The report from Hadassah Ein Kerem arrived in the mail five years ago, just a few years after we made Aliyah.
I read the Hebrew text and reread it, my eyes popping out in disbelief.
“Honey, it says that you have a tumor.”
My husband grabbed the paper out of my hands. “That can’t be right. Let’s go ask the neighbor to translate.”
”My Hebrew may not be great – but trust me, I know what this says. Call the doctor.”
“After two ulpans, my Hebrew may not be great – but trust me, I know what this says. Call the doctor.”
A few months before, my husband had complained of ringing in his ears. “I’ll give you a referral for an MRI,” the doctor said dryly.
An MRI for ringing in the ears? Okay, whatever you say Doc. It took two months to get the appointment for the MRI. I joked at the time, “Well, it’s a good thing you don’t have a brain tumor or you’d be dead before your appointment!” We rolled our eyes and went off to run carpool.
When the report from the radiologist appeared, we were stumped.
We went back to the ENT. Half of her face was paralyzed. She explained that she once had the same tumor as my husband, an acoustic neuroma, and during her surgery to remove it, the surgeon hit her facial nerve, paralyzing her.
Clearly, this was not a routine surgery.
Months later, as I sat in the waiting area of Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, I had to pinch myself. Is this me? Is this me with the husband who is undergoing brain surgery, who at this moment is having his skull drilled opened? The phone rang.
“Okay, we’ve just opened him up,” the doctor said confidently. “Now we’re going to go in to remove the tumor.”
I was numb, envisioning my husband’s neck twisted all the way around, lying still, with the coils of his brain exposed. Just yesterday we were wandering around Barnes and Noble, drinking coffee in Starbucks, and eating juicy hamburgers for dinner. I opened my Book of Psalms and didn’t stop moving my lips, knowing that he was at the complete mercy of God.
In the waiting room outside the ICU, I watched people staring into space, gulping down cans of Coke, flipping through the newspaper, pacing back and forth, somehow trying to contain their fears.
I entered the ICU with hesitation, passing the other patients and imagining their stories, crying from the very seriousness of it all.
With his head wrapped in bandages and his body connected to tubes in every direction, my husband looked terrible. He yelled out to the nurses.
“Turn it off! Turn it off!” It was all the beeping. To his fragile brain, the sound was so deafening and incredibly painful, like sharp blades of glass slicing through his ear drum. He turned his eyes to me and begged me to do something.
“Excuse me,” I mumbled to the nurse at the desk. “There’s a loud beeping that’s bothering my husband in bed six. Is there any way to lower that? Excuse me – “ I tried to raise my voice.
“I’m sorry there’s not.” She was busy writing on her clip board and barely acknowledged me.
“Can you give him more pain meds?” I tried hard to be assertive in my new role as caretaker.
My happy-go-lucky, fun-loving husband of yesterday was now replaced with a pained, anxious man disabled and unable to enjoy life.
“No. He needs to be awake so the doctors can test his hearing and his facial nerve.” She walked to the other end of the station and left me with nothing to offer my husband.
He didn’t take the news very well. He began to scream even louder and I feared that maybe the surgeon had hit some nerve in his brain that forever changed him into a mean and angry person. Or perhaps he would have to live with this excruciating pain for the rest of his life. My happy-go-lucky, fun-loving husband of yesterday was now replaced with a pained, anxious man disabled and unable to enjoy life.
The fear made me nauseous. I felt powerless.
A new doctor and her students surrounded my husband. “Can you hear this? Can you hear this?” She snapped her fingers by his ear.
“Yes.” Thank God, he could still hear.
“Okay, wiggle your nose. Good.” The doctor continued to test him. “Can you blink? Wonderful. How about showing me your pearly whites? You’ve got a great smile.” His facial muscles worked!
“Please give me pain meds. Please!” he cried out. His face was gray.
A nurse soon injected him with more medicine. But it wasn’t enough and his moaning went on all afternoon and increased when he underwent a lumbar puncture to relieve the pressure on his brain.
I sat there for hours and even though my husband pleaded with me in his few lucid moments to help him, the nurses and doctors had a treatment plan and would not fulfill my requests. There was nothing I could do to appease him or calm my own nerves. Not reading my novel, not scanning the newspaper, calling friends, staring into space, eating my lunch, drinking coffee. Not any of it.
My only power rested in my ability to speak to God and plead for my husband’s recovery. So I read the Hebrew words in my Book of Psalms slowly and carefully, envisioning each word floating up to the heavenly spheres, making an impact, and trusting the words that I struggled to understand to tip the scale of mercy in our direction.
I knew God was there. And I was grateful He sent messengers. He was there with the anesthesiologist who in the cold and sterile prep area greeted my husband warmly saying, “Your neighbor Steve sends his regards.” Steve, his former colleague, had called him from Israel to tell him about my husband.
And God was with my husband back in Israel before the surgery when he received a blessing from the Skverer Rebbe visiting from the USA. The Rebbe asked him, “Is Dr. P performing the surgery?” My husband nodded, surprised that this important Rebbe knew the doctor’s name.
The Rebbe smiled. “He’s an excellent doctor. I know some of his patients personally.”
We felt like God was telling us: It’ll be okay. Don’t worry.
In the end, my husband was lucky. He lost part of his hearing in one ear and now wears a hearing aid but he didn’t lose his zest for life, and after a year, he returned to most of his previous activities.
We used to say to our friends, “If you have to get a tumor, this is the one to get.” As if we can choose these things.
The only thing we can choose during challenging times is how we are going to connect to the Master of the Universe and see His hand in the events that shape our lives. By choosing to connect, we empower ourselves and strengthen our sense of security and trust in God, the only things that kept me going during that difficult period.
This is my life, I told myself. And this is my challenge right now. And it will be okay. Because I’m not alone. There’s Someone out there to speak to, to cry to.
And He’s listening to me, even when I mumble.