Awakenings

The call came from my son. It was the day after his lechaim, and I was at my shiur. “Something’s wrong with Mommy,” he said, his voice shaking. I’d had plenty of experience with my wife’s asthma attacks over the years, so I wasn’t too worried. I calmly started to tell him what to do but he cut me off. “No, Ta. This isn’t a regular asthma attack. Come home now!” I ran home, not knowing what to expect. I found my wife in the throes of a serious asthma attack. Without waiting to call an ambulance I put her in the car and we sped off to the hospital. On the way, she put her hands around her neck to indicate that she couldn’t breathe. Minutes before we got to the emergency room I heard her whisper, “Help me please!” Then she lost consciousness. The attending physicians at the Catholic hospital took one look at her on the gurney and said, “You’d better call your priest to perform the last rites.” “Sir,” said one of the doctors not unkindly, seeing that I wasn’t taking him seriously, “I’m sorry to tell you, but by the looks of it your wife is probably brain-dead.” “Why do you think she’s brain-dead?” I asked. “She was just whispering to me a second ago. A person who’s braindead can’t talk!” The doctor made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “She’s completely unresponsive: No reflexes, no pupil response to light or response to pain. It’s pretty obvious that there isn’t any brain function.” “Listen to me!” I said forcefully. “We’re wasting time! Just transfer her to the ICU!”But no one in the ER would listen to me. Perhaps they were jaded. So many people pass through their doors who don’t recover, that they probably assumed my wife was just another statistic. In any case, we argued for six hours.

Judaism

They wanted to send her to a regular floor to wait out the allotted 48 hours before performing further tests and declaring her legally brain-dead, while I was advocating for more aggressive intervention in the ICU. “It’s a waste of a hospital bed that could be given to someone with hope of recovery,” the doctor insisted, still trying to convince me. Then he walked over and put his hand on my arm. “I’m sure this is difficult for you, but being in denial won’t help.” Exasperated, I called a friend in Eretz Yisrael who used to be the head of pulmonology in this same hospital. I briefly filled him in on what was happening and asked him what to do. “You have to get her into the ICU,” he advised me. “If they admit her, I might be able to help out from here.” “But how do I get them to comply? They’re refusing to move her, claiming that it’s a ‘waste of resources.’ One doctor even told me that I’m in denial!” “Well, are you?” I looked at my wife, who I had to admit did seem to be slipping away. She did not look good. Not long after that, the medical staff began taking steps to transfer her to the ICU. “I just got a call from a big specialist who used to work here,” the attending physician said. “He seems to know you and your wife and insisted that we transfer her, so it looks like I don’t have much choice.”I sent up a silent thank you to Hashem.

My wife remained in the ICU for four months. For almost three of those months the monitors showed mostly flat lines; she was in a deep coma. And while the doctors had already figured out that she wasn’t brain-dead, with the exception of my pulmonologist friend who flew in from Israel to help us, they still believed she was severely brain-damaged with no hope of real recovery. I couldn’t really blame them, considering what the neurologist had told me after examining her. My wife had suffered a heart attack and five strokes. It seemed that I was the only one who was certain she would make it. It was either denial, or Hashem giving me the strength to push forward. My son, the chasan, and I basically moved into the ICU for the duration of my wife’s hospitalization, leaving my two high-school-age daughters mostly on their own. My married daughter, who was living in Israel, made plans to come with her baby. The days passed slowly, but my son and I spent the hours learning Gemara together and saying Tehillim. Although I was the head of the family, my son demonstrated a strength I didn’t know he had. He gave me tremendous chizzuk during those dark times. Every night I spent a couple of hours in the hospital library, doing research about my wife’s condition. I learned that the amount of steroids she had been given during her first few days in the ICU was 4,000 times the dosage normally administered.

Such high dosages, it was explained, can cause the onset of glaucoma. And while it usually goes away when the steroids are stopped, in rare cases it doesn’t. In order to avoid that possibility, the following day I asked the doctor to give her glaucoma eye drops.He looked at me like I was nuts. “She doesn’t have glaucoma.” “Not yet, but she will. That’s why I want you to give them to her.” Again, I had to harangue the doctor into doing what I asked. I understood that from his perspective it was presumptuous of me to make medical suggestions, as if I were more knowledgeable than he was. But I was desperate to save my wife, and if the medical journals mentioned glaucoma as a possible side effect, we had to prevent it from happening. I also felt that Hashem was guiding me through this process and sending me clear messages; I had no choice but to listen. (Much later, my wife was told by a top ophthalmologist that if she hadn’t been given those drops she would have gone blind.) After three months we had seen little change, but the hand of Hashem was at work. Around this time my son met a new intern in the ICU named Dmitri, who asked him a question about Pesach. It turned out that his last name was Finkelstein, and he was Jewish. I realized that Hashem had sent this young man to help us.

In fact, Dmitri told us about a certain drug that was so new (it was still considered experimental) that it wasn’t yet on the market. It worked by diverting some of the blood flow from the extremities and sending it to the brain and torso. In theory, it could help patients recover from trauma, but it also carried the risk of quadriplegia, paralysis of the limbs. I had no fear of the risks. “There’s a reason G-d sent you here to tell me about this medication,” I said with complete confidence. “My wife needs it. She won’t become a quadriplegic.”However, as the drug was not yet medically approved and the facility didn’t want to be held responsible for any adverse reaction, we were required to get permission from a hospital ethics panel. Thankfully, they gave us the go-ahead and the drug was administered to my wife. Our entire family, including my wife’s siblings, came in round-the-clock shifts to massage her arms and legs and keep the circulation flowing while the medication did its work. Around that time, my married daughter arrived from Israel with her new baby. I could see the shock and pain in her eyes the first time she saw her mother. My wife had been incapacitated for so long that she seemed to be melting. Even her facial features were less distinct—flatter somehow. She was hooked up to a respirator and there were other wires connecting her to various machines but I assured my daughter that everything would be fine. “Talk to her,” I encouraged her. “She can hear you. Tell her about the baby.” So she did. For the next few hours she described the joy she felt at being a new parent and held the baby up to my wife’s face so she could feel her skin. A week later my wife’s finger twitched for the first time. Ten days later, she opened her eyes.

Unbelievably, the hospital decided then that she was ready to be released! It didn’t matter that she was still paralyzed, connected by a tracheotomy to a respirator, and unable to eat without a feeding tube. She had awakened from her coma, so it was time to leave. I made every effort to convince the doctors that she was in no shape to be moved, but they were unwilling to listen. Luckily, Hashem stepped in again; she developed an infection that required her to stay in the hospital. One Sunday morning my married daughter walked into my wife’s room and saw a puddle of blood on the floor around the bed. She called me in hysterics. I immediately called my friend the pulmonologist, who at that moment was on his way to the airport to return to Israel. He rushed back to the hospital and ordered everyone out of the room. It seems that my wife’s central IV line had somehow dislodged and blood was pouring from her neck. It took some deft maneuvering, but thank G-d, he was able to replace it in time. I later found out what happened: A nurse had come in to change the sheet, but instead of moving my wife to another bed, she had simply pushed her aside. When my wife began to fall the nurse had grabbed her by the neck, pulling out the IV line. Eventually my wife recovered to the point that she was able to be transferred to a rehab facility.

Although she was no longer in a coma, the doctors still believed that she had little cognition. The tracheotomy prevented her from speaking and she was still paralyzed. The consensus was that she couldn’t swallow, speak, walk, stand or process information very well, and would need to be an inpatient at the facility for at least 18 months. But I had seen her follow me with her eyes, and I suspected that she could still talk and swallow, if given the chance. I don’t know how I knew this. But I was certain that Hashem would not leave my wife, a woman who snuck out at night taking food, clothing and blankets to the homeless, who prepared meals for shut-ins and shivah houses and ran the shul kitchen, in such a condition. I knew He had more in store for her to do. If I could somehow demonstrate that she could swallow and talk, I had the feeling that she would recover much sooner. On the day she was scheduled to be released a crazy idea occurred to me: If I removed the tube from her trachea, I could put my finger over the hole so she could speak; they would then have to admit that she was cognitively aware. I was sure it wouldn’t cause her any harm. My hands would be sterile, and I knew the nurses would immediately reconnect her anyway. The way I saw it, the hospital had no intention of ever weaning my wife off the respirator.

There was no financial incentive for them to do it. I was worried that she would be hooked up to machines in a nursing home for years like her cousin, who had eventually died in one. Before the nurse came in to discharge her, I leaned down and whispered to my wife. “I want you to trust me,” I said. “I’m going to do something crazy, but don’t worry. If anyone gets in trouble it’ll be me, not you. I’m going to remove the tube from your trachea. Then I’ll put my finger over the hole. When I ask you a question, I want you to answer me, okay?” She looked right into my eyes and I knew she understood. I washed my hands and pulled out the tube. Then I put my finger over the hole. I called in the nurse, who immediately started screaming. “What’s your name?” I yelled to my wife over the noise.“Are you married? Do you have children? What are their names? Ages? Who is the President of the United States?” With a voice rusty from disuse my wife answered every single question. “Are you crazy?” the nurse cried, pushing past me. “You could kill her with your germs!” “Never mind that,” I replied. “You just saw what she did! She can talk! She’s mentally competent! You have to write that on her chart!” Shaken, the nurse complied. I looked at my wife, who had an unmistakable gleam in her eye. “Do you think,” she said hoarsely, “I might get something to eat?” Despite all of the hardships we’d experienced, I left the hospital feeling grateful to everyone who had helped save my wife’s life. In the beginning they had given up on her, but once I advocated for her they did all they could, and more.

One of the thousands of miracles we experienced during this ordeal was that the hospital waived $2,000,000  in medical expenses, allowing my wife to stay there when I had no insurance. I am forever indebted to them. When we brought my wife to the rehab facility, the director, Mr. Stein, told me that unlike the hospital, they had strict visiting hours. “I haven’t been separated from my wife since she first got sick,” I told him. “There’s no way I can leave her alone. Please make an exception. I’ll be like a fly on the wall.” He looked at me skeptically. “Please,” I begged him. “All right,” he relented. “But only one person can stay after hours.” That night I went home to see my girls while my son stayed with his mother. I returned a little after 11 o’clock to find the doors locked. I knocked, loudly, hoping to rouse the security guard, who was probably sleeping. No answer. I knocked again, harder this time. Still no answer. Finally I banged on the door as hard as I could and cried out, “OPEN THE DOOR!” A moment later it was opened by a night guard, who did not look pleased to see me. “Are you trying to wake up every patient in this hospital?” he growled. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m just trying to get in to see my wife.”He filled the doorway with his body. “Visiting hours are over. Come back in the morning.” “Mr. Stein told me I could come back after hours.” The man raised an eyebrow. “No one told me that. You’ll have to come back tomorrow.” He began to shut the door, but I put my hand up to stop it. We faced off, staring at each other for a long moment.

Suddenly, I felt Hashem tap me on the shoulder: You know this guy. “Is your name Walter?” I asked him. The guard’s expression changed from anger to shock. “How did you know that?” “Walter! It’s me, David Bernheim! Remember? We played basketball together in middle school!” “David!” he exclaimed. “I can’t believe it! What’s it been, 50 years?” “At least. Listen, Walter, I need to get in to be with my wife. Can you help me?” Just like that, I was inside. Walter gladly walked me to the elevator and gave me the combination to the lock on the front door. “You shouldn’t have any problem getting in now,” he said as the elevator doors opened. “Thank you so much. You were meant to be here!” “You aren’t kidding!” he said. “Tonight’s my last night on the job. If you had come tomorrow, you’d already be on your way home!” My wife’s stay in rehab was the only time I had any doubts about her making a full recovery. Mentally I knew she was completely competent, but I was afraid she might never walk again, and if she tried too hard she’d only be disappointed. At that point, I would have been grateful for getting her out of there in a wheelchair. But my son—and even my wife—didn’t agree. And the therapists were adamant about getting her on her feet. They promised to catch her if she began to fall. Bravely, my wife attempted to walk. That first day she stood for only a millisecond; the next day, a few seconds more. By the time we left rehab six weeks later (not the 18 months they predicted) she was walking. It was truly a miracle. Equally miraculous was her participation in two family simchos that summer.

Not long after her discharge from the rehab facility, my wife attended our daughter’s high-school graduation, an event that was important to both of them. We headed to the ceremony with her walker, but as we approached the auditorium door she stopped. “I don’t want to go in with this,” she said. “I can walk on my own.” “Are you sure? You need to hold onto something.” She smiled at me. “Then I’ll hold onto you.” With no support other than my arm we walked inside to watch our daughter graduate. Just a few months later, she danced at our son’s wedding. Aside from a scar on her neck from the tracheotomy and a case of glaucoma (thankfully, the drops prevented blindness but they did not stop her from contracting the disease), my wife was fully recovered, her mind just as sharp as before. We never did learn the cause of her severe asthma attack,although we have our theories. But the truth is that we don’t worry too much about it, focusing instead on Hashem’s gift of allowing us to be together. We are so deeply appreciative of the many people who offered us support in our time of need. I am also grateful for having seen Hashem’s hand at work, orchestrating events. One year after her release from rehab, I took my wife back to the ER and ICU to recite the blessing of “she’asah li neis bamakom hazeh,” thanking Hashem for having wrought a miracle in that place. While we were there, we bumped into the ICU doctor who hadn’t wanted to admit her. “It’s great to see you!” I said, introducing him to my wife. The doctor’s eyes narrowed. “You look familiar to me…” “She should,” I replied. “This is the woman you were convinced was brain-dead.” The doctor’s face turned white. “Do you mind if we follow you on your rounds?” my wife asked him. “I think it would be helpful for others to see someone like me.” We walked around the ICU, and my wife gave chizzuk to some of the other patients. “I was where you are just a year ago,” she told them. “I’m a walking miracle, and you will be too.” 

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