From the desk of Rabbi Leonard (Yehuda)Blank MS, BCC
Director of Chaplaincy Commission and External Affairs
Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim
June 11, 2020 *****
I recently dedicated one of my articles to my beloved Aishis Chayil Keila Lutza bas Tziporah and now I will be dedicating my articles to my beloved Aishis Chayil Keila Lutza bas Shalom HaKohain ah. One of my cousin’s grandson who lives in Eretz Yisrael received a bracha from HaGaon HaRav Chaim Kaniefsky for a refuah for my wife and aunt both who were ill and both who died one week apart. My aunt’s daughter asked me the night before the funeral what does it mean to have received the bracha and her mother died one week after my wife. I shared with her my thought that the bracha was not for naught, It gave koach for both to live as long as the Aibershta wanted them to live and gave both their neshamos koach to go to Gan Eiden.
I am just going to highlight some aspects of our saga -diagnosis to end of life. I hope to share other aspects in the following week. A dear chaver of mine , a well-known rabbi said to me how I will use all of my knowledge, training and experiences dealing with the terminally ill, life limiting and end of life issues and concerns with my wife, myself and my family. My relationship with my wife was not that of a patient and a chaplain, but husband and wife. Whatever wisdom I had, whatever patience, fortitude, understanding and care I attribute and give thanks to my wife and most of all to the Ribono Shel Olom these past three and a half years since her diagnosis.
Three and half years ago, my wife was unable to get her flu vaccination where she was employed because she was allergic to sulfa and was told to go to our pcp. Aside from a minor
symptom, she had no major medical or physical symptoms, but her lab work showed she was anemic. The pcp recommend she see a gastroenterologist who after taking an endoscopy and other tests confirmed she was diagnosed with a gastroesophageal junction invasive adenocarcinoma. A chaver of mine Rabbi Zeesha Ausch who is knowledgeable about medical issues and doctors recommended Dr. David Ilson at Sloan Memorial Kettering Cancer Center who is renown in this field of cancer. Two wonderful hashgachos perotious occurred. One if not for the flu shot having to be taken by the pcp, we might not have known for weeks as there were no symptoms at that time. The other is the fact that if Dr. Ilson had just returned from a trip and was able to see my wife. We were told there was no cure for her cancer. But we did not take that laying down. We immediately received many brachos, chizuk, tefilos, Tehilim, with positive outlook and a commitment from Dr Ilson to try various treatments we persevered. Dr Ilson and staff were so compassionate, so caring, always giving some type of hope, realistic hope. For more than three years, even though my wife endured ups and downs with the treatments, including radiation at one point, many endoscopies and even a stent placed in her esophagus when she was no longer able to eat or drink and my wife felt it was like a miracle after the stent was placed. She was able to continue eating and drinking though she had to be cautious with the types of foods the stent was able to accommodate. She was able to attend many family and friends simchos, activities, volunteer work, attend synagogue services, and yes, be a great Bubby going to many of the grandchildren’s events and even becoming a great grandmother. She enjoyed doing many gemilus chasadim and helping so many people of all backgrounds. She was so well liked by so many for her gentleness, her kindness, her nonjudgmental disposition. The treatments even with all the challenges that went along with various side effects, helped her live life with tremendous meaning, joy and happiness. Most people knew she was not well, but most did not notice anything serious and had no inkling how seriously ill she was.
My wife and I had a remarkably close relationship enjoying life together and with our children and grandchildren. Just this past summer we went via Amtrak to Niagara Falls on the Canadian side and the hotel was opposite the Chabad. In addition to the food we brought, we were able to purchase additional food and I was able all four days to daven with a minyan at the Chabad. We had a marvelous spiritual, kosher and fun filled time together. I went with her to every single visit to Sloan for all appointments as I was her caregiver and knew her baseline. Except for two hospitalizations, she was always living at home. All was well, hope, emunah, btachan, tremendous faith was part and parcel day and night no matter of all the bumps along the days and months. We had a wonderful and meaningful relationship with the doctors at Sloan, staff from both Dr Ilson and Dr Reggie Salvador of the supportive services which included pain management and other medical issues. Words alone cannot express my praises for them for their continuous nonstop care. Even the on call at their Urgent Care, all the doctors and nurses, no matter how many times my wife or I would call their response to any concerns or questions was as if it was the first time being asked the question or concern. All the medical staff were just like that. We developed a special and meaningful relationship with the medical staff and we always felt it important to make a Kiddush H.
The pains and discomforts became more pronounced. About a few months ago, the challenges became more difficult due to the spread of the cancer to the liver. My wife was always so brave. We spoke about end of life issues many times. She began preparing many things so I could be prepared for whatever the Aibershta wanted of her. She was concerned about my future, to continue being successful, accomplishing good things, continue my Torah learning, continue being a devout Jewish person, taking good care of myself, her love should continue with the entire family, As time went on, she developed other symptoms. A year ago, I purchased graves as it is supposed to be a zchus and who is to say it that is not why there were additional months. We discussed if we would go together or we would go separately. We spoke about making sure either of us would leave a forwarding address and or phone numbers we could reach each other. The Coronavirus only added bumps in the road. Only our children were able to come into our apartment the last few weeks of her life. All grandchildren and friends had to see us either in the hallway by our apartment or park in the back of our apartment buildings We were concerned about anyone being a carrier of the virus which would be devastating for my wife to catch anything and have to go to the hospital. With the exception of two times she was hospitalized these three and half years, she always lived at home. Our families were very supportive and a video was made of all the children and grandchildren telling all kinds of stories for their Bubby and Zaidy to hear. They even brought us a screen with continuous slides of the family. The virus was a silver lining as my wife and I had a wonderful Pesach and Shabbosim alone and our relationship grew even closer. It was difficult seeing my wife condition changes so much and so quickly. A few weeks before her death she asked Dr Ilsons staff what symptoms she should expect and how much longer does she have to live. They were so compassionate in the way she was explained and was told about three months based on her present progress. The symptoms made her end of life concerns even more prevalent. A week before her death I said viduy with her. She was alert and wanted to say it. Her progression was much quicker. Her eyes still sparkled and her smile so beautiful even to the day before she died. Two of my stepsons were with me for Shavuous. They knew the end was near. Both Sloan staff and MJHS hospice only days before expedited hospice services. We received a hospital bed, oxygen, comfort medicine for end of life and other equipment. She did not end up on the hospital bed but was kept comfortable on the regular bed in our room. I was sleeping in the same room, as my wife for the past weeks wanted me to stay nearby her. The next morning, I recognized the signs of end of life, called hospice, gave her some of the medication as instructed and oxygen. The hospice nurses arrived thereafter and were absolutely wonderful in their care of my wife. My stepsons were on one side and I on the other holding her hand until her last breath and she died as she wanted to at home and in bed (not the hospital bed), All the prayers were said before and after death. Her funeral was held two days later on Isru Chag. Due to the customs of Isru Chag only one speaker was permitted the children requested I speak at the funeral.
I spoke to the doctor during the week of my shiva once again to convey my deepest appreciation for all the tender loving professional care they gave my wife. He told me, he did not anticipate her living more than 10 months and she lived for approximately 3 ½ years with most of those years filled with meaningful life with joy and happiness. What I mentioned in a previous article, confirmed what I wrote. Both my parents died, two older siblings died and other relatives died through the years, but even I could not say I know how it feels. My loss, my grief as a husband is so different. No matter how many who I have worked with patients, family members and others with end of life issues were ever the same as the death of my wife. The grief of missing someone who I loved dearly and meant so much to me (and of course all the children as she brought two families together blending them with undivided and unconditional love and care). Looking back at all the memories, knowing of all the bumps in the road throughout these past 3 ½ years and the changes in her condition and all the memories attached to everything in the apartment that was hers can be challenging. But, I thank H for so much.
I am deeply appreciative for the family support, the tremendous chizuk from HaGaon HaRav Dovid Feinstein, Rebbitzen Malka Feinstein, HaGaon HaRav Reuven Feinstein and special gratitude to Dr. Noman Blumenthal who his professional and compassionate wisdom he gave my wife and I some time ago and for me after my wife’s death. Most of all, my deepest appreciation to the Ribono Shel Olam. My wife would always find a good reason to say Boruch H and every so often at difficult moments would say oy Ribono Shel Olom. Whoever I spoke to mentioned how gentle, caring, humble my wife was and the impact she had on so many people of different ages and backgrounds, always making a Kiddush H.
Hope and faith. “ And as for me Your loving kindness I have trusted” Pslam 13.6. Modim Anachnu Lawch We thank you ( continues) We shall thank You and relate Your praise for our lives that are committed into Your hands and for our souls that are entrusted to You and for Your miracles that every day are with us and for Your wonders and favors that are at all times evening, morning and afternoon. The Beneficent One for never exhausted are Your compassions and the Compassionate One for never ended are Your kindnesses always have we put our hope in You. There is so much I am grateful as was my wife ah for all that she had. What could have been 10 months were more than three years she was able to accomplish so much while she was alive plus all the previous years of her life. She was my Aishis Chayil, she was my co-pilot, she was my partner in life ,she was my best friend. We purchased a number of years ago a sign which we hung up in our room, “ Happiness is being married to your best friend”. I shall always cherish that wonderful friendship we had.
Looking back at the years of working with those with life limiting illnesses, I am grateful for those I was able to bring comfort to and their loved ones. I hope this has given our readers a different lens of seeing the saga from diagnosis to end of life. Just one more thought, end of life on hawolam hazeh, but there is a hawolam habah. Let us appreciate the kindness of the Holy One.
Thank you. Sincerely and respectfully. Yehuda Blank
Please see the attached flyers.