It started approximately four years ago, with feelings of fatigue and dizziness. The doctor sent me for a stress test and cardiogram, and recommended changes in my diet. The tests were negative, but my condition continued to deteriorate. At one point, after collapsing in my office, I was brought to the emergency room, underwent several examinations, and was eventually sent home and told that it was caused by something I ate. In early 2008, I felt very ill and consulted with a neurologist who recommended sleeping pills and an orthopedic pillow. It was only after my repeated requests that he authorized a CT scan, which was scheduled for several weeks later. In the meantime, I felt like there was a pocket full of fluids wedged in the back of my neck, and anytime I turned my head I lost my balance.
Gd stepped in to help by sending my way Rabbi Chananya Cholak, Director of the Ezer Mizion organization, whom I happened to see at a weekday shaharit service. I mentioned incidentally that I was scheduled for a CT scan in several weeks, and he right away informed me that he could arrange a scan the next morning. The scan revealed a serious tumor in my brain which required dangerous and complicated emergency surgery. The situation was so serious, that it was believed I would not have survived long enough to take the previously scheduled CT scan.
But although we had finally diagnosed the cause of my malaise, treating it was another matter. Once again, Hashem sent his messenger, this time in the form of Rav Elimelech Firer of the Ezra Lamarpeh organization – who “happens” to be a neighbor of my eldest daughter – and is a renowned expert in medicine with close contacts to specialists in all fields around the world. Rav Firer spoke with a specialist in Tel Hashomer Hospital, and concluded that I should travel to Germany and have the operation done by a world renowned expert. This specialist was supposed to be able to perform the surgery in a matter of eight hours, as opposed to others, who required at least 14 hours for the operation. It was also believed that he would have the best chance to remove the entire tumor so I would not need chemotherapy or radiation after surgery.
Though Rav Firer’s office had managed to schedule the surgery within a matter of days, a major obstacle remained – the physician required a preliminary deposit of 40,000 euros (about $64,000), a sum which was clearly far beyond our means. This time Hashem’s instruments of salvation were my sons. With nothing more than determination and faith in His help, they committed to somehow come up with the entire sum in a matter of two days. They frantically set about to borrow funds from all their friends, relatives and acquaintances, but at 2am, just a few short hours before my flight, the required sum was still not reached. It was made clear that without the full amount, the surgery would not happen and so we debated whether to make the trip on the hope that more money would be raised. But then, miraculously, just before the flight, the balance was raised and deposited in the doctor’s account setting the stage for the fateful operation.
As anyone who has experienced it can attest, going in for surgery – even for minor operations – can be nerve-wracking. But try to imagine the feeling of going for life-threatening brain surgery in a foreign country, thousands of miles from home, where you don’t even speak the language and can barely communicate.
This situation could easily have shattered my fragile state – where in not for the kind woman that Hashem sent, who spoke both Hebrew and German, and graciously served as our interpreter. She promised to accompany us throughout our stay in Germany, and she even gave us her phone number and invited us to call her whenever we needed translation. The woman also arranged for the provision of kosher food and other needs. She did all this voluntarily, refusing any compensation.
Finally, it was time to meet the doctor; a German stranger who would manipulate sharp metal tools through the most delicate parts of my brain. But here too, Hashem had a plan. The doctor, it turned out, was of Persian extraction, as is my mother. This shared pedigree gave us a common language of sorts which made the communication between us upbeat and comforting. He spoke reassuringly, and I truly felt that Gd had assigned this physician as His agent to remove the cancerous growth from my head quickly and without collateral damage.
The following day, I underwent a series of examinations in preparation for surgery, but in the afternoon the hospital staff informed me that the operation would have to be delayed because the surgeon spent a good portion of the day working on an emergency situation and was too fatigued to perform my surgery. The delay afforded me the opportunity to call Rabbi Yaakov Edelstein shelita and receive his blessing and prayers.
I was finally brought in for surgery early Friday morning. Nine hours after the surgery began, the doctors announced to my family members that the operation was over, but turned out to be even more difficult than they anticipated. The tumor had been embedded deep within the brainstem. As chills ran through their bodies, the doctor added that though it was complicated, the operation was successful. My wife heard the report just moments before the onset of Shabbat in Israel, and was thus able to call our family members to share with them the news.
The doctor spoke to Rav Firer after the operation and described how he removed the growth at its root and managed to completely clean the area, something which specialists in Israel would not have been able to do. Each small piece had to be removed with extreme caution in order not to break the bones of the skull.
During the first few days after the operation, I was barely conscious, yet my son made a point of placing my tefillinon my head and arm. Although Rav Zilberstein had told me that I was exempt from missva observance during this period, and I was incapable of laying tefillinindependently, I did not want to forego this missva.
During the treatment period following the surgery, I was given liquids to eat. The food was graciously provided by a group of wonderful Jews from Belgium who traveled several hours to bring me what I needed. Swallowing was difficult, but I gradually progressed and was transferred out of the intensive care unit. After five weeks in the hospital, the staff was prepared to discharge me and allow me to return to Israel, but only after I received a written letter from the surgeon affirming that I am able to travel. My flight was scheduled for 5:30am, and at 4am the letter arrived.
After returning to Israel, I began the difficult process of rehabilitation. Slowly I have begun returning to my schedule of shiurim. I began by delivering lectures for several minutes, and by now, Baruch Hashem, I am able to deliver full-length classes and mark exams by students in the kollel.
There is no doubt that Hashem’s kindness was with me and my family at every step during this ordeal. Of course, we know that Hashem is always with us. But sometimes it takes extraordinary circumstances for us to really feel and internalize the full extent of how much He really loves and cares for us.