(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Galina Ashurov's airplane touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport on January 19, it was cause for a double celebration. The 46-year-old was not merely home after a month-and-a-half stay in the US; she had beaten the odds just to be alive.
Diagnosed four years ago with a rare type of brain tumor, which left her blind in one eye and with limited movement of the muscles on one side of her face, Israeli doctors said they could not treat the Haifa resident here. So with funding from Maccabi Health Services and some other organizations, support from an international network of volunteers and inspiration from her family, Ashurov flew to Seattle, Washington on December 1 to undergo cerebrovascular surgery, an unusual brain bypass operation pioneered by Dr. Laligam Sekhar at the city's Harborview Medical Center.
"I was very happy to return to Israel," says Ashurov, her voice light and cheerful, despite the intense pain she is still suffering from the two eight-hour operations to remove the tumor. "I wanted to come home earlier, but my daughter and the doctors would not allow it."
Ashurov's determination and her desire to return is surprising considering what the former immigrant from Azerbaijan has gone through since making aliya in 1992.
Less than two weeks after arriving, her husband, Boris, was shot and killed by an Arab terrorist right in front of her and her two young children, as the family took an evening stroll through their new hometown of Haifa.
Left alone to care for the two children - Rina, then aged eight, and Ronen, two - she slowly rebuilt her life.
"It was very difficult," Ashurov recalls. "We had only just arrived here and I could not believe that this had happened to us in our beautiful country. We had been so happy: Haifa looks similar to Baku [the capital of Azerbaijan], the children were in kindergarten and school and we were both learning Hebrew."
Ashurov says she found little solace in the fact that her husband's killer was caught two days after the attack and later sentenced to life in prison, and she firmly believes that it was the trauma of losing Boris that eventually brought out the tumor.
"I have suffered so much without my husband," she says. "I did not leave my house for three years after it happened; we were really in love."
A children's music teacher, Ashurov says she started experiencing problems with her sight five years ago and doctors soon discovered the tumor, which was putting stress on her optic nerves, located at the base of her brain surrounding the carotid artery.
"I thought I was going to die, the headaches were so bad and [after initial treatment] they told me here they could not help me," she says. "But I wanted to live; I needed to live because I still had two children who really needed me. I couldn't leave my children alone. I had to carry on, I had no choice."
AS WELL as finding inspiration from her children - today 23 and 16 - Ashurov was also lucky to find help in the form of SELAH, the Israel Crisis Management Center, a Tel Aviv-based organization founded in 1993 to provide assistance and support to new immigrants hit by sudden crisis, terror or tragedy.
"I first met Galina right after her husband was killed," says SELAH director Ruth Bar-On. "We provided her with the assistance she needed back then, and we sent her on a pilot healing retreat, which I believe really helped get her back on her feet again."
According to Bar-On, SELAH has a database of some 650 volunteers countrywide, some of them medical and legal professionals, who work pro bono to help those such as Ashurov who do not have a support system of family and friends in the country.
"The Ministry of Social Affairs and the National Insurance Institute provide a certain level of support, but we go in after they have left," says Bar-On. "We go in the evenings and in the days after everyone has forgotten about the individual. Even when the crisis is no longer a hot news item, these families still need help."
In Ashurov's case, SELAH volunteers were still there 10 years later when her eyesight started failing, and when neurosurgeons suggested she travel to London in 2002 for innovative, non-invasive radiation treatment aimed at shrinking the tumor, Bar-On arranged for SELAH volunteers to accompany her.
When, earlier this year, the tumor started growing back, SELAH assisted Ashurov in navigating the endless bureaucracy to obtain a US travel visa and in securing the funding for the operation from Maccabi. The organization even provided her children with the financial means to accompany their mother to Seattle.
The SELAH volunteer network alerted a volunteer organization in Seattle of Ashurov's impending arrival and spurred Jewish community members to provide her and her daughter with 24-hour assistance during her six-week stay.
"Many people come to Seattle for medical care," says Margot Kravette, who 10 years ago set up an informal database of Seattle Jewish families interested in caring for Jewish families from out of town undergoing medical procedures in area hospitals. "Many come for cancer treatments and so they are typically here for three months or more at a time. I believe that we have a responsibility as human beings to help other people, and I have no doubt in my mind that people who are going through a difficult time should not be left alone."
A member of Congregation Beth Shalom and a physician-relations manager at Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center, Kravette says she now has more than 60 individuals who help out on a regular basis with the constant flow of Jewish and Israeli families in town for lifesaving surgery.
"While Galina was here, there were three other families from Israel also having surgery in the hospital," she relates. "I usually talk to the families before they come and find out what kind of assistance they will need."
Kravette says the type of services could range from being picked up at the airport to providing kosher meals while they are in the hospital or simply supplying a companion to help translate or keep family members company as they sit outside the operating theater.
Kravette, a nurse by training, says the idea to set up such a network of volunteers among the Seattle Jewish community was born out of a personal experience staying with a hospitalized family member in Houston, Texas.
"We were there for one month," she recalls. "I looked for help, I went to the synagogues several times and even had my rabbi here call places down there to find home hospitality, but there was nothing, not even a Shabbat meal. It is hard to be looking after a sick person 24 hours a day; you need a break."
With Ashurov, Kravette says that local volunteers brought kosher food to the hospital and visited her and daughter Rina every day. She also says that a local family "adopted" Ashurov's son Ronen when he arrived halfway through his mother's stay.
"Being in hospital is particularly hard when you have young children," says Kravette, adding that she matched him up with a family that had children of a similar age.
"THERE really are some very good people in Seattle," comments Bar-On, noting that other community members such as David Landsman, a Seattle native and regular volunteer and fund-raiser for SELAH, were also involved in helping the Ashurov family and that the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle has made some serious financial contributions to the organization.
"Galina's story is an incredible one," says Landsman, who regularly visits Israel on business and was introduced to Galina during a previous stay here. "I met her when she was very sick in Israel and then helped the family get settled before the operations. To see how well she recovered afterwards was truly amazing."
While Landsman says he assisted the Ashurovs logistically in moving from the hospital to the hotel and, later, to the airport, he points to other volunteers who sat by the sick woman's bedside and offered support to Rina.
And Bar-On adds: "I feel very encouraged and inspired by this type of volunteering. It was really very heartening that Galina did not have one day without the support of the local community, and volunteers kept on coming to see her even on the days when the weather was really bad. Sometimes it is the very small details that are so important in these kinds of situations."
"So many people came and helped," Ashurov says. "At first I was in shock and did not understand why they were coming, but it really made me see what wonderful people there are in the world."
As for the future, Ashurov says she feels lucky to have been given a new lease on life and looks forward to returning to work and spending time with her children.