Given the various medications I am on, and the need to use my left hand to hold down pieces of cotton stopping blood tests from leaking, etc., please forgive my typos.
It is 3:01 p.m. and my eyes suddenly pop open right onto the clock. Looming above me is the chief thoracic surgeon who looks like an aging Green Bay Packers’ linebacker about to sack a quarterback — me. Fortunately, I already met him. And I respect and trust him. “This is Dr. —,” says the orderly, ” … and he’s going to remove the tube draining blood from your lung.”
And remove it he does. His teeth are bared, he growls. It would be comical if it weren’t so scary but I know he means me no harm. His huge hands reach out and literally tear it out of me. It hurts, but I must admit he is skillful and the pain is gone in seconds; before the sting ends, he sews me up. The orderly puts on the gauze and for the first time in three days I enjoy the ultimate human luxury — not being tied to some piece of medical equipment by a tube. It is heaven.
The staff is good, though not all charming. I don’t like talking to doctors; they bring out the pessimism in me, even despair. I remain on a steady line of safety tips and good advice thanks to my mother-in-law, a lung expert who has flown over from New York and keeps giving her calming professional opinion.
I quickly realize two things. First, most of us are years out of date in our medical knowledge and thus don’t realize how much progress has been made. My mother-in-law muses that her own father wrote a book about lung cancer 40 years ago.
And I ask, “There must have been a lot of progress since then?”
“Oh no,” she says, “there hasn’t.”
My heart sinks.
“But there’s been incredible progress in the last 5-10 years.”
The other thing: that the best-intentioned doctors often don’t know what they are talking about outside their own specialty. My two thoracic surgeons overruled my two general internalists, and proved to be 100 percent correct. On the other hand, those two generalists did save my life, so I am grateful to them, too.
The great weakness of Israel’s system — and it has many strengths far beyond the British and the American — is going from the level of general practitioner to specialist. When first scheduling my lung doctor appointment, there was a one-month wait. That might have killed me. I went to my wife’s doctor and he had me in the emergency room within three hours, getting proper treatment. The female doctor from the health fund was wonderful in getting me fast appointments, too.
So, I am not joking: your life may depend on getting rid of Obamacare.
The Israeli system has reasonable prices, but, of course, its small size allows easy management and reduced abuse. Yes, there are incompetents, indifferent personnel, and worse hospitals, too, but Ichilov — despite the often callous night floor staff — is the only hospital I’d want to be in. And many of the most talented of these doctors and others left the USSR because they just weren’t welcome there.
It’s also only the hospital where they start asking you about contemporary Middle East developments while treating you. I have great genealogy discussions with some medical personnel about our ancestors. And for the multiculturalism fans, at least three of the kindest technicians were Arabs — two men with crosses and a woman with a hijab, perhaps more whom I don’t know.
Mr. Ibrahim, my neighbor to the right, is a real gentleman. Born in Istanbul of an Ashkenazic family, he is a lean, distinguished gentleman perhaps in his early 80s. He went to French schools during Istanbul’s golden age and speaks Ladino (fifteenth century Judeo-Spanish), native-level Turkish, perfect English, beautiful French, and not one word — not one — of Hebrew. They moved him next to me so I could translate for him. He never loses his cool or dignity. He tells me his life story. His father had a good, American appliance franchise which he inherited. He loves Turkey — but with no illusions about its current rulers — and he has many Turkish friends. But one day he realized his family had no future there, so they came to the land of Israel.
His two happily married, beautiful daughters obviously dote on him. He had fallen in his garden, but his doctor releases him after a few days. We find we know people and events in common, since I wrote a book about Istanbul. One night I read him to sleep with passages about the labor battalions where Turkish Jews, Armenians, and Greeks were looted and forcibly sent during World War II into virtual concentration camps, first-person accounts his own father had never told him. I also tell him about the secret Jewish museum in Istanbul, built since he left, created by a community so insecure — while boasting of how well it is treated and how loyal it is — it dare not even publicize the location even though it boasts of how integrated and well-treated the community has been. Soon he is released.
My other neighbor is Mr. Meir, another fine gentlemen — these men only a decade older than me have such wonderful manners. How much we have lost! He was born in Casabalanca and he speaks Arabic, French, and Hebrew with equal facility. He offers me a cup of tea which I find touching, but I fear the hot drink. He, too, is surrounded by his loving family. He tells me a story that makes me sob a moment. I ask when he arrived in Israel. As a refugee, he responds, in the week of his Bar Mitzvah. And the first thing he did was to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah here. My son will soon celebrate his Bar Mitzvah this week, and I fear I will not be there. Yet I find something comforting in the coincidental symbolism.
He too is released.
Then comes the ordeal. A very elderly man is brought into my left side. He is tall and spare, wearing a narrow black silk skullcap, looking every inch like a Biblical portrait of Abraham, so straight and stiff as to resemble a human log. All night long he moans, piteously, he recounts the story of his life, a few words at a time, his daughters and perhaps sons-in-law or sons gather around, they respond back, praising him for an incident, expressing their love, begging his pardon.
“No, we love you, father,” they say. “You could not have been better to us. We are so grateful to you!” On and on, hour after hour it goes as he mumbles a paragraph and then another. I listen fascinated, harrowed by every word — my double sleeping pill has no effect at all. Finally, at midnight they leave, long after the visiting hours ended, though no one dared ask them to leave. But one fateful young religiously garbed daughter remains to tend him all night. She wears the hair-net covering of the religious. Her face is ravaged with sadness.
The entire century of a family is laid out before my unwilling ears. It breaks my heart, but there is something inspiring in it, something of the essence of life beyond all the foolishness and externals to which we divert ourselves. Only family matters; only love matters; only good deeds matter. I finally can forebear no more and go around the curtain and I address the young hollow-eyed daughter the traditional Hebrew words of hope for the mercy of the Creator of the Universe, for full healing, and for a miracle.
But I see by the look of hopelessness in her eye, even her deeply religious, believing-with-a-perfect-faith eye, that no miracle is expected here. I fall asleep. Three hours later I awake briefly, and hear him still mumbling.
Again, I fall asleep and when I wake up ten hours later he is gone. She is gone. And someone else is in his place, a vigorous-looking stocky man. May the Creator of the Universe comfort this fine man’s family and bring him his true reward for having lived such a good life.
My eyes open precisely onto the clock on the wall opposite me. It is 3:01 p.m. The two giant men loom above me: “This is your thoracic surgeon,” says the mighty orderly. Rip, tear, and the hole in my side is healed. But the holes in our hearts, the pain in our souls are not so easily remedied.
A few minutes later they take me down to the CAT scan. They manipulate me around for a few minutes. Then I go back to my room. An hour passes. I wait for the results as they confer, begging for the half-dozen conferring doctors to just give me one sentence of summary. The kindly deputy director — a wonderfully decent man — looks at me a moment and says, “You are much better now,” and returns to the conference. Frustrated, I fall asleep. Three hours later, my wife wakes me. They cannot find any more damage, she explains. Just the ugly tumor on the lower lung, the emptied out chamber of blood, some scar tissue that won’t do me any damage.
After a bit of bureaucracy, the kind desk nurse holds up a brown envelope. You can go home, she explains. Come back each week for an X-ray. Begin your therapy. I can barely walk, but my wife helps me down the hall, into a wheelchair, out the door, and into the ever-startlingly bright Tel Aviv sunshine. Myself, Mr. Meir, and Mr. Ibrahim have been given another chance to go into the world and do some good, to do some right. Mr. “Abraham” is on his way to somewhere else, somewhere better I hope, where he will reap the reward of his long life of good deeds.
They release me to go home, rest, and begin my therapy. Thanks to our Creator for our lives and thanks to our Creator for the chances we are given — often more than we merit — to transcend those lives by good deeds, integrity, solidarity with those who stand for the just and the free, and love for our fellows. This is not about fame, this is not about wealth, this is not about power. It is about how — or whether — at the end those who know us best love us best. I am back at my desk and I will continue to do my best to serve you.
Image courtesy shutterstock / Yellowj