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When Death Paid Me a Visit

When Death Paid Me a Visit

This was no made-for-TV movie. It was real and shockingly happening to my life.

by

Pain is hard to describe in words. They don’t do it justice. Hospitals use a sophisticated scale of “1-10.” Mine was at least 11.

Thursday I was biking around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, rushing as usual. At the end of the day, I felt a bit of lower back ache, nothing unusual for a Type-A personality like me who regularly swims, mountain bikes and does yoga. I took a bath and went to bed.

Ehpraim and Esther Shore with their familyEphraim and Esther Shore with their family

Friday I woke up and it felt worse. I got out of bed and screamed as a massive spasm suddenly seared through my lower back. I collapsed on to the bed, blinded by the pain. It was like one of those awful leg cramps but way more intense and across my whole lower back. And the pain would not let up. In fact, the spasms were getting worse and worse. I had no idea that this kind of pain existed.

The slightest movement of any part of my body magnified the daggers plunging into me. My wife had just stepped out, so I made the massive effort to focus and struggled to call an ambulance.

Over the course of the next few hours I can only remember a few moments. I wasn’t unconscious but the pain was so overwhelming it left no room whatsoever for anything else to enter my consciousness. The only words I could force out between moans of torment were “I can’t” and “Need pain killer now!” Thank God none of our kids were home to witness this. My wife rushed home and was unfortunately not spared.

After a few days, utterly spent from the unrelenting suffering, I yearned only for deliverance.

I spent the next week in varying degrees of utter agony. The back pain was only minimally alleviated by morphine and other pain killers and within a day my entire body started breaking down. Water in my lungs, enlarged spleen and kidneys, fever, my mouth so parched I couldn’t swallow. IV, catheter, and oxygen tubes invaded my body.

Now I understand viscerally how torture works. Our frail bodies are just not equipped for this degree of pain. I would have done anything to escape it. After a few days, utterly spent from the unrelenting suffering, I yearned only for deliverance, no matter where it came from.

Ephraim on the rooftop of Aish HaTorahEphraim on the rooftop of Aish HaTorah

Doctors searched for an explanation. The usual suspects were eliminated fairly quickly. After six days, the doctors sat my family down with me and carefully offered their conclusion. “We believe you have multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood.” They warned us not to Google it. My brother and parents flew in. My wife dropped everything and became my full time guardian and nurse.

I was transferred to the cancer ward where I was finally given the massive amounts of pain meds required to make my pain livable. Finally I was able to think of something other than my pain and it was time to come to terms with my new state in life.

I was in shock. I never thought I was the cancer type of person, if there is such a thing. I’m in good shape, eat healthy, and well, as someone who is constantly on the move, I never imagined cancer could ever tackle me. Boy, was I wrong. Two weeks prior I attended the funeral of a friend who died of cancer three weeks after his diagnosis, and that image filled my mind.

But the respite from pain was so soothing I couldn’t help but feel a certain joy of relief. Still locked to my bed, completely sapped from a week of agony that continued to revisit me in regular spasms, I had a lot to contemplate: taking a hard look at my life and the coming years of treatments, hospitals and life interrupted.

I looked out from that hospital bed onto my life…and possible death, a strange new visitor. One part of me (the exhausted, beaten down part) wanted to sink into the comfort of putting all the pain and hassles of life behind me.

But the overwhelming feeling was that I was deeply connecting with the beauty of life. I looked out the window and stared in wonder at the mountains and trees. I wanted to paint (and I don’t paint). I know this sounds cliché but for me it was profound. I suddenly saw the inherent majesty and meaning all around me. And I didn’t want to die.

I felt I had to grapple with the meaning of my illness and how I should be changing my life.

At the same time I knew that God was giving me a very heavy message. Brutally honest, personal reflection is difficult, and I was forced to stop and do it. I felt I had to grapple with the meaning of my illness and how I should be changing my life. When I thought about my life, the word that hit me was “hysteria.” Ambitious and driven at work, with wife and nine kids at home, my life is a non-stop maelstrom of running from one obligation to the next. And with all that running I seemed to be missing the point. It’s not just ‘get it all done so that it’s all done,’ a mad scramble to the finish line.

I committed that if God spares me and I have the chance to return to life again, I would not allow myself to lose sight of my ultimate goals – being aware of God in my daily life, giving my wife and kids more attention and love, appreciating what a great team of people I’m working with and what a special privilege it is to devote my life to helping the Jewish people – and not to get lost in the myriad means to reach those goals.

A Living Nightmare

I shared my room in the neurosurgery ward with eight others – the brain injured, the brain tumors, the strokes. Everyone was moaning for attention. It was a Third World setting: an understaffed ward, each person stuck in his curtained-off, five square meters, constantly encroached by everyone else’s visitors, sharing two filthy bathrooms with those lucky enough to be able to get there.

One thing we all shared in common was that we were all fighting for our lives, fighting through mountains of pain to get back to where we last stepped out of our lives.

Why? I asked myself. Why are we all fighting so desperately through life, through such sacrifice and even horror? To go back home, back to work and throw ourselves into the rat race once more? I hope not. We all instinctively know that it’s because life is precious, gorgeous, beautiful. Even if we ignore that 99% of the time.

Rabbi Noah Weinberg, zt”l, would ask people if they’d be willing to give up one of their kids for $100 million dollars. (“Come on, you’ll still have two left! What about the one who’s always kvetching?”) Naturally, no one ever replies in the affirmative.

“But think about all the pleasure you can buy with $100 million? Yachts, vacations, homes in Paris, New York and Palm Beach! Every gourmet meal imaginable!” That means, he would point out, each of our kids is worth more than $100 million. “So why aren’t we spending more time with them? Why aren’t we enjoying them?”

The culprit is not life and its endless responsibilities. The problem is with us and how we choose to experience our “mundane” (gorgeous, stunning) daily life. It’s our unwillingness to take a deep breath, send up our periscope from the depths of that hysteria and constantly remember that we’re doing all of this because of the meaning and pleasure inherent in it all. It’s far more comfortable to just get lost in the busy-ness of life than to make the ongoing effort to choose to focus on the good and genuinely love and embrace life. And every sick person fighting for his life is a testament of this truth. No one would endure such an intense battle unless they were deeply aware of the infinite value of life itself.

Retracted

After a week in the cancer ward, the doctors came to my room and informed me and my wife that there had been a misdiagnosis. I did not have myeloma! I was most likely suffering from osteomyelitis, an infection in the bones in my spine, treatable by an intense, long term treatment of antibiotics.

Looking back on this experience, I feel that God has given me one of the greatest gifts imaginable.

The wave of relief that rushed through me cannot be described in words. I was being given the gift of life again! And this wasn’t some made for television movie. It was my life.

Looking back on this experience, still taking small quantities of morphine, I feel that God has given me one of the greatest gifts imaginable. My death sentence was withdrawn and my life was renewed. Saved! A fresh start. All the benefits of a life-threatening disease without actually having to go through it.

When you check in for a couple weeks to a cancer or neurosurgery ward, chances are you’ll come out a different human being. It’s a trip worth much more than a vacation in Tahiti.

My resolutions are many and I know, naively unrealistic. Those awful weeks in the hospital taught me so much about what I like and don’t like about myself. From now on I will be stopping regularly to taste the beauty in everyday, boring, simple, undramatic (please God, no more drama!) life. I’ll be patient and ever-so-expressively grateful with my wife (who was insanely devoted to my recovery), I’ll be spending more time with my kids and truly enjoying them, I’ll enjoy my prayers and remember that I’m actually talking to the Creator of the Universe, and I’ll ask Him to help me take pleasure in my day. I’ll smile to the cashier. And I’ll dance with joy at the gift that I can do meaningful work that is helping the Jewish People and Israel.

I’m still human. All that may not all happen immediately, but I do hope some of it will stick. Not just hope – I plan on God-willing working hard on that. For now, I’m relishing the slowly receding pain in my back (I can now brush my teeth and put my own pants on!). And I’m enjoying the effort to bite my tongue when my wife drives too slowly and to smile when my kids are fighting.

It’s the struggle for sanity and I’m back in the ring.

Published: June 22, 2013


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Visitor Comments: 45

(40) Beverly Kurtin, August 19, 2013 7:32 PM

Through the valley of death...

January 1, 1995, I had been home two days following a carotid endarterectomy (they open the artery and scrape out the gunk that has accumulated) when at 6:37pm, the right side of my face went numb and the worst headache I'd ever had hit me, then it suddenly stopped. Then it happened again and didn't stop. I picked up the phone, dialed 911 and told the operator that I needed an ambulance; I was having a stroke. She asked how I knew I was having a stroke and all I could do was garble an attempted reply. She assured me that the ambulance was on its way.
Up to that point in my life, the worst pain I'd felt was during one of my heart attacks, but this exceeded the pay by a level of ten.
When I presented in the ER, the nurse thought I'd been drinking because all I could do was laugh. She insisted that I had to have been drinking because all I could do was laugh. It wasn't until I went into a gran mal seizure that she realized that I wasn't a drun.
After receiving 49 units of whole blood and frozen plasma, I woke up. I'll not rehearse the rest of the situation except to say that my neurologist said, "Dr. Kurtin, you are never going to walk, talk or work again. Those were the words I did not want to hear. I received NO therapy of any kind, no speech, occupational or physical therapy. When I asked later why, they told me they did not expect me to live!
I returned to work in six months, doing all the things that they told me I would never do. But I had lost everything that made me a computer scientist. I could no longer program, all my math was gone as were other facilities I had once had. The stroke was massive and bled into my frontal and prefrontal lobes.
I retired when a side effect of the anti-seizure drug stole my voice thanks to spasmodic dysphonia.
Where this relates to the article is when I had my first grand mal seizure, I interpreted it as "this is it, I'm dying." Shema Yisra... is as far as I got.

(39) Michie, July 9, 2013 4:09 PM

the opportunity to prepare for death is a rare privilege!

Facing death means facing one's life and what it means.... and has meant. The reflecions and evaluations of life upon the diagnosis of multiple myeloma (at age 72 )and its inevitable conclusion was a strangely soothing exoerience. Much of the reflection, of course, focused on the things I wish I had done better.... mostly centering on family life, but I also realized that I have accomplished most of my career goals with flying colors, and that the circumstances that resulted in a second family allowed me to learn from my mistakes the first time around and do a better job....... and to re-build the bonds with the remaining members of my first family. The uncertain time frame of the course of Multiple Myeloma allows for such reflection and preparation for death (even when the wheels of denial turn presistently). The result for me has been to time to think and prepare with certainty ...... and a calming peace that accompanies it. I have re-read the little book, "Five Wishes" by Gay Hendricks which I found to be quite helpful in structuring my reflaction process. I recommend it regardless of your diagnosis (or lack of one). The opportunity to prepare for the inevibility of death while you continue to fight for life is a blessing from God. So rather than ask, "Why me Lord?".... we can ask, " How can I use this time remaining to best serve my family and teach what i have learned?"

(38) David ziering, July 2, 2013 8:12 PM

Great inspiration however ill choose Tahiti. Happy i finally read this and got the opportunity to be inspired and learn from my close friend and mentor rabbi ephraim Shore who always knows what to say at the right time .

(37) Linda Chapman, July 1, 2013 7:50 PM

Where was Dr. House when you needed him?

Oy veh, one week on cancer "death row" . I am so glad you are recovered! Life is a great mystery and death is a powerful teacher. All the best!

ephraim, July 11, 2013 1:35 PM

Nice to hear from you Linda! I had David and thought that that was as good as House, but.....

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