I awoke to see my father looking down at me. "Why are you here?" I whispered, feeling bewildered. I live in Jerusalem; my parents lived in New York.
"I'm here because of you. You almost died," he replied.
I looked around. The various little beeps and tubes connected to different parts of my body were a sure giveaway that I was in a hospital. "What day is it?" I asked weakly.
"Thursday," my father replied.
I was confused. The last thing I remembered was having trouble breathing, and the arrival of the paramedics - on Monday!
Then I lost consciousness again.
I was born in Riga, Latvia (formerly part of the USSR) in 1972. With the Russian Revolution, we and millions of other Jews had lost our connection to Judaism. But my grandmother insisted that I have a Bris Milah, at a time when such things were rarely done in Russia. The Bris was done underground in secret; had the authorities found out, my parents would have gone to jail, or worse.
In 1979, when I was seven, we moved to America. Our family had little Jewish awareness, but we had relatives in America who were very observant. So that kept us connected.
When I was 29, I spent the summer in Israel. I stumbled upon a Torah seminar, and I was intrigued. (It was at this seminar that I met the woman who would become my wife, Rachel - who it turns out lived a few blocks away from me in Brooklyn!) So I decided to stay for more. I learned what it means to be Jewish and really felt connected. Not long after, I got married and few months ago we had a baby - and life was grand.
And then I almost died.
I had been completing a course to become an electrician and was in-between projects, so I took a job on a construction site in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was one of the hottest days of the summer; even seasoned Israelis were complaining about the heat. We were sledge-hammering through walls and jack hammering tile floors. I had never before done that kind of serious physical labor, and apparently, I went at it with a bit too much gusto, because after the second day, I came home from work with my muscles screaming.
I was exhausted and wanted to go to sleep, but something in the back of my mind told me that wasn't a good idea. (I later found out that if I had gone to sleep, I would never have woken up).
If I had gone to sleep, I would never have woken up.
I assumed that my problem was dehydration, so I quickly drank about a gallon of water (in addition to the several gallons or so I'd drank on the job). Bad move. That put me into a state of hyper-hydration; I'd literally washed away all the sodium from my body. I started experiencing shortness of breath, and my wife called the paramedics. When they arrived, they immediately administered oxygen. But the dose was too much, too fast. I started hyperventilating.
And that's the last thing I remember.
An ambulance rushed me to the hospital. The doctors there didn't know how to diagnose me, so they figured they'd wait until the morning to give me a CAT scan. But the doctors switched shifts and the new doctor insisted on a CAT scan right away. It turns out that saved me. The CAT scan showed that all my overworking in the heat, dehydration and drinking too much too quickly had caused cerebral edema - a life-threatening condition where the brain begins to swell. If they had waited until morning, by then I would have been a vegetable.
Because of the hyponatremia (critically low blood sodium), they started administering me intravenous sodium. This is a very delicate procedure; if they give one milligram too much or too little, it would leave me either with permanent retardation, in a coma, or brain-dead.
On top of all this, I was experiencing a second, independent physiological breakdown. (Talk about a bad day!) I take a cholesterol medication, due to a family predisposition to high cholesterol. With this medication, there is a slight possibility that hard physical work can lead to muscle inflammation and cause one's CPK levels to rise. A high-normal CPK level is 200, and by day three of this ordeal, mine had reached 15,000. Once a person hits 25,000, the result is permanent kidney failure - a lifetime of dialysis, or worse.
Throughout all this, I was experiencing massive seizures. I was strapped down and on extremely heavy valium, but it hardly made a difference. People later said that I looked like the Incredible Hulk going through his transformation, with the popping muscles and facial contortions.
I vomited a half-gallon of blood with the force a fire hydrant.
My body was in an extreme state of shock, which caused a new, concurrent problem: I developed a serious ulcer in my stomach. At one point I vomited about a half-gallon of blood, which shot out with the force a fire hydrant. One person standing nearby got covered, literally, from head to toe.
My wife was totally devastated. When I threw up the blood, she was hit as well. People tried to help her clean it off, but she was so hysterical that she announced, "I'm not cleaning this off because this could be the last thing that I have from him!"
My father is a doctor in New York, and he'd been monitoring the situation via phone calls to the hospital in Jerusalem. When he heard that I had vomited blood, he immediately understood the danger of my condition. My mother quickly rounded up his passport, an extra shirt and slacks, and he took a taxi straight to the airport - not knowing when and if he'd get a flight.
He arrived at the airport at 11:20 p.m., and the only flight to Israel was leaving in a half-hour. There was one seat left on the plane, in business class. He pleaded with them: "If you don't let me on this flight, my son might die." They let him on.
He was on the plane for 10 hours, not knowing if I'd be dead or alive when he arrived. My father usually flies coach, and the one time he got to fly business class was the worst flight of his life!
During those four days, I was totally unaware of everything that was going on. Between the sodium, the CPK, the seizures and the ulcer, I nearly died half a dozen times.
Still, my father felt that everything possible was being done to help me. "Isn't there something we can do to wake him up?" my wife asked him. My father, who never had much to do with belief in God after losing his own father at age 14, turned and started to walk away. "No, just pray," he answered.
Friends who had never prayed before just opened a prayer book and recited the words.
I later found out that people were praying for me in every corner of the globe. I was put on dozens of email lists, and when I got home from the hospital I had hundreds of emails from complete strangers inquiring about my health. People arranged midnight prayer sessions at the Western Wall and at Rachel's Tomb. Jewish communities as far as South Africa and virtually every yeshiva student in Chicago - people who don't even know me - were praying and studying in the merit of my recovery. Some friends told me that they had never prayed before, so they just opened a prayer book and started reciting the words.
Prayer always works, but we don't always see it. This time was different.
One week after being admitted, I was released from the hospital. The doctors were amazed at the speed of my recovery; one of them called me a walking miracle.
I was literally inches away from dying or becoming a vegetable. For my recovery, so many things had to go exactly as they did. There was no room for error. I truly believe one of the only reasons I pulled through was because of the love that God and all my friends showed me.
The reality of death was ever-present in the ICU. While I was recovering, a 35-year-old man in the next bed started to go into heart failure. His family surrounded him, crying. He died. "He's only two years older than me," I whispered.
When I came home from the hospital, I looked deep into the big brown eyes of my 2-month-old son. "God decided that he should still have a father," I thought. There was a clear message for me: I have a reason to be here. I have some soul-searching to do. I have to figure out why I was given another chance.
I've always used my Russian name, Ilya. But now I feel like Ilya died in that hospital bed. For my second chance at life, I'm now using my Hebrew name, Eliyahu. I'm named after my grandfather, whom I never knew. Actually, Eliyahu wasn't his given name; it was added when he contracted rheumatic fever at age six and almost died himself. So Eliyahu is all about getting a second chance.
Another significance about my name Eliyahu is that, amazingly, it was also the first name of the Vilna Gaon, the greatest rabbi of the past 500 years, who is actually my great-great-great (etc.) uncle!
I've recently said the "Hagomel" blessing that we say when being saved from grave danger. I can't be thankful enough. How can I ever be thankful for this gift of life?
This experience has taught me that every moment is precious. And now I have my work cut out for me: How this will have an ongoing impact on me, and how I will see the positive results in my life, 10 and 20 years from now?
Sometimes we are given taps on the shoulder when it is time to reassess our lives. Other times it's more of an Almighty shake. After leaving Intensive Care, I was relieved that it was all over. And then it dawned on me: It's only just begun.
The author thanks Jackie Engel for contributing important details.