In November 2017, Merrill and Louis Chera took a much-needed vacation to Jamaica to celebrate Merrill’s birthday. When Merrill’s 22-year-old son, David, called to wish her a happy birthday, he sounded a little off. “I don’t feel so good,” he said. Merrill told him to rest up and stop working so hard. Early the next morning another call came, this time from Louis’s brother Sammy. “I’m really worried,” he said. “David can’t feel the left side of his face.” Louis couldn’t imagine what it was, but rather than guess, he instructed them to go straight to the hospital.
Before all this, David Chera was a rambunctious kid –
high-spirited, hardworking, and enthusiastic. According to his dad, David was “a Chera through and through.”The third of four boys, he was a big boy with lots of friends. He was tremendously bright, with A’s down the line, but super rowdy at the same time. His dad recalls, “I needed one hand for him and one for the other three boys.” As a young man, David joined the ranks in the real estate business, and quickly shined, becoming responsible for tremendous sales in the upper echelons of the trade. His parents were both pleased and proud.
Beginning the Medical Journey
In Maimonides hospital in Brooklyn on that November day, the doctors poked and prodded and asked lots of questions, but David could not sit still for an MRI. “Make him,” Louis instructed David’s brother over the phone. But they could not. The doctors sent David home, suggesting chicken soup and lotsof fluids, hoping it was the bad case of flu that was going around that season.
Merrill couldn’t sleep that night, so far away in Jamaica, but she tried to relax. The next morning when they called home at 11:00am David was sleeping. At 1:00pm, he was still sleeping. Remember, David was a go-getter at work. He normally woke with the birds and was in the office by 7:00am. When he finally woke up he was okay, but still couldn’t feel the left side of his face.
The Cheras decided it was time to get back. They tried to get on a plane but it was too late, the last flight had departed. Louis called his sister Celia to go to his house, but by the time she got there they were in a panic. “Get home, now,” Morris, the eldest, said to his dad. David was walking around aimlessly, barely dressed, mumbling, and completely loopy. Aunt Celia, together with Abie, the second son, got him to NYU, where they finally were able to get an MRI and a spinal tap. The news was not good.
Louis recalls, “We were trying to get back, and honestly we didn’t know what to do or who to call. By the time we arrived the next morning our son was lying in a hospital bed, and the doctor was apologizing. David had already slipped into a coma. There was just too much swelling on the brain. We were devastated.”
Early Tests and Treatments
Now that David was still, the doctors were finally able to perform the tests they needed, but the results were frightening and disheartening. The screens lit up with color; there were small lesions all over David’s brain, getting larger with each subsequent scan. Deflated, Louis went to buy some snacks and bottles of water for the family and friends in the waiting room. In the elevator, Louis handed some water to a nearby doctor. Impressed by the simple gesture of kindness, the doctor followed Louis to David’s room. As fate would have it, his name was Dr. Eddie Louie, and incredibly, he was the top infectious disease doctor in the country. Had they tried to call him, they’d have had to wait six to nine months for an appointment, but here he was, examining their son, looking for answers.
They started David on broad spectrum antibiotics to combat whatever enemy was raging through his body, but he kept getting worse. He was intubated within days, put on a respirator, and given a feeding tube. Steroids were introduced to reduce swelling. So quickly, the situation had become dire and hopeless. Medstar of Bikur Holim contacted Louis with suggestions, but when they learned who the medical team in charge was, they assured the Cheras they were in the best of hands.
Doctors continued to try different things. They did an IVIG, giving him anti-virus medicines for a week. They did Plasma Feresis, which literally cleaned his blood. That, too, did not help. The “A Team” of doctors David had were performing so many crazy tests and innovative treatments on him, and yet still, sitting in the Neurological ICU at NYU, his health continued to decline. Fall turned into winter. Patients were admitted and discharged. Hanukah came and went, and theCheras still waited, with no answers.
While there is no way a person can demand a favor from Gd, at all times, he can make requests of Him, as one might ask for an undeserved present. Anyone in this situation might be bitterly angry and aggravated, but Louis was also crushed, and with a humble tone and a humble heart, he turned in the only direction he knew might help.
A Friend’s Similar Journey
A few years ago, Sara Eliau had been through a similar ordeal when her sister, Jacquelyn, fell into an unexplained illness. The ordeal lasted for almost a month. Sara and her family had traveled through this same dark tunnel, and came out the other side to the light. She recalls, “With my sister, like the Cheras, it was so sudden and shocking, and we had no idea what the outcome would be. With these diseases, so many times the medical field is as baffled as we are. Test after test after test, for the most frightening diseases you can think of, and each one is just a process of elimination. You just don’t know.
“From our situation, I learned to ask every question and not to sit back, or to be afraid to sound stupid. But most of all I learned that you have to have faith. When I walked in to visit David I immediately saw the sign ‘Ain od Milvado,’which means, ‘thereis no one besides Hashem.’ I also watched as week after week Merrill posted updates on David’s health, urging the community to continue praying and doing good deeds in his honor. It’s so out of the blue and so scary! I think the comfort I was able to offer them was hope. We shared a similar experience and I was glad to tell them that there is hope, even when things look bleak.
“With Jacquelyn, we were so grateful and appreciative to this community, and I know the Cheras feel the same. There is really nothing else like this wonderful community. The get well wishes, and help in every possible aspect, from cooking meals for the family, to making classes in her merit, and the outpouring of hope and prayer. It really means the world!
“I was so impressed with Merrill and Louis. They never left David’s side. They were calm, organized, and positive. They had faith, every step of the way, thanking Gd for every small victory in his recovery. For us, I believe the love and prayer of so many created a miracle, and we were blessed to witness it. With Gd’s help, David too, will have a full recovery. I know they are on a good path and I am lucky enough to have this message to share.”
In the meantime, tests began to come back, and the CDC contacted the Cheras. This crazy disease had a name – The Jamestown Virus –
also known as the Lacrosse Virus. It comes from a tiny mosquito that lives in a cave in Southern California. Had David been there, they asked. No. Does he hike, or bike? No. Any extreme sports, camping, orrock climbing? Louis laughed. No. Definitely no. Did he ride the subway? No.
Harvard, the CDC, and every health institution were disturbed. Where could David have gotten this bite? All the while David was spiraling downward and getting worse by the day. The Cheras stayed in an apartment near NYU and took turns getting a few hours rest each day, but the entire family felt the strain. Their youngest son, Adam, is 19. Louis went to shul to pray every morning. He barely worked. He could not function. On one Shabbat, a new doctor showed up. They pleaded with him, “When will our son get better?” With a cold heart and a straight voice, he replied, “Who said he’s getting better? We don’t think he’s going to make it.”
Merrill recalls, “We were blindsided and devastated. We were doing everything in our power to save him. We found our other doctors and demanded answers. Baruch Hashem, they said that doctor was wrong. They had faith. Something will work, just keep praying, the doctors said. But in every scan, more lesions glared from the screen, multiplying rapidly. Because David was dieting and had lost 60 pounds before this all began, his immune system was weak. After the first 30-40 days, the virus had disappeared from David’s system but the swelling had not. Forty-five days in, his immune system was finally fighting back, but with the virus now gone, it was fighting David’s healthy cells. This syndrome is called ADEM.
One in 96 million people get the Jamestown Virus. One in 300 million people get ADEM.”
A Daring Treatment Plan
These facts are ominous and so very frightening, but the Cheras stayed calm. The next course of action was a new treatment that was dangerous but could be effective. The doctors needed to give David’simmune system a chance to calm down. No one was allowed to visit for a couple of weeks, and they had to make sure the virus was gone completely before they began. If the virus was lying dormant somewhere in his body, shutting down his immune system could backfire and kill him. The doctors began the treatment three times and stopped. They were walking a tightrope. The Cheras recalled, “We knew nothing. No parent should have to make these decisions.”
The third time they almost began the therapy, Dr. Louie stopped them again. He believed there was still a trace of the virus remaining. The other doctor came to Merrill crying, “I could’ve killed him!”
But finally, the scans were clear and treatment began. Two months later, the Cheras were informed that the treatment worked, but their son was still in a coma. Merrill recalls, “The coma was protecting him. His brain was literally ‘on fire.’ He had 16 different tubes and pipes going in and out of his body. He had two IV poles. His blood pressure was high, and he still had a trachea. His head was locked to one side, as he was still numbed on the left, and he was ‘storming’ as they put it, but thank Hashem, the doctors said he was improving. Ninety-three days into this ordeal I had a dream. In my dream, David opened his eyes, and woke up. That day, he did.”
When David’s eyes opened, the Cheras were overjoyed, but it would be two more weeks before he even moved a finger. The doctors wanted to move him to a nursing home to receive long term care, but the Cheras convincedthem to keep him there, downgrading from ICU to a regular care unit. Still, David was lost in space. Merrill, strong and confident, wheeled her son outside to see the water, hoping to spark something that would wake him up. Louis continued to cry. His sonwas not moving and was not able to sit up. At Rusk Institute now, David received three hours of physical therapy every day. They kept trying to take the trachea out, but it took time. Each day for a minute or two they watched to see if David could breatheon his own.
David’s First Words and the Prayers
That Helped Him Get There
Merrill remembers, “There were two beds in his room at Rusk and often I slept next to him. One night, I had a dream that he could talk. I woke up and asked him to say, ‘Hi, Ma.’ I kept repeating it, ‘Hi, Ma; hi Da…’ His mouth opened. His voice was hoarse, but he said to me, ‘Hi Ma.’ I was floored. After that, he began to sing. Like the song of the birds, the prayers from shul came alive, ’El rachoom shema; El chanoon shema…’ When Louis came in the room, I smiled and said, ‘Listen…’ and David told his father, ‘Hi Da.’ A week later, after two months in Rusk, the trachea came out. When he was finally able to have some applesauce, the feeding tube came out as well.”
Today, David Chera isat home, still moving through this incredible journey. Louis credits Hashem for the miracle, and his wife as the heroine of the story. Dedicated, strong, and faithful, she was her son’s greatest advocate. Every morning she had her coffee with Dr. Louie, but so many things were out of their hands. So often the doctors would shrug their shoulders, and look up to a higher power for the answers they desperately needed.
Before all this, David was tough. His dad says, “Put it this way, if a bull came face to face with David, the bull would get scared!” From 25 medications, David is now down to zero. He uses a walker or a cane for now, but he is happy and confident that he will be back to his old self sooner than we think. He tells me that he loved when people came to visit, and when the rabbis came and sang for him. Louis and Merrill are so thankful to Hashem and the community, for they know that was truly their salvation. Louis recalls, “People came out of the woodwork to visit and to pray, bringing food and good energy… they were saying tehillim, making donations in his name, soldiers were putting on tefillin in Israel in his merit, and constantly making berachot and prayers for his refuah shelama. We know that it made a difference. Hashem heard us, all of us.”
Richie Greenstein was side by side with his childhood friends Louis and Merrill from minute one. Richie recalls, “It was an amazing process, truly a miracle in the works, but what really struck me was the power of prayer. The doctors’ thoughts were dismal,but the community –
especially the young community – really came together. The dedication of these kids, the tehillimchats; you have no idea how many books of tehillimwere completed! They were non-stop. They never let up. I believe that together, we changed the heavenly decree. I also must say that Merrill was incredible. She never left his side for a minute. I have never seen a woman that strong in my life. She thought positively the whole time, and thank Gd, she was right. It is still a long road ahead. And today, as we all want instant gratification, it’s difficult. But I know David will get there. I hope everyone continues
A New Venture
During this difficult time Louis found it impossible to work. Helpless and hopeless, the few times he went to the office he simply sat at his desk, reading tehillimand crying. His discount wireless business had been good to him and his family, and had flourished for years. But now it declined. “Whatever I had made or saved over the years was gone during the seven months my son was in the hospital. Our world just stopped turning,” Louis recalled. As David’s recovery progressed, Louis needed to find something new. With mosquitoes on the brain, and so many recent tragedies from West Nile Virus and Lymedisease, Louis had an idea. If he could save anyone from the ordeal he’d just been through, it was a good one. He knew some people in the pest control business, and had always sprayed his house for mosquitoes in the past. He contacted someone he knew in the NY State Department of Environmental Protection and found himself a partner. He visited the Monmouth County Mosquito Control, the agency that documents these types of cases. The numbers would scare you, and because many cases go unreported, they are probably ten times as high in reality. As they say, when one door closes, another opens. Louis is now licensed and has two trucks in New Jersey and four in New York doing pest and mosquito control. David’s new company, Mosquito Hero, is dedicated to protecting his customers and making them aware.
Louis explains, “We thought we were untouchable – as many of us do. I couldn’t fathom that we were in this black hole that was sucking so many people in. It was (and is) so stressful on the family, on the kids, and on the marriage; we were raked over the coals, but we will make it. The hurt is still there, but on the tail of so many greater tragedies, we are numbed, and humbled. I rededicated myself to shul as my son progressed, and I learnedTorah every day. The doctors explain that they have never seen a case this dire in which the patient lived. It is truly a miracle, and I must see my glass as full.
“Things are not perfect yet, but the best piece of advice I received over these months wasas follows: ‘Louis, I know you, and I know your father. You were always taught to look forward. Today, I want you to take a minute and look back. Look where you were six months ago. Look where you were four months ago, and even two weeks ago. It’s been a long journey and you are still on it, but be happy.’ And I am. My advice: take an extra minute and hug your kid. Take inventory, and look around at your life. On Shabbat, when things get hairy, smile. Tell Hashem thank you, even if you don’t have everything you want in life. Be thankful for what you do have.” Merrill continues these thoughts, “Be spontaneous. Make time for good. Don’t take anything for granted. Keep your eyes open and be vigilant, but mostly, enjoy life when you can.”
The Cheras thank the people who never gave up on David – Chaim ben Miriam, those who prayed for him, and continue to pray, and Hashem, who is listening to those prayers.