Posted tagged ‘Health Challenges’

Room With a View Into the Soul

October 1, 2011

So there I was, laying in a bed in a hospital room at the Mayo Clinic.  When I woke up that morning, it was all still kind of a blur.  I had driven to Rochester the morning before in order to have what I expected to be a cut-&-dry post surgical follow-up appointment that afternoon.  Take a quick x-ray.  Have a consultation with the surgeon.  Receive the good news – or the bad news – concerning the success or failure of my surgery.  If necessary, make plans for any future work.  Check into my hotel.  Go out for a nice dinner.  Relax in my room, and be on my way back home the next morning.

But that was not how the day before shook out.  Honestly, I had expected to be told that some of the stitches of the surgery had given way, for I had been experiencing increased breathlessness, in two instances very seriously, which surprised me considering how well my recovery had been going up until just a few days before.  But the x-rays were golden.  The surgery had been a complete success.  So why the breathlessness?  This concerned the surgeon enough to rush me to the emergency room where I was admitted ahead of all those other folks in the waiting room.

There was a lot of lying around and poking, prodding, and sticking before they took me for a CT scan.  They wanted to get a better look at my lungs.  I cannot say that they filled me with confidence as I lay there in radiology, for from the conversation I was overhearing it was quite obvious that the radiologist considered the nurse to be totally incompetent, and she returned the sentiment.  Then it was back to the emergency room and more laying around until a doctor I never met before arrived to inform me that I was being admitted, and then accompanied me to my room.  He told me that I had some blood clots in my lungs but that I should be out of the hospital in a day or two.

Once in my room, I found myself engaged in some heavy negotiations with the staff.  For I have sleep apnea which requires that I sleep with a breathing machine or I cannot sleep at all.  Now I had brought my machine with me, but had planned to use it in my hotel, not in a hospital room.  So it was sitting safely in my car, in the hospital parking structure.  You would think that it would be a simple matter of saying, “Here are the keys to my car.  This is where I parked it and this is what it looks like.  So would you please send someone to get me my cpap machine?”  But it was not, for it seemed that no one had the authority to go into my car; that is until they located a security guard who was willing to brave the dangers of the garage.

It was sometime around 2:00 in the morning when they woke me and took me back to radiology to do an ultrasound of my leg.

So there I was the next morning, laying in my hospital room when yet another doctor walked in.  He was either the fourth or fifth I had seen since coming to the hospital, each one wanting me to tell them my story.  So I asked him up front:  “Am I going to see you again, or am I going to have to go through more doctors before I get out of here?”  “No,” he said.  “I will be the doctor who says good bye to you on the day you are released.”  “Great!” I responded.  “Now tell me.  What’s the story here?”  “You have some clots in your lungs and your leg, so we are going to put you on blood thinners and keep you here another 4 or 5 days.”  “4 or 5 days!” I responded in utter disbelief.  “No one stays in a hospital any more for 4 or 5 days!”  He simply shook his head and said, “You don’t seem to understand.  You are very sick.  You almost died.”

Those words struck me like a hammer.  I hadn’t thought of it that way, but there was one attack of breathlessness which I had experienced just a few days before, while visiting Shira in Louisville, when I wasn’t sure I’d ever catch my breath again.  Now I knew that small nagging doubt was not just the product of panic but actually an accurate assessment of my situation.  I almost died.

As you can imagine, almost dying gives one pause for thought.  I know it gave me pause for thought.

I suspect that you will think it mere bravado when I tell you that personally, I am not afraid of dying.  But I mean it.  I really am not afraid of dying.  For this was not the first time that I almost died.  There was another time, when I was about 14, 15 years old.  My sister, who was six years my senior, had a very close friend by the name of Essie Hochstein, and Essie had a sister my age named Rosie, with whom I was very close.  The Hochsteins left New York and moved to Florida.  One time, when they returned for a visit, Rosie and I went swimming in their hotel’s outdoor swimming pool.  While in the pool, swimming in the deep end, I found myself getting tired, so I started to swim for the side.  I did some strokes and reached for the side of the pool but it was not there.  So I swam some more and reached out again.  Still, no pool to grab.  That was when I realized that for all my stroking, I was going nowhere.  So I panicked and started to drown.  I went down once, twice, three times, only to discover that going down for the third time was more than an old wive’s tale.  It was a fact.  I had had it.  There was no more fight left in me.  All I could do was surrender to my fate.  So I let go and waited for the end, lying in the water in the classic position of the dead man’s float.  I have to tell you.  I never felt better in my entire life.  I was completely relaxed, both in body and mind.  It was a sensation of absolute peace and tranquility.  Then I started seeing things that logically I shouldn’t have been seeing.  I was looking up from below as I watched my body floating in the water.  Then the next thing I knew, I was floating way above the pool, looking down.  I was struck by the fact that the pool was built in the shape of the letter “R”, which stood for the name of the hotel, the Riverdale Hotel.  It was only momentary, for then I found myself on the side of the pool, on my back, having been rescued by the life guard.

The whole incident took place in just a matter of a few minutes, but they were life changing minutes for me.  For during that short span of time I learned two very important facts – not theories but facts:  1 – Death brings with it profound peace and tranquility.  When we “shed this mortal coil,” with it we shed all the angst and pain and worry and doubt; all the discomfort which is so much a part of living that there are aspects of it that we do not even realize are there until they are truly gone.  Death brings with it an indescribable healing of the soul.  And 2 – That there is a soul; that there is a part of us apart from the body.  I had what is commonly called an out-of-body experience.  You will never convince me that it was an illusion or a fantasy.  It was real; as real as any “in-body” experience which I have ever had.  Having had such an experience, I was privileged to possess, at least for myself, indisputable evidence of the existence of the soul; a spiritual, incorporeal entity in which our consciousness and identity reside, and continue to reside, even when outside of our bodies.  It is the actual energy of who we are.  As the physicists have taught us through the Law of Conservation of Energy,  energy can neither be created nor destroyed.  It simply exists, it always has existed and will continue to exist forever.  Therefore the soul – the energy of who we are – also will continue to exist, long after our bodies have ceased to be.

So as I stated earlier, I am not afraid of dying for I know that dying is not the end but rather a transition into what appeared to me to be a better and higher realm of existence.  So when my time comes, I will welcome that eternity of the blissful tranquility I briefly tasted in that swimming pool so many years ago.

But still, laying in that hospital room, being told that I almost died, did give me great pause for thought.  Those thoughts did not center around any fear of death but rather upon the urgency of life.  For even while death is nothing that I fear, still it constitutes a very real sense of loss.  For in order to enter into the blissful spiritual realm of the afterlife, one has to surrender the realm of this life, with all that we cherish of this life as well as all that we will gladly shed of it.  There is where the urgency lies.

Are we ready to surrender that which we cherish?  Have we left things undone or unfinished?  Have we maximized the expenditure of our time and energies, both physical and emotional, on those things which are truly important to us or have we squandered our time and energies on matters which, at the end of all things, really mattered little?  These are the questions I found myself asking myself, and these are the questions which each and every one of us should be asking ourselves, even if we do not believe we have been confronted with the imminent possibility of our own demise.

If I had died in that hotel room in Louisville, Kentucky, or in that hospital room in Rochester, Minnesota, or anywhere in between, would I have died with a life fulfilled or with regrets of opportunities missed and opportunities squandered?  For you see, while I do not fear dying, what I do fear is living a life in which I have wasted too much of myself and my energies on things which, in the long run, really do not matter or at least do not deserve the amount of time and energy I have invested into them.

There are those who easily could choose to interpret such thinking as selfishness and self-indulgence, and indeed, one could turn such thoughts in such directions.  They easily could fuel the drive to a totally self-centered and self-important life.  But for anyone who would take them in such a direction, they would have missed the point all together.  For one to live a life that is solely centered upon oneself is not only to live a life which is meaningless but also, in the final analysis, lonely.  For people who are too full of themselves, leave little if any room for others.  And usually others find in their own lives, little room or patience for those who focus only on themselves.

Of course there is a part of all of us which would love it if we immersed ourselves in self-indulgence.  No one would deny that a certain amount of self-indulgence is not only nice but actually necessary if we are to fuel our own sense of self-value.  Yet while self-indulgence should have a place in the creation of a meaningful life, it should not capture the center stage.  There is both a time when we should center our lives upon ourselves and a time when we need to center our lives upon others.  Indeed, this is what our own great sage, Hillel, tried to teach us when he said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, what am I?  And if not now, when?”

Laying in that hospital room, being told that I almost died, drove home for me the message we all need to hear:  Time is short for we do not know how much time we have.  Therefore let us turn our attentions to striking that balance in our lives.  How much for ourselves?  How much for others?

Of course, the issue should go far beyond questions of “How much?”   There is also the question of “What?”  What are the matters that we should hold as important, and what are the matters that we should place on the back burner, if not in the trash?  What are the things that we really would be proud of having accomplished during our time on earth?  What pursuits that seem to have the ability to capture our attention are really in and of themselves either vain or meaningless, or both?  What we choose to do with our lives – what directions we choose to take; what battles we choose to fight; what causes we choose to champion; what relationships we choose to raise up; what goals we choose to pursue; what ideals we choose to uphold; what people we choose to make of ourselves – these are what make all the difference between a life well lived and a life which is wasted.

Make no mistake about it, making such choices and living such a life is not just a matter of the big picture.  It is not just big issues and big choices but it also is small issues and small choices.  The devil is truly in the details of our lives.  These are questions both of massive import and of day-to-day living.  You can make yourself into a hero in the war against cancer or poverty or prejudice, but what does it all mean if you are a nothing or a failure, or even a villain in the struggles to build a family or nurture a friendship or be a good neighbor or be respected in your place of business?

To live a good life is to be able to die with little or no regrets and with a true sense of pride in the person we have made of ourselves.  We will always die with some of that left unfinished, for when it comes to such efforts, there will always be more we can do.  Personal perfection is always at least a step ahead of where we are today.  Yet our hunger should always be to draw as near to that goal as possible.  Every night, we should strive to be able to go to sleep feeling and believing, “If I do not wake, I will leave this world with little, if any, regrets.”

Laying in that hospital room, being told that I almost died, was a difficult and harsh reminder that there are no guarantees that we have all the time in the world to get our lives in order.  The end can come at any moment.  If that be the case, then we need to make each moment count.  We need to invest ourselves totally in the task of closing the gap between the person who we are today and the person we truly wish to be.

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Daily Dayenu

May 10, 2011

At this year’s Congregational Seder, while we were singing and reciting “Dayenu,” I could not help but be struck by the spiritual confluence of 3 events which took place within the last few months:  my surgery and subsequent illness, my congregation’s celebration of its 150th anniversary, and Passover.

The message of the “Dayenu” is summed up by its title, for the translation of dayenu is “It would have been enough for us.”  The text takes us through the story of the Exodus and breaks it down into each of the blessings our people experienced in the course of that event.  Recounting each of those blessings, we respond by saying “Dayenu!” – if this had been the only blessing which we experienced then “it would have been enough for us.”  But of course, each of those blessings was not the only one from which our people benefited.  The story of the Exodus is one of blessing upon blessing upon blessing.  However, even as we retell the story, we seem to take those manifold blessings for granted.  Therefore the task of “Dayenu” is to recount each individual blessing, and in so doing, reveal to us the magnificent tapestry of blessings which constitute the true miracle of Passover.

The Exodus was not the only time when we have experienced blessing upon blessing upon blessing.  More often than we appreciate, our lives are a tapestry of blessings.  We live among miracles but do not always recognize them.  This brings me back to my congregation’s 150th anniversary and to my recent illness.

The fact that Temple Emanuel of Davenport, Iowa has survived and prospered for 150 years is the direct result of a long chain of blessings.  There have been so many dayenu moments in the history of our congregation and there have been so many dayenu people – both laity and clergy – who have made that history and our very existence possible.  Each of these moments and each of these people was a special gift – a blessing – for our congregation.  Each one brought to us their own brand of miracle.  Indeed, it was their collective miracles which made us the congregation we are today.  But whether or not we realize it, the blessings and the miracles continue today.  They are to be found in so many of the people who give and do so much and who labor to keep our congregation alive, vibrant and meaningful.  These are our current dayenu people and they are busy continuing to create our dayenu moments.

As for my illness, it has awakened within me a sense of the dayenu in the course of daily living.  There is an old joke about a doctor coming out of surgery, informing the family that the operation was successful but the patient died.  These days I resonate with that joke for my surgery was successful but I almost died from  post surgical blood clots.  Indeed, I would be dead today had it not been for my coincidentally going to the Mayo Clinic for my 6-week post surgical follow-up.  After experiencing my symptoms and being instructed by the physician’s assistant in my pulmonologist’s office that all I needed to do was depend more on my asthma medications, it was the doctors at the Mayo Clinic who quickly picked up on the seriousness of my life threatening condition and hospitalized me.  There is nothing like a near death experience to help one to appreciate the fragility and impermanence of our lives!  We tend to live our lives as if there will always be a tomorrow when the harsh reality is that there is no guarantee that there will be a tomorrow.  Today – this very moment – may be all that we have left.  If we find ourselves awakening in the morning, we should recognize that we have been blessed with the gift of another day.  In fact, in our Jewish tradition, there is a prayer we are supposed to offer upon awakening – “Modeh ani lifanecha, Melech chai v’kayam, shehechezarta bi nishmati b’chemla.  Rabbah emunatecha – I give thanks before You, everlasting Sovereign, for You have returned my soul to me.  Great is Your faithfulness.”  Every morning is a dayenu moment.  Life is far shorter than we choose to believe.  All our moments are precious, for any one of them could be our last.  It is up to us to choose whether we treasure them – whether we embrace them with the appreciation of a dayenu – or we squander them.  Likewise, when it comes to illness and the other trying times in our lives, we are quick to discover who are our dayenu people; who are those people whose concern and caring bring into our darkest moments the brilliant miracle of a healing of the spirit.  There are too many people who we take for granted; too many people who we think of in terms of “What have you done for me lately.”  Yet the fact that they populate our lives and fill it with their love and concern, and their eager willingness to help and comfort, is most certainly deserving of a heartfelt dayenu; a dayenu for each and every one of them.  They each are a blessing which we should never take for granted.

May each and every one of us come to appreciate the dayenu moments and the dayenu people in our lives!

One Lung Living

June 15, 2010






I am a sufferer from asthma.  However, with the proper medication, I usually have been able to keep it under control.  However, this past winter I suffered from an upper respiratory infection which my primary care physician strove to knock out with prednisone and a serious antibiotic.  When all was said and done, the coughing was far more under control but I never really recovered from the shortness of breath.  For months, I attributed that shortness of breath to my asthma, which I thought had somehow just gotten out of control.

When I finally did have an appointment with my pulmonologist, he suggested that since it had been a year since my last breath test, I should take another.  Much to both of our surprise, the test indicated that my breathing capacity was half of what it was a year ago.  So he listened to my lungs and grew concerned that there was far less breath noise coming from the left lung than the right.  So began more serious tests.  An x-ray revealed that the left side of my diaphragm was elevated up against the lung, which appeared significantly reduced.  Something called a sniff test – which uses a fluoroscope, which I have not seen since the 50’s – clearly showed that the left side of the diaphragm is paralyzed.  Why?  We are still seeking that answer.  Thank God, the most common cause – cancer – has been ruled out.

In the meantime, I basically have needed to get on with my life, primarily using only one of my lungs.  Obviously, it has made a difference.  I tire more easily.  Indeed, I perpetually feel weary.  And it does not take that much to make me breathless.  Walking uphill, even with the slightest of inclines, is a chore.  A short flight of stairs leaves me utterly winded.  My gait is slower and walking while talking – on cell phone or in person – has become quite the challenge.

As I write this, I am on one of my mini-sabbaticals.  Months ago, I had been invited by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C., to attend a two-week seminar for university faculty teaching the Holocaust.  With my oldest child, Shira, living in the D.C. area, and with my commitment to Holocaust education, I have been eagerly looking forward to this experience.  Well, with the onset of this lung problem, it was questionable as to whether or not I could handle all the walking and book schlepping that would be required of me, not to mention the infamous D.C. summer heat and humidity.  Anticipating what lie ahead, I was on the fence – yearning to immerse myself in the seminar experience yet fearful that my body would betray me.  Friends questioned the wisdom of my going ahead with these plans.  But when I asked my pulmonologist, he told me that I would regret passing up such an opportunity.  Therefore, as long as I took it slow and listened to my body, I should go for it.  So I did!

I write this article having finished the two-week program, on the night before I return to the Quad Cities.  Physically speaking, this has not been an easy two weeks.  Even though I was born and raised in the ultimate city – New York – still, living in a small city such as Davenport, where one drives everywhere they wish to go, it is easy to forget how labor intensive it is to travel by public transportation.  The walks to and from the Metro (the D.C. subway system), with a backpack filled with papers and books slung over my shoulder, in the heat and humidity which even mark the Washington mornings, were in and of themselves exhausting, and breathtaking (but not in the “My, how beautiful!” sense of the word).  Invariably, by the time I reached the classroom at the Museum, I was soaked in sweat.  And if that were not challenge enough, anyone who knows the D.C. Metro system, knows that it runs deep underground, with major escalators transporting passengers to and fro.  However, as those who know the system can attest, those escalators are often non-functioning.  With one lung working, I quickly found that a dead down escalator was no fun, but manageable.  A dead up escalator, on the other hand…  But when all was said and done, the very fact that I enter these words into my keyboard is testimony to the fact that I have survived.

As with most of the challenges of our lives, embedded in their difficulties are important life lessons.  This challenge was no exception.  There is much I have learned from my Washington experience, out of the classroom as well as within it.

First I have learned that it can be all too easy to surrender to our challenges.  We can permit them to overwhelm us and immobilize us even before we attempt to confront them.  “This will be too much for me!” we say as we convince ourselves to step back and aside.  We play it safe and by so doing, we avoid the pain that comes with facing the difficulty head on.  But we also avoid the multiple benefits of moving forward with our lives.  I could have passed on the seminar, staying safe and secure in my home in Davenport; never expending myself beyond the slightest huff or puff.  I most certainly would have been more comfortable.  But there would have been so much more that I would have denied myself.  First of all, there would have been the seminar, which was great!  Great teachers.  Great colleagues and new friends.  Great new insights into a subject that really moves me.  Then there would have been the quality time I spent with Shira; the weekday dinners and the weekend outings.  On the last 5 days, Gail and Helene joined us.  What a special time the four of us shared; something which we do not get the opportunity to do that often any more.  Then there was Washington itself.  I never tire of this city.  There is so much to do here, and especially to learn.  Every visit is a growth experience.  I could have taken the easy way out and stayed safe at home, but then I would have missed all of these wonderful experiences.  The benefits were most certainly worth the physical price I had to pay.

Second, I learned that there is a difference between listening to my body and surrendering to it.  My body has been telling me to slow down – not stop!  So I have had to learn to slow down.  My gait these days is definitely slower.  It is more of a meander than a march.  Yet I can still move forward without completely losing my breath as long as I can accept that slower pace and as long as I give myself more time to get where I am going.  Even so, it was somewhere between ironic and comic that I found that while walking the streets of Washington, at this much slower pace, still there were those people – able bodied people – who walked even slower than I; they had two good working lungs (or so I assumed) but still I outpaced them!  Slower does not necessarily mean last, but even if it does, it is the getting to where you are going that counts.

All this has made me reconsider how much so many of us push ourselves.  We are driven, but in truth it is also we who are the drivers.  And where does it get us?  More often than not, to the very same place we would wind up if we simply slowed down and chose not to tear our bodies and our lives apart in the getting there.  All the time, people say “What’s the hurry?” but how many of them really mean it?  Yet that is really one of the most important questions of our lives.  “What is our hurry?”  Why must we transform our lives into races?  If only we would choose to slow down, we might find a heck of a lot more to enjoy along the way.  And God knows, neither our bodies nor our souls would need to suffer the wear and tear of it all.

Third, and perhaps most important of all, we must learn to play with the hand that has been dealt us.  I do not know what caused the left side of my diaphragm to stop functioning.  So far, the doctors do not know either.  Is it something I did or is it just a freak happenstance?  Admittedly, I cannot say the same about my obesity (and I think about that a lot these days), but about my lung right now I can say it.  Of course I want to repair the damage but it may not be reparable.  If it isn’t, I will have to learn to live with it.  I will have to figure out how best to treat it; how far I can take it and how can I avoid doing further damage.  But that does not mean that my life as I know it has come to an end.  I cannot cry over it.  I just have to move forward with it.  And I most certainly cannot give up seeking a means to repair it.  When conventional medical treatment runs its course, I will turn to non-conventional treatment.  I will do this for as long as such a pursuit does NOT interfere with my living as full a life as I can, in the moment.  What I mean by that is that I will not surrender my life to the quest for a cure, but will continue that quest as long as it enhances my life and does not detract from it.

For the important thing about life is actually living it.  Not just enduring it or expending it, but living it; making the moments and the minutes and the hours and the days and the weeks and the months and the years matter.  As a rabbi, one of my most painful duties is trying to offer comfort to those elderly congregants who have become so afflicted that while they maintain a biological life, they have lost any semblance of a quality of life.  Having had the privilege of serving my congregation for 25 years, I have enjoyed knowing these individuals in the fullness of their lives.  But now, to watch them transformed into empty breathing, heart beating shells, simply breaks my own heart.  That is not a fate I wish for myself or anyone I love.  Yet as I spend time with such people, they teach me still – in their silence and their vacant stares, they teach me.  They teach me that I must make the most of my life while I still have the ability to do so, for when that ability is gone, it is gone.  All that will remain will be the mark I have left on those whose lives I have touched – hopefully in more positive than negative ways – while I was still capable of being a vibrant actor upon this stage.  When it comes to that type of living, no malady such as a bum lung is going to get in my way.  I will not let it.  Rather, I choose to play the hand that’s been dealt me and carry on as best I can, given the circumstances.

I know not what the future holds for me but this I do know.  I will choose to make the most of whatever I have, challenges not withstanding.  That is what living a full life is all about.  If it has taken the loss of the use of one of my lungs to drive home that lesson for me, then so be it.  I am grateful for the insight.