By Moshe Borowski, LMSW
Six weeks. Sylvia S. lived for an additional six weeks from when discussions were begun to disconnect her from life support. After years of battling numerous medical and psychiatric illnesses, Sylvia had reached a point where her only chance for survival was being attached to a ventilator and receiving nutrition through a feeding tube. This had become her life.
Until someone decided to end it.
Unbeknownst to her family, during a period of particularly great duress, Sylvia had listed a gentleman from her neighborhood as her sole healthcare proxy. Right before Purim, he stepped forward to exercise his decision-making powers and instructed the hospital to disconnect Sylvia from the medical equipment that had become her lifeline.
Aghast, one of Sylvia’s nephews turned to Chayim Aruchim for direction and support. The organization, a program of Agudath Israel of America, helps patients, families, and hospitals understand the halachic issues involved in medical care and has lobbied tirelessly for the rights of the terminally ill. Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, a Chayim Aruchim board member, was made aware of the dire situation and immediately referred the family to Mordechai Avigdor, Esq., a former counsel for Agudath Israel.
As we reported previously in the 5TJT, through enormous effort and incredible hashgachah pratis, a judge was located (on a Sunday!) who issued a temporary restraining order. In the spirit of Purim “turnabout,” he opted to award healthcare proxy status to an older sister of the patient
A key point in the family’s lawsuit stated, “It is anathema to Orthodox Jewish belief to shut down life support from a person in (her) condition. . . . To do such would be nothing short of murder.” As her sister frankly pointed out, Sylvia is a “living, conscious adult with a right to remain living.”
And indeed, she did remain living. For another six weeks.
As her nephew observed, “All through the years, after myriad hospitalizations, my family would say to the discharge planners, ‘We want to bring Sylvia home.’ Now, when there were no discharge options and it seemed like she might have her life ended prematurely, Chayim Aruchim stepped up and brought new meaning to what we had pledged for decades. My aunt was ‘brought home’ to her family. Not to the home of bricks and cement, but home to the loving, caring embrace of all her family. And to her true spiritual home, to the lifespan that Hashem intended for her and to the kevuras Yisrael, in its proper time, which had also come under threat.”
Some lessons that Sylvia posthumously teaches us:
1. Every moment of life is precious and holy, and deserves to be protected and preserved. Six weeks. 42 days. 1,008 hours. 60,480 minutes. 3,628,800 seconds.
The Minchas Chinuch (Mitzvah 34) draws a vividly stark contrast when it comes to understanding the holiness of life: Two people stand before you. One, a child, has an entire life of unlimited potential stretching before him. The other, 100 years old, is a man who has lived a full life and is now so close to death that Eliyahu HaNavi himself would testify that he has mere moments remaining in this world. A person who would kill the elderly man is no different from one who would dare put the child to death. “Even if the elderly man were about to die anyway, the person who killed him is a murderer because life has been curtailed, even if only by a second.” Can we even begin to calculate the value of more than 3.6 million seconds?
2. Mi k’Amcha Yisrael! Mr. Avigdor points out that in today’s age, the drumbeats grow louder to review end-of-life care in light of many factors, including scarcity of medical resources and changing mores about what constitutes quality of life. But thankfully there are still people and organizations that stress the importance of life. “However, I must say, that as time goes on and the number of cases increases, I have yet to see anything comparable to the passion for life that exists in our community. In my experience, I’m proud to say that the stress on kedushas ha’chaim is quantitatively and qualitatively different among Orthodox Jews.”
3. The importance of appointing a healthcare proxy who can speak for you if needed. Sylvia’s case once again highlights the vital need for individuals to designate a healthcare proxy. As the New York State Department of Health defines it: The New York Health Care Proxy Law allows you to appoint someone you trust—for example, a family member or close friend—to make healthcare decisions for you if you lose the ability to make decisions yourself. By appointing a healthcare agent, you can make sure that healthcare providers follow your wishes.
In the event a person becomes incapacitated and has not designated a proxy, rest assured that someone will be making medical decisions on the patient’s behalf, and they may not turn out the way he or she would have wanted.
When it comes to appointing a healthcare proxy, as the adage goes, “The life you save may be your own.”
4. If halachic issues arise during the medical care of a loved one, contact Chayim Aruchim. Chayim Aruchim has created a highly specialized team of physicians, poskim, rabbanim, attorneys, and mental-health experts. The organization is available to discuss halachic issues that impact medical care with patients, families, and medical institutions.
Facing severe illness is difficult enough. But if issues arise where you are concerned that halachah is being compromised, or that perhaps there are options that you are not being fully apprised of, call the Chayim Aruchim Hotline—anytime. You don’t have to go it alone. Call the hotline at 718-535-9061 or visit www.chayimaruchim.com for further information. v
Moshe Borowski is director of outreach and education for Chayim Aruchim.