(photo credit: Alyn Hospital)
One second of stupid carelessness caused a two-year cascade of near-death, pain, suffering, tears and struggle. Shoshana Batzri, 10 years old in 2005, was sent by her mother Rahel - pregnant and already the mother of nine - to wait near their home in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mekor Baruch for one of Shoshana's sisters who was being dropped off by the kindergarten bus. It was about a week after Rosh Hashana.
A man (later discovered to be a Ger hassid) was sitting in his car along the red-and-white-edged sidewalk where even stopping is forbidden. A municipal inspector ordered him to move, and after a heated argument, the driver surged forward onto the sidewalk instead of shifting into reverse, hitting Shoshana in the head. One of her brothers witnessed the accident. Not bleeding but unconscious and with severe brain trauma, Shoshana was rushed by Hatzalah (a haredi volunteer organization) ambulance, which arrived within half a minute, to the trauma unit of Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem. The doctors there didn't think she had much chance of living, but did everything they could to save her life.
"I was in the Sanhedria neighborhood," recalls Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri, Shoshana's father and the son of well-known kabbalist Rabbi David Batzri, president of Yeshivat Hashalom (which Yitzhak runs). "The Hadassah doctors were not optimistic," he recalls in an interview with The Jerusalem Post at Jerusalem's Alyn Pediatric and Adolescent Rehabilitation Hospital (www.alyn.org), where Shoshana was treated until a few weeks ago.
"They thought she would die," remembers the younger Rabbi Batzri. "She was attached to a respirator for three weeks at Hadassah. I believed in God and was sure that praying would help."
He also consulted with Hadassah neurosurgery department head Prof. Felix Umansky, who advised against surgery and said to wait until the intracranial pressure was reduced.
"I insisted on waiting even longer, and there was improvement. Fortunately, she never had surgery."
Finally, Shoshana was moved to a regular department.
"It was a miracle," says her father. But she needed a long course of rehabilitation.
"We were advised to take her to Alyn, and we weren't sorry. We had investigated all the suitable hospitals and felt this was best for her."
Shoshana slowly regained consciousness in Alyn around Hanukka, but couldn't speak and needed much physical rehabilitation.
Shoshana's parents never met the driver who ran into her.
"He didn't visit or say he was sorry," notes her father with bitterness. "Initially, he thought it was a light injury and told us on the phone that he would 'do everything' for us. But when he realized how complicated her condition was, he just left us. The court gave him his driver's license back three months after it happened. He was very cold. He never came to see how we suffered, to know what he did to Shoshana and to us. But we decided not to sue him."
For some time, Rabbi Batzri was afraid to let his children play outside. "But my wife was more logical. She said it happened when Shoshana was on the sidewalk, not in the street; there is nothing one can do."
But home accidents, said the rabbi, "don't have to happen. They can be prevented. Road accidents involving pedestrians are more complicated. Few haredim own a car, so their children don't understand the danger."
ALYN HOSPITAL, today directed by Dr. Shirley Meyer, was founded in 1932 as a voluntary organization by Dr. Henry Keller, an American orthopedist who dedicated his life to working with physically challenged children in Jerusalem. In the wake of the polio epidemic in the 1940s and 1950s, the Health Ministry provided Alyn with an old monastery belonging to the St. Simon Orthodox Church to be used as a hospital. It was from here that the doctors and nurses provided medical care, educational help and supervision to some 200 young polio victims.
But the monastery building was unsuitable for housing a developing rehabilitation center, and in 1971, thanks to matching funds donated by Malcolm and Dorothy Woldenberg, the modern facility that exists today in the capital's Kiryat Yovel quarter overlooking Ein Kerem and the Jerusalem Forest was opened.
Today, Alyn is one of the world's leading pediatric and adolescent rehabilitation hospitals, going beyond polio to treat physical trauma and head injuries from terrorist attacks, road and domestic accidents, neuromuscular diseases, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, congenital deformities, general orthopedic problems, patients needing temporary ventilation, special feeding, cancer and burns.
There are only three pediatric rehabilitation centers in Israel, one at Beit Loewenstein in Ra'anana, another at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, and Alyn. There are none located in the north or south, so Alyn receives patients from all over the country.
Rehabilitation department director Dr. Ofer Keren was in charge of Shoshana's treatment. The injured girl was cared for by a multidisciplinary team that included physiotherapist Hemda Rotem and occupational therapist Ayelet Gal. With 27 beds for active rehabilitation, 13 for children and teenagers attached to respirators and 15 or 20 more in the day hospital, his department is constantly busy.
"In acute cases, we never say what the prognosis is until several months pass. We don't always have happy endings like we did with Shoshana."
A FEW weeks after regaining consciousness, the child could be sent home for weekends.
"We regard it as beneficial for patients to spend weekends with their families," explains Keren, who joined the hospital four years ago. "It provides emotional support, and they feel good in familiar surroundings among their loved ones. But we give instructions to avoid a big celebration, because the patient still has a long way to go and has to focus on himself rather than on being a host. If too much of a fuss is made, the child will find it hard to return to the hospital."
Rahel had given birth in the meantime, and dedicated family members, neighbors and friends helped take care of the other children and run the household. Shoshana was never left alone; an adult was always sleeping on a cot at her side. Her girlfriends at the Ezrat Torah-Beit Ya'acov School came to visit regularly.
"They are an exemplary family who were quickly able to get organized," the doctor says.
When Shoshana was able to live at home, she was brought daily for a whole year to the rehabilitation center. The staff, adds Keren, "have to be empathic, but they mustn't make a child too dependent." The hospital's medical clowns cheered her up and made her laugh when things were most difficult. And the hydrotherapy pool was very effective in improving Shoshana's balance.
The aim of rehabilitation, he explains, "is to allow dysfunctional children to take part in activities in which they can participate at their optimal level. The child should preferably live within a family and community environment... The entire rehabilitation process must involve continuous dialogue between the patient, the patient's family and the medical team for setting objectives and monitoring the method of achieving them."
Once patients are in the day hospital, says Keren, they have to be inspired to move and do things. For Shoshana, motivation came in the form of Louise, a parakeet that caught her eye. Most haredi families have no pets, and the Batzris didn't have an animal at home. But when Shoshana was "assigned" to pet and feed Louise, she opened up to the bird and was induced to move. "She also became very attached to the staff, secular and religious alike.
"We are not used to the secular, but our children know that there are good secular Jews and bad ones, just like among the Orthodox. Our home is open to everyone." The staff, adds Rabbi Batzri, were "very considerate. When we spent Shabbat at the hospital, they turned off electronic security equipment in advance so we could pass."
TODAY, ALMOST two years after the traumatic accident, Shoshana doesn't remember anything that happened that day.
"It's a long process, but medically, she doesn't have to return to Alyn for treatment," Keren adds. She can speak, albeit a bit hoarsely. Shoshana is now trying to catch up on the material she missed during a year out of the classroom (some teachers helped her study using computers). "She received emotional support to make her understand that she wasn't to blame, that she must continue to have faith in God," her father recalls. "She was at the top of the class; now she has to learn to return. She even goes out to buy groceries. When she was in rehabilitation, the hospital staff gave her a tricycle to get around and gave her assignments to buy things in the kiosk. She had lessons on baking cakes and cooking as occupational therapy."
Did anything good come out of the traumatic two years?
"We learned a lot about the medical system and the devotion of the doctors and nurses," notes Rabbi Batzri. "At Hadassah and Alyn, everybody - Jews and non-Jews - are treated equally. I learned about good deeds, about all the organizations that volunteer in hospitals to make life easier for patients. From the day of the accident, I took it upon myself to do more to help people. I gave my phone numbers to the doctors so they can call us when other parents need encouragement and advice. A few months ago, my wife and I were invited to Hadassah to see an Arab couple whose daughter had been hurt in an accident. We sat with them for over an hour and gave them advice on how to manage; we'd been through it already."
THE RABBI lectures in the haredi community and gives interviews to the haredi press on the need to learn first aid and be careful on the road.
"I tell about the difficult times, with tears in eyes. Every day for six months I opened her schoolbag and went through her notebooks. For half an hour I would cry, then wash my face and run to take over at the hospital for my wife."
Shoshana's father is determined to write a book about his family's experiences - "how difficult it is for the family, and what passes through your head."
At a recent farewell party that the Batzris organized to honor the Alyn staff, Keren told the participants that "faith helps a lot. I couldn't promise miracles. Shoshana shows much improvement, and I'm happy for her and the family. It's a process equal to a miracle. The word 'miracle' has many meanings, and I've learned to see it in wider terms."