By Dr. Bernie Kastner
The human body is a truly amazing specimen. When you think about the brilliance of its construct, you begin to appreciate where your abilities can take you—both physically and mentally. When you are feeling well and all your body parts function properly, you can achieve impressive results, whether in a sports arena or an exercise class. When our body parts are in sync and our endorphin levels are on the rise, we feel like we have become a well-oiled machine. There is nothing more satisfying than knowing that when you need your body to take you through a certain task, you can depend on it to be there for you—for example, when you need to put it into high gear to catch that bus or make that extra stretch to screw in a light bulb.
When things are more or less routine, we tend to take our bodies for granted. We may then begin to cut corners by not brushing our teeth three times a day or be lax when it comes to our diet. We don’t stop to think what a marvel our bodies are and how fortunate we are to have our health. Until one or more parts of the body break down—even temporarily.
Early in August, I underwent back surgery. This is the first time I ever needed a surgical procedure under general anesthesia. For the better part of a year, I had been suffering from pain in my legs and profound weakness. An MRI confirmed that a herniated disc was pressing down on nerves leading bilaterally down my legs. After months of physical therapy, chiropractic, osteopathy, pain-clinic injections, acupuncture, and painkilling medications, and after careful consideration of the risks involved, I decided it was time to do this orthopedic procedure in order to decompress the area and finally give me relief from my pain and weakness and hopefully retrieve the precious quality of life I had lost.
During the course of the five-day hospitalization, I had time to think about the fragility of the human body and how utterly helpless we can become. While I wouldn’t exactly describe my experience as a close encounter with death, issues of mortality naturally come to mind. My life would be in the hands of the anesthesiologist—to keep me alive throughout the operation and to make sure I wake up post-op. Sounds automatic, but one views things through a different lens when it is happening to oneself.
And then I thought about the importance of around-the-clock one-on-one coverage. It is always a good idea to have an advocate at your side in the hospital. Vying for a nurse’s attention is a challenge if you are bedridden. Its essentiality is compounded if you are in severe pain and can’t move easily in and out of bed. Turning over and climbing out of bed with all kinds of machine hookups is quite a challenge. Pressing the call button will not result in a nurse or nurse’s aide running over. What to do in the meantime? The value of a bedside caretaker cannot be underestimated.
Yet not everyone has that luxury. And even with the proliferation of many chesed organizations that provide volunteer services, how many of them could take care of the nitty-gritty of one’s highly personal hygienic needs?
The berachah of “Asher Yatzar” takes on new significance when it is not to be taken for granted that the digestive and urinary tracts function smoothly. “Blessed are You, Hashem our G‑d, King of the Universe, Who formed man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many hollows. It is obvious and known before Your Throne of Glory that if one of them ruptures, or if one of them becomes blocked, it would be impossible to survive and to stand before You (even for a short period). Blessed are You, Hashem, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.”
The reason I emphasize this point is that I was given an oral laxative, but instead of giving me a sense of relief, I suffered from terrible stomach pains that lasted for the next 24 hours. Suddenly my focus of pain was not the wound from the back surgery, but fighting off my newly found digestion issue. The discomfort was so severe, I could hardly speak. When Shabbat came, I couldn’t think of davening or making Kiddush—not to mention having a meal.
My poor wife. She went home on Friday morning for a few hours to help prepare food for the two of us so we wouldn’t have to eat hospital food. But I couldn’t look at it—and I felt doubly bad because of her expectation of spending a few moments together with me to share a meal. I felt guilty I wasn’t feeling well enough for her. It is tough to be a bedside caretaker for all those hours—sleeping accommodations are nonexistent, so her body was also taking a beating just tending to me.
Speaking of Shabbat, there were halachic issues that came up that I either didn’t think of ahead of time or couldn’t possibly anticipate. If my wife is resting in the lounge in the middle of the night, do I use the call button or not? Assuming the nurses will not respond quickly enough, do I try to unhook myself from an electric-powered blood-clotting-prevention machine in order to get to the bathroom quickly? If I do, the machine will begin beeping. It is loud enough to disturb the other patients in the room. Do I turn the power off in consideration of the other patients? What do I do afterwards? Can I turn it back on? What if I have to repeat this every 15 minutes? Do I just do what I have to do without considering it is Shabbat? Without the benefit of being armed with rabbinic guidance ahead of time, I found myself in the position of taking action and responsibility for certain decisions I had to make on the spot.
Then there are the highs and lows—both physically and mentally. Two of my highs were when I had the catheter taken out and when I was told I was ready to be discharged. There were also a few periods when I felt down and sorry for myself. I had a few emotional mini-breakdowns too—for example, when I had to say goodbye to my daughters on Friday afternoon as they left to go home for Shabbat. It hit me that I wouldn’t be saying Kiddush for them that night. I began to whimper.
When I arrived home after being discharged, I began to cry together with other family members out of sheer happiness. I welled up in the embrace of my loved ones and once again appreciated what I had—not what was lacking. My mother, who was there to greet me at home, reminded me of the last time she saw me cry like this. It was 12 years ago, when my wife and I finally arrived home from a trip to Odessa. Our flight home was delayed twice and we thought we would never get home. We practically kissed the ground upon our landing at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Not having the right size hospital gown also brought me to a near breaking point—it doesn’t take much when we are so vulnerable. The smock was just too tight on me and it was a source of discomfort. Most patients wore two—one you put on like a robe with the front open and the other in the reverse fashion with the back open. By wearing two you are covered in a modest way without having to tie anything. Well, one of the smocks I was to change into was simply too tight on me. So I ended up wearing only one, which left my backside open for display. I remember saying to myself that I didn’t care if anyone saw me that way as I shuffled from my bed to the washroom. My frustration was so high because a proper size was not available at the time; I decided my comfort was more important than avoiding embarrassment.
Another time I lost it was when I asked my wife to go to the nurses’ station and complain about the lack of overnight air-conditioning. I was sweating and couldn’t fall asleep. Since it was Shabbat, she didn’t think it would help—and, being the honest soul that she is, told me so. I began to cry. I wanted my advocate to do my bidding for me. I was not in the frame of mind to hear rationalizations. Should she have said ‘OK’ and left the room as if she were on her way to tell a nurse? I wouldn’t have known the difference but would have calmed down—at least for the moment. Should she have told me a white lie that they would come and fix it first thing in the morning? Was I being unfair by holding her to a certain standard and expectation?
Upon reflection, all those trips in and out of my bed forced me to find a way to tough it out for two days. I was reminded of an allegory that helped put the unpleasant predicament into perspective.
Hashem once said to someone, “There is a big boulder in front of your cabin. I want you to go out there every day and push, and push, and push against that boulder.”
The man took Hashem’s instructions seriously. Day after day for many, many weeks he pushed against that boulder. But he couldn’t budge it an inch. After a while an idea came into his head, which he understood to be the voice of the yetzer ha’ra. “Look, you don’t have to bother with this. You have done your best. You won’t succeed at this. Accept that you have failed. It is useless. Then take it easy and do the least amount of work you can.”
Before the man would take that advice, however, he decided to pray. He prayed and prayed and prayed. “Hashem, I have done what You asked me. I have been faithful. Every day for hours I have been pushing against that rock, but I have not budged it an inch. I have failed. Thank you for taking my self-esteem down a notch. I needed that.”
Then Hashem, with great compassion, answered, “Son, you are not a failure. I asked you to push against that rock, and you were obedient. I never asked you to move it. I asked you to push against it. Because you have pushed faithfully and diligently against that rock every day, notice how strong your arms have become. Your back is brown and sinewy, your legs are massive; you are in such better shape now. You have learned a lot because you have been faithful and obedient.”
Then Hashem said to the man, “You have trusted me. Now I will move the rock.”
That is the way Hashem does things.
Perhaps I was released from the hospital after a relatively short stay because I pushed myself to get in and out of bed so many times that it ultimately gave me the strength to begin walking on my own that much sooner. v
(To be continued)
Dr. Bernie Kastner is a psychotherapist in private practice with offices in Jerusalem. He is also the author of “Understanding the Afterlife in This Life” and “Masa El Haor.” His upcoming book on the afterlife is called “HaOlam She’acharei.” Feel free to visit his website at drbkastner.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.