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
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.
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.
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.
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
“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
“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
I did not feel like we were heroes or lifesavers.
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
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.
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
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.”
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;