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TorahAnytimes Newsletter Shemini

Parshat Shemini

Compiled and Edited by Elan Perchik


"The TorahAnyTimes" Newsletter    Print Version

Parashat Shemini
29th of Nissan, 5778 | April 14, 2018

Compiled and Edited by Elan Perchik

Rabbi Fischel Schachter
Meir's Greece Experience

Allow me to introduce you to Rabbi Meir Sommers. For about two decades, Meir has been a member of Hatzolah and paramedic. He is as well a volunteer for TorahAnytime, where he records and uploads on the web Torah classes from his home in Kew Gardens Hills, New York. This is in addition to a set, regimented learning schedule which he closely adheres to. As you can probably tell from his miniature resume, he is that “Type A” personality that never sits still. But let me take you into his life a bit and share with you what once happened.

It was September 2013 when he took his annual trip to Israel before the High Holidays. It was about half way into the flight that he started experiencing chest pains. It continued for about five minutes, and then subsided. Meir didn’t think anything of it as he figured that he was way too young for something like this to be heart related. And with that, he sat back into his seat and continued to relax.

About an hour and a half before the scheduled landing in Israel, he noticed what felt like a drop in altitude, and the little plane icon on the TV screen, indicating the flight’s progress, began making a U-Turn. A few minutes later, the pilot announced that the smoke detector had gone off in one of the lavatories and they would be making an emergency landing in Athens, Greece.

The plane landed and stayed grounded while technicians came to observe the problem. But that didn’t end all the problems. At least not for Meir. There it was again. He felt what was clearly chest pains a second time, though it went away after a mere few minutes. He figured that when he would finally get to Israel, he would head over to Terem, an emergency medical center, just to see if anything was actually wrong. But, all in all, he didn’t think much of it.

The plane stayed on the tarmac for about an hour, while local Athens technicians attempted to resolve the issue. But even after that hour, the problem still remained, prompting the pilot to announce that all passengers were requested to disembark and would be given a hotel to stay in until technicians from Israel would arrive to give their best at fixing the plane.

As everyone disembarked, Meir felt the pain again, only this time it was significantly longer and stronger. He somehow managed to make his way to the terminal and immediately headed for some benches to rest. The TSA security agent motioned that he was not allowed to be in that particular area, but Meir told him that he was not feeling well. The TSA agent offered to call a doctor, which Meir initially declined, though quite quickly changed his mind and took him up on the offer. He figured that his plane wasn’t leaving for a few hours anyway, and it wouldn’t hurt to get an EKG.

Meir still did not believe that his pain was heart related, but still proceeded to wait for the ambulance. In the meantime, though, the pain disappeared again. When the ambulance arrived, they rushed him to the airport hospital clinic, where they administered an EKG. Meir quickly glanced over at the results, and noticed nothing which seemed too off or unsettling to catch his attention. It looked pretty much normal. But then the doctor started taking out all the routine medication, which are taken in the event of a major heart attack. Unsure as to why he was doing so, Meir inquired. “It’s protocol,” the doctor said. He then gave Meir some aspirin, also used in heart related medical situations.

At this point, the pain began to return, which prompted the doctor to once more give him medication. This time around it was something even stronger, specifically morphine. Although Meir was slightly uncomfortable, he couldn’t tell why the doctor was making such a big deal about it. Until he asked to take a second, closer look at the EKG monitor and saw exactly what the doctor was seeing. Meir was having a major heart attack.

He asked if he could be taken to a cath lab where they would give him a stent, the most definitive option of care for a heart attack. The doctor reassured him that another ambulance was on its way which would take him

At the moment, Meir’s mind began racing with thoughts. Here he was in a strange country, where he didn’t understand the language or know a thing about their medical care. Meir pleaded with the staff to allow him to contact his wife who was in the States as neither of his phones was working in Greece. One staff member was eventually nice enough to allow him to do so. But since his wife couldn’t help from afar at the current moment, she wistfully advised him to reach out to the Chabad rabbis in Athens and see if they could look after him. They were sure to help him.

By the time the ambulance arrived, the chest pain was becoming even stronger. Even the morphine didn’t help. The paramedics started slowly lifting him onto a stretcher and placed him in the ambulance. Meir started feeling dizzy and experiencing an acute cough, which he knew was symptomatic of heart failure. He decided it would a good time now to recite the traditional confession recited before one passes away along with the Shema, as he didn’t know what the outcome would be. He remembered learning that in such circumstances, it is recommended to say such passages. His only consolation was that he did not feel any impending doom, which has been said to be the feeling one has before they pass away.

When they wheeled Meir into the emergency room, the scene was typical of any New York emergency room when a heart attack patient is admitted (except it was all Greek to him). They provided him with another medication and gave him a pill, which didn’t sit well with him. He was still in a daze and by now the chest pain was constant.

A few minutes later, they wheeled him into the CCU (coronary care unit). As to why he was not being taken to the cath lab, he was told that someone else was currently on the table and he would be next. As he later learned, that day was the biggest national holiday in Greece, and there was only a skeleton staff crew on call. Sometime later, he was taken to the cath lab, where he took out his wallet and two cell phones. He then noticed that his Verizon phone had bars of service, and asked if he could make a quick call, to which he was flatly told no. Instead, he was rushed into the lab where the doctors stented the artery. As the doctors later informed Meir, he had a complete blockage of one of his main coronary arteries, which is one of the most fatal types of heart attacks.

When he later returned to the CCU, he slowly started getting back to himself. It was about 11am and, considering he was not completely with it, the first person he called was his brother, who mandated that he call his wife first and tell her how everything was progressing. Meir ended up needing to lie flat on his back with a sandbag on his leg for what he thought would be six hours, but ended up being twenty-four hours.

The next day, at about 3pm, the Chabad rabbi arrived, and got to work helping him. He assisted translating Greek to Meir and explained to the nurses and doctors the need for a strictly Kosher diet. The rabbi as well brought him low sodium vegetable soup for dinner, although he had no appetite to eat or drink. The one request Meir had of him was to somehow obtain a fan. Meir could barely survive in the unbearable heat. By 11pm that night, someone returned with a fan, the biggest piece of lifesaving equipment.

As this was all happening, Meir’s luggage was also lost in the shuffle. Somehow, his mother tracked it down, and discovered that it wound up in the ELAL lost and found. They were given three options of what they wanted to do with it. Either Meir would pick it up himself when he returned to Israel, whenever that would be; it would be sent back from Israel to Greece; or Meir would give his brother his passport and authorize him to retrieve it in Israel. At the time, they decided to leave it in Israel and allow him to pick it up himself. As he soon learned, that was a bad mistake as he had no other clothing with him in Greece.

The next morning, he was sweating with no change of clothing. That was a perfect recipe to be miserable. As he struggled to stay in his hospital room with no clothing, difficulty maneuvering, and EKG wires stuck all over him, he learned that the initial blood work came back negative for a heart attack and everything else was looking good. He had more episode of that strange cough, and felt the need to take a few deep breaths once or twice, but by noon, all his symptoms were resolved. He was feeling much better, thank G-d.

Meir proceeded to take the next course of action. He called his Hatzolah medical director, a cardiologist, who lived in New York, and asked if he needed to remain hospitalized over Shabbos or he could sign out against medical advice. The medical director initially said, based upon Meir’s descriptions, that he would be safe to leave, though upon consultation with his doctor, Dr. Kitsiou, in Greece, it decided that it would be better for Meir to stay on for the weekend. He was less than pleased to stay in the hospital over Shabbos, but he had no alternative. Conditions in the hospital improved ever so slightly, with a representative from the U.S. Embassy calling and inquiring if they could be of any help. Meir graciously thanked them, and said that he was doing fine at the moment.

Four days later, on Thursday, his brother and brother-in-law, Avromi and Chaim, decided they would make the trip from Israel to Greece to help him. They arrived in Athens on Friday morning, and took a train to the closest stop next to the hospital. As soon as they walked out of the train station, to their surprise, they heard someone calling out to them in Hebrew if they needed a ride somewhere. The driver was an Israeli woman who had been relocated by her employer to Athens twenty-five years before and had gotten a flat tire earlier that day. She thus needed to take a different route home, and happened to see Meir’s brother and brother-in-law walking out of the train station with their yarmulkes.

As she drove them to the hospital, they relayed to her the news about Meir. That was all she needed to hear. For the remainder of their stay, she became their go-to person and chauffeured them all around to wherever they needed. She accompanied them on every trip to the hospital, shopped for them and acted as their official guide and translator.

Shabbos was rather uneventful. Meir’s family’s tour guide walked them to and from the hospital during visiting hours, and the rest of the time he remained alone. The only improvement was that he was now allowed to get out of bed and move around his cubicle, but no farther. By that Saturday night, he really began to feel it. The boredom, coupled with the humidity, was miserable. The only good news he held onto was that his lab results were getting better. But by now, he was viewing his CCU cubicle as his prison cell, his EKG wire as his chain and his curtain as his bars. He was quite distressed, to say the least.

The next day at about 1pm, the Hatzolah medical director called back and asked for an update on how Meir was doing. Meir told him he was quite miserable in the hospital and asked if, in his opinion, it would be wise to be discharged. Considering Meir’s dissatisfaction, the doctor agreed that he could leave, but wished for him to stay until the next morning and from there go straight to the airport. The doctor though asked if he could first speak with the attending physician and clarify the lab results. He did, and got back with the final decision that Meir would be ordered a final set of lab tests on Monday, after which the doctors would reevaluate the situation, and discharge him on Tuesday morning if everything looked alright.

Meir’s only request at this point was that they allow him to shower, which he had not been allowed to do until then. They agreed, stipulating that it could not be longer than two minutes, would need to be taken in a sitting position, and he needed to use a wheelchair to get to the showers instead of walking. At last, finally, he got his long-awaited shower.

Meir’s brother provided him with my change of clothes, which he finally got to wear, making him feel half human again. He had not slept for more than two consecutive hours straight since the previous week, but that Sunday night, he slept for nine
uninterrupted hours. He woke up feeling like a different person.

The next day, Monday, the tests were done by noon. The results came back all good, and he was ready to travel. The only issue was that he needed medical clearance before they would let him fly, which would only be in two weeks. Personally, he felt that spending another two weeks in a hotel room in Greece would give him another heart attack. He thus started to reach out to Benny Fisher, who lived in Israel and had connections to ELAL.
Perhaps he could convince ELAL to let me fly at any rate.

While Meir waited to hear back from Benny, he remembered Moishe, one of the Hatzolah paramedics, who was in Israel at the time for a family wedding. Moishe confirmed that he would be able to pick Meir up from Greece on a medical transport, if the need arose. With both Benny and Moishe’s assistance, they ended up requesting a copy of Meir’s medical records, which were translated from Greek into English, and showed it to the doctors at ELAL, who approved it so long as Moishe accompanied Meir as medical escort.

As this all unfolded, Meir’s father asked the embassy representative if there was anything else which would inhibit him from leaving the country. “The hospital bill,” she replied. Greek Law prevented the hospital from finalizing the bill until he was officially discharged. And any such patients who did not pay the bill would have a passport control lock placed on them, barring their exit from the country. Meir’s insurance company said that he would need to pay out of pocket, and would later reimburse him at their regular customary rates when he returned home. He would thus have to pay the bill in full, and only then submit payment to his insurance for reimbursement.

Meir spoke to the attending physician, who approximated the final cost of his entire stay to 1500 Euro. Meir’s parents immediately took to contacting Western Union, a global money transfer service, and found out that they could wire his brother the money as soon as they had the final figure. The embassy representative tried to talk to the financial office to help subsidize the cost, but to no avail. The final bill came out to just under 1770 Euro, which Meir’s parents immediately wired. After all this was completed, he was freed. He somewhat humorously wondered to himself if it would be more appropriate to recite the blessing Rofeh Cholim (Who heals the sick) or Matir Asurim (Who unties the bound).

With that, they headed out of the hospital and spent the night in a hotel, where Meir was able to take an actual shower, enjoy real air conditioning and change into clean clothing. The next morning, they made their way to the airport, where they enjoyed a relatively restful flight to Israel.

And that is Rabbi Meir Sommer’s Greece story and experience.

A Short Email Message
From “The Israeli Woman” in Greece

What else but the hand of G-d defines our world and each moment of our lives? We’re always aware of it, but rarely find ourselves in a compact situation where it is so plainly revealed to us.

The unplanned landing just a few minutes prior to Meir's distress that probably saved his life, my daughter's wish for a larger-than-usual watermelon that led me to spend more time looking for it at the market, the flat wheel that surprised me and forced me to change my route, the impeccably precise split second when Chaim stepped onto the pavement where I could see his yarmulke under the bright sun while he was waiting for the traffic light to switch to green, and all this occurring on a Friday, which is a highly unusual day to have off for a working person in Greece.

Seldom does the best orchestra respond so swiftly and in unison to its conductor as it did on that short-of-miraculous Friday morning.

Probably because twice in my life I experienced living in a country wherein I didn't speak the language, I felt the sheer necessity of making it easier for Avromi and Chaim. There was little I could do initially for Meir, but then came the truly enlightening moment when I realized I should suggest to the Greek cardiologist, Dr. Kitsiou, to get in touch with Meir's doctor in Queens via email or Skype. I call it enlightened, because it could only be inspired by G-d's infinite wisdom.

An additional moment of G-d's grace was when I recalled that there's a custom of smelling spices at havdala and, although we don't do the havdala at home, there it was in my kitchen, as if waiting for Avromi and Chaim: a bundle of fresh spearmint and dry oregano.

I've become aware of possible anti-Israeli/anti-Semitic attitudes in some parts of the Greek population. It is not just the uneducated people in Greece who blame Jews/Israelis for the financial issues in world, including those in Greece. Taking into consideration that a neo-Nazi political party is currently unconstrained, I decided to over-protect Avromi and Chaim. I asked them to wear baseball caps and to be accompanied by me while walking to and from the hospital on Shabbat. I understand that it added more inconvenience to their already stressful situation, but I still believe it was necessary.

It feels a little awkward to admit this, but the short time that I could be of help to Avromi, Chaim, and Meir in their stressful situation turned out to be a true blessing for me. It reminded me of a song from the musical "Fiddler on the Roof," in which Tevye wonders what he would have done were he a rich man. He envisions a big house with squawking geese and chicks in the yard while important men ask for his advice just because he is wealthy, and yet, the sweetest thing of all would have been for him to have a seat by the Eastern wall and discuss the holy books several hours a day with learned men. During these couple of days I was granted a precious gift of this sweetest thing that Tevye could only dream of. Although I do attend talks and follow YouTube lectures on both secular and religious subjects, it was a precious occasion to enjoy an interactive conversation with kind, wise, and learned people.

In a few days begins a New Year, and in addition to wishing Refua Shlema to Meir, I'd like to borrow the blessing of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh and to forward it to you, your families, and your friends: “May you be blessed with a great, sweet year in all things, material and spiritual, as one. May the New Year be filled with goodness and benevolence, the kind of good that is revealed and obvious.”

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