner heard the sounds of two people running and panting. “Santi saw that they were wearing uniforms and after a few sentences he realized that they were soldiers,” Portal says. “He came out and yelled at them. It turns out that these were some guys from a police unit who entered the kibbutz on their own. They entered on foot and had no way to rescue us. At this point I fell apart. All these hours I fought to stay conscious, I got hit by seven bullets, I had to have them take us out of there. I was not interested in anything, not terrorists, not anything. I begged them not to leave us there, I shouted ‘please don’t leave me here’.

“At that moment I thought of my father, I shouted his number to them and they called him. It turns out that during all these hours he was trying to enter the kibbutz. He actually entered with three other police officers, each from a different unit, in an armored police vehicle. Along with several other fighters They also managed to save a family. They arrived at the kibbutz and took us out as far as Sderot and from there to Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon, from there I ended up at Meir Hospital and there I was operated on. Since then I have been in Beit Levinstein.”

Learning to walk again

Due to the serious injury she suffered, Portal faced a complex recovery period. “I arrived at the Levinstein House when both my right leg and my left leg did not work at all, without range, and also my right hand, due to a bullet that hit the extensor tendons of the hand. My main injury was in the ankle of my left leg,” she explains, “It was completely crushed. Because of the injury Nothing could hold it and it cannot bear the weight of the body. On the other hand, in order for the bone to fuse and the leg to be able to move, we looked for a way to allow me to step on it without bearing weight.”

Dr. Amir Haim, director of the biomechanical rehabilitation unit at Beit Levinstein, explains the complex treatment. Due to her condition, she could not be allowed to step on her foot. This can cause damage to the entire movement chain of the skeleton and the body and the whole body will suffer from it. As an orthopedist and rehabilitation doctor, it was very important to me to allow her to restore as much as possible the pattern of walking and movement so that no further damage occurs.”

The first in the world to use the new development. Portal during physical therapy practice with Ahmed Moasi, head of physical therapy in the orthopedic rehabilitation department with the brace. Photo: Chen Galili, Technion Spokesperson
Photo: Chen Galili, Technion Spokesperson

In this case, a creative solution was required. Dr. Haim turned to Dr. Dana Solev, a faculty member in the Technion’s Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and head of the Biomechanical Interfaces Laboratory, an old friend whom he met during his doctoral studies at the Technion. As part of the professional relationship, he remembered that Solev was working on a new development that could help the portal get back on its feet and start the restoration process.

“In the entire field of rehabilitation, we have a difficult problem between the interface between the soft tissue and the bone,” he explains. “Previously, Dr. Solev told me that she intended to investigate this direction, she presented me with her solution and we thought about how it could be implemented. The idea was to develop a special brace that would replace the part that interacts with the foot and mimics its ability to move. It is not innovative as a concept, but the way of execution is very innovative. After October 7, I told her about Neta’s injury, and she and the Technion immediately got involved in the task and made this device for her.”

“This is a development we made for a very similar purpose to the types of injuries that Neta has, but we were still in the development stages, we had not yet planned to apply it to the injured,” adds Dr. Solev. We mobilized the entire laboratory in order to promote it as quickly as possible and finish the development.”

It was specially adapted to the dimensions of Portal’s foot using a 3D scan. The innovative brace. Photo: Chen Galili, Technion Spokesperson

Dr. Solev explains that “the goal of the brace is to allow walking as natural and symmetrical as possible during times when it is forbidden to put any weight on the foot or ankle, whether it is a complete or partial ban on stepping. It bypasses the damaged part of the leg and transfers all the forces to the calf through a kind of hug similar to the prostheses of amputees. Because it connects to the shin, then the knee, hip and uninjured joints can move and move as they would in a healthy state, and walking is also much more natural and much easier than with crutches – something we want to avoid because this type of walking puts strain on the upper body, arms and back “.

As part of the development process, the brace was precisely adapted to Portal’s foot. “The part that connects to the shin must be the same as the shape of her leg, otherwise the load will not be distributed in the right way, and can create pain and even pressure sores,” says Dr. Solev. What we did was to scan the leg with a 3D scanner and from there the entire planning process was done on the computer.”

On the day she received the brace at Beit Levinstein, an exciting moment was recorded when Neta finally started walking on her two legs. “It was really exciting to see that it did what we expected, that she was able to walk,” shares Dr. Solev. “She can practice walking and not let the leg degenerate. Of course, she also had physical therapy exercises for the upper part of her leg before, even in the end walking is something that needs to be practiced and repeated.”

A few weeks ago Portal underwent surgery on her leg. “It was a kind of experimental surgery. I had fat cells pumped in order to turn them into bone cells to help fuse the damaged bone. I’m currently in a cast, but I’ll be walking again in a few weeks, and the device will allow me to do it gradually.

“Before the surgery, thanks to the Technion’s device, I was already able to take a few steps and jump on my right foot. It’s really important for me to say that the work the team did is amazing, it ended up becoming an integral part of my rehabilitation. They were very attentive and provided me with a solution – I was in a wheelchair for almost three months and thanks to them I’m back on my feet, even if not yet fully. They don’t know yet if there will be a full recovery, but I hope so.”

Dr. Haim: “She’s currently wearing a cast, but in a week and a half, as soon as we take it off and she’s allowed to step, we’ll get back to practicing with the device. She is the first in the world to use this unique aid that was developed and created especially for her. It allows measured loading of the ankle, which is something that is very revolutionary.”

Do you expect a full recovery? 

“The brace will not make her recover. The long-term solution is an orthopedic solution. However, I hope that following the brace she will be able to restore her walking pattern, improve function, prevent aggravation and begin to restore the movement chain of her body. I am very grateful to Dr. Solev and the Technion who stand at the forefront of the technological front. The connection between the academy and the things they develop is very important for the medical front”

Filed under: NewsTagged with: