In Plain Language: A good time for heroes

This is the story of Dr. Jay Wohlgelernter - a modern-day hero.

By RABBI STEWART WEISS
November 8, 2012 12:48
Jay Wohlgelernter (C) with Rahamim Mizrahi (L) and his daughter.

Wohlgelernter, Rahamim Mizrahi and daughter. (photo credit: Courtesy)

One of the most oft-asked questions – particularly of grade-school students, but equally suitable for adults – is, “Who are your heroes?” Typically, the answers range from sports figures and movie stars to religious leaders or family members. All well and good; we each have that special someone whom we admire and respect or aspire to be like. Role models are important icons, for they remind us of how much we can achieve if we really try, and they inspire us to reach our own potential.

But I suggest that one does not necessarily have to seek out the sexy or the celebrated in society in order to find genuine heroes. They are out there among us, in every walk of life, “common” people performing extraordinarily uncommon acts of greatness.

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And so I present to you the story of Dr. Jay Wohlgelernter.

Jay began working recently at Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petah Tikva as an attending pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist. While Jay had his share of lucrative offers abroad, he chose to practice at Schneider because it offered him the chance to combine three things he loves dearly: medicine, children and Israel.

This past week, one of the other doctors on staff asked Jay if he could see a baby who had become hoarse. She told him that she was extremely busy and would really appreciate his help. As the new kid on the block, and with special training in managing pediatric airways, Jay immediately said yes, even though his clinic was already bursting at the seams and there was a two-hour wait.

When they brought in the patient, a sweet little eight-month old boy, Jay learned that he had undergone open-heart surgery for a congenital heart defect two months earlier. Since the surgery, he had developed severe hoarseness and was coughing during feeding. His twin brother, who had also undergone heart surgery, was waiting outside with his grandmother. Jay apologized for the long wait to the baby’s mother and to his grandfather, who had come in from Jerusalem to help his daughter with her twin boys. Once Jay examined the infant’s larynx with a fiber-optic endoscope, the suspected diagnosis of vocal cord paralysis – unfortunately a recognized complication of open-heart surgery in young children – was confirmed.

After Jay explained the diagnosis and prognosis to the baby’s mother and set up an appointment to have his swallow function evaluated, his grandfather – who had been quite fidgety during the whole encounter – turned to Jay and asked him whether he was American or British. He smiled and said he was neither; he was Canadian.

(A bit embarrassed, the man’s daughter informed him that Canadians are not overly fond of being mistaken for Americans.) The grandfather’s eyes lit up and he told Jay that a Canadian doctor had once saved his life.

He thought for a moment and said that the doctor’s name was similar to Jay's. Jay asked for more details and the man proceeded to tell him that he had even attended the doctor’s wedding.

Jay lowered his voice and asked him what his name was, although by now, he already knew. His eyes widened as he said “Rahamim Mizrahi.”

Jay felt lightheaded and got up from his chair. The grandfather began to cry and ran over to the doctor, giving him a big hug and kiss. He grabbed the back of Jay’s head and asked him what had happened to his ponytail.

The rest of the story I will let Dr. Jay recount in his own words: “AROUND 10 years ago I used to work as a physician on a mobile intensive-care ambulance in Jerusalem. One cold winter night at around 3 in the morning we were called out to a home in the Gilo neighborhood. A 59- year-old man, who had previously suffered two heart attacks and undergone coronary bypass surgery, rolled out of his bed and was dead on the floor. A regular ambulance arrived on scene about 15 minutes before us and began CPR. From my experience, the effectiveness of basic-rescuer CPR was very limited in its ability to maintain adequate levels of oxygen to the brain. A quarter of an hour would almost certainly result in irreversible brain damage. Once on the scene, we immediately started a full resuscitation effort, including mechanical ventilation, intravenous medications and repeated shocking of his heart with a defibrillator, in what appeared to be vain attempt to jump start it again.

“After about 20 minutes, my paramedic turned to me and said, ‘Dr. Jay, just call it,’ meaning I should recognize the futility of our actions and pronounce the man dead.

At the time, it seemed like the right thing to do.”

“However, this was a 59-year-old man lying on the floor in his bedroom. His wife and 18-year-old son were watching us throughout the whole ordeal, praying for their father to stay with them just a little longer. According to my monitor, he still had what appeared to be electrical activity in his heart, despite the fact that he hadn’t had a pulse for nearly forty minutes. I instructed my team to keep on with the resuscitation effort until we either got his heartbeat back or all signs of activity in his heart ceased. Finally, after we had worked on him for 45 minutes, administered countless drugs and delivered no less than 16 powerful electrical shocks to his chest, we got a heartbeat. It was weak & thready, but it was real. We loaded him on the gurney to the ambulance unconscious, mechanically ventilated and likely never to recover any sort of meaningful life.

“With sirens wailing through the deserted streets of Jerusalem, we rushed him to Shaarei Tzedek [Medical Center]’s emergency department.

“I did not feel good about this resuscitation.

I did not feel like we were heroes or lifesavers.

I figured, at best, that he would die within the next few hours, or at worst would live for a few years as a vegetable, breathing through a hole in his neck and eating through a tube in his stomach. I had seen it countless times and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. I distinctly remember the doctor in the ER looking at me and asking cynically why I had even bothered resuscitating him. Although on an academic level I was interested to know what had happened to him, the whole incident left me feeling drained, and I didn’t follow up on his condition.

I guess that is one of the mechanisms that we doctors employ to shield ourselves from the abject suffering to which we are continually exposed; just close the chapter, and move on.”

“About two months later, I was quite surprised to get a call from the man's daughter.

She had had some difficulty finding me, but wanted to update me on his progress. After lying in the ICU for two days, he awoke from his coma. He was somewhat confused and suffered significant memory lapses in a disoriented state that lasted for two more weeks. Then, one morning, he woke up and his memory was back. He was completely lucid and aware of everything that had happened – a full recovery by any standard! From that time on, his daughter made great efforts to locate me because they wanted to have a Thanksgiving party and didn’t want to have it without me present. I was both shocked and thrilled. It was a great party, delicious food, and a far more festive atmosphere then the previous time I had been at his house. This reunion was followed a few months later by Rahamim’s attendance at my wedding, where we all danced with unmitigated joy.

“That was nine and a half years ago.

“Since then, I have often thought about Rahmi, as he likes to be called. Every time a patient in serious condition has asked me if there is hope, he comes to mind. I always tell them that miracles can happen and that I’ve even seen a few in my life. But that being said, within a short time we fell out of touch. As before, I never made any significant efforts to find out what happened to this remarkable man, because I was afraid that I would not find him alive. His prognosis, after what his heart had been through so many times, was poor.

“But now, after our serendipitous, emotional reunion over the bed of his grandson, I am amazed at what the human spirit and body can overcome. Rahmi called his wife in from the waiting room with her other miracle grandson, who had also undergone heart surgery. She didn’t recognize me at first, but I told her not to worry, because the first time I had been in her house things were crazy, as we desperately worked on her husband’s resuscitation.

She almost fell over in disbelief when she learned it was me. It was amazing to see her again. I told them that their grandson would now be my patient for many years to come, and that I will personally make sure that he has a crisp, clear voice. I fully intend to dance at his wedding, the same way his grandfather danced at mine.”

Ethics of the Fathers seems to sum it up succinctly (and I paraphrase): “In a place where humanity may be lacking, strive to be a mentsch.” Or a hero, as the case may be.

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana and a Ra’anana city councilman; www.rabbistewartweiss. com; jocmtv@netvision.net.il


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