"They gassed me, so I didn't know what happened," Lani recalls the Shabbos morning when she went into labor. The doctor said the fetus was feet first, and she'd need an emergency Cesarean.
"When I woke up, I kept asking for more information, and they kept saying ‘soon, soon ...'"
The baby was sent to the ICU. Lani recalls seeing the newborn. "She was gorgeous. She was big. Only her head was moving."
Eventually, Lani was told that the baby's neck was positioned the wrong way at birth. "They yanked her out," she said. The doctor had pulled -- but not severed -- the spinal cord, leaving the infant a quadriplegic, completely paralyzed from the neck down, and unable to breath on her own. "Basically, it was the doctors' mistake," Lani recounts without the least hint of bitterness. Baby Batya was not expected to live through the night.
The doctor said to the father: "I don't even know what to tell you to pray for, at the very, very best she will be a vegetable for the rest of her life." The father replied, "You worry about doctoring, I'll worry about the praying."
With God's help, Batya lived through the night. After a few days, she was off the respirator and breathing on her own.
The infant underwent Feldenkrais, a method that accesses the nervous system's own innate processes to change and refine functioning. Baby Batya progressed to being a paraplegic, gaining the use of her upper body when she was about six months old.
Lani appreciated the smallest increments of progress -- even the duration that an object would stay in her daughter's tiny hand without falling out.
The parents were determined to keep Batya in therapy to keep her legs mobile; not with the hope that she would regain use of them, but to keep them agile so the muscles wouldn't atrophy. Also, in case any new therapy would be developed in the future, Batya would have a better chance. The bewildered infant would be propped up for long periods of time on a brace, just to keep the legs in a standing position.
Like Batya, her five older siblings were all born in Israel. When she was two-and-a-half, her father, Rabbi Yitzchak Feigenbaum, took a year off from teaching so the family could leave for Toronto in order to get a special brace fitted for her. It turned out the brace was totally useless.
When the year was almost over, the doctor in Toronto referred Batya to an experimental therapy called electrical stimulation. She was the second patient ever to try it.
The results were spectacular. Within six months, the three-year-old started crawling, and got some feeling in her legs.
Batya's earliest memory was of her mother crawling along with her.
The Feigenbaums decided to stay for another six months, and then another six. The father obtained dispensation from his rabbi in Israel to remain in Toronto indefinitely, as there seemed to be many new therapies emerging there.
"My parents brought me up to do everything; I never felt I couldn't do it."
Now, at 21, Batya wears braces from her waist down. In her bungalow home, there is no sign that a paraplegic lives there. There is no ramp, no special equipment. Batya manages -- at times precariously -- to negotiate the few steps using her crutches.
It's part of her parent's philosophy -- to get her to do as much as she can, and live and feel as normal as possible.
For short distances, Batya walks with crutches, otherwise she gets around in her scooter. She drives a mini-van with hand controls. Her vehicle is fitted with a mechanism to lift the scooter into the trunk. During Shabbos and Yom Tov, she uses a manual wheelchair.
Batya considers herself very independent. She showers and gets dressed without assistance. She went to camp during her teenage years, and she is a solid swimmer (having developed an exceptionally strong upper body), and she even traveled to Israel by herself. She is currently a teacher at Tiferes Bais Yaakov high school, of which her father is the founding Principal.
Batya attributes much of her determined attitude, self-confidence and positive outlook, to her parents. "My parents brought me up to be independent, and they never made me feel any different. I can't mop the floor, but I wash dishes, I cook, I clean. My parents brought me up to do everything; I never felt I couldn't do it."
"As a child," explains Lani, "[Batya] sometimes took advantage of her handicap." The Feigenbaums made a decision that they would do for her whatever they could; and that included disciplining and treating her like a normal person. Batya was punished when she needed to be punished, just like everyone else in the family.
Besides their deep-seated pragmatism, Rabbi and Mrs. Feigenbaum's unflinching faith seems to have rubbed off on their daughter as well: "I don't recall ever questioning God. Obviously God has a reason [for making me disabled]. My parents tell me that when I was in first and second grade, I did question, but they worked through the issues with me."
First grade was a particularly difficult year. "There was a bunch of girls, they used to get up and march around the teacher's desk when the teacher wasn't there, chanting: ‘Batya is contaminated, Batya is contaminated'. I was very, very hurt by it."
Since those early years, Batya's social life has been normal. She takes her physical limitations in stride. "I used to feel bad when people had to help me, but eventually I realized that by letting others do things for you, it's a form of giving."
People may observe Batya's ungraceful steps and conclude that her life is hard. They have only to shift their gaze for a moment from her crutches to her face to see how mistaken they are. Her radiant smile and serene demeanor testify that her life is not hard. She has a wonderful family, amazing friends, a great job, and everything else she needs.
The biggest compliment you can give me is to forget that I'm handicapped."
"Most of the time I forget that I'm handicapped... Even my friends forget. They say let's go here, and then they say, ‘Oh, right, I forgot, you can't go there.' The biggest compliment you can give me is to forget that I'm handicapped."
Where does this buoyant young woman see herself in five years? "Married. With kids, hopefully. Still teaching... I LOVE teaching. Also, I'd LOVE to be living in Eretz Yisrael."
And her thoughts on finding a shidduch? She thinks the biggest challenge is that when people see her, they don't really see her. They just see ‘handicapped'. "I view myself as normal, I just can't walk. It's a very big difference."
"Everyone has his or her challenge. I have something you can see; others have things you can't see... I'm really looking for someone that does not have a handicapped mentality."
Nor is Batya one to give up on her own challenge. "There's always hope [that I will walk]. I've come this far." Batya is pursuing hypnosis therapy, which operates on the principle that there are many pathways to the brain. One can rejuvenate the muscles if they can be connected to the brain through alternative pathways.
With a walker, she is now able to walk across the room without her braces on. She goes to a therapist twice a week; and has to practice a little every evening.
Our tradition teaches that each person is put in this world with his or her set of challenges, and it's up to us what we do with it. We, who may be physically intact, often do not see ourselves as capable, or we choose not to exert our best efforts. If so, who is really handicapped?
First published in Binah, Hamodia's magazine for Jewish women.