It was love at first sight. When 26-year-old Jerusalemite Yoni Sibony was invited by a friend to take part in a salsa dance class at a local studio, he reluctantly tagged along. But after catching a glimpse of the salsa instructor, Gila Levi, he was instantly smitten.
Before even speaking with Gila, Yoni phoned his mother to tell her he had found “the one.” With no desire to improve his dancing abilities, for the next several weeks Yoni kept coming back to the class, just to be able to lay eyes on the woman of his dreams, but without ever mustering up the courage to initiate a conversation.
After a month of salsa lessons it was Gila who made the first move; she guided Yoni onto the floor for a one-onone session. That first dance spurred conversation, which led to a first date. While Yoni never attended another salsa class, he and Gila have been madly in love ever since. They were engaged in February 2008, and married just a few months later, settling down in Jerusalem.
Following a romantic honeymoon in Thailand, the couple returned to Israel, where Gila found out that she was pregnant. The couple was ecstatic.
But in Gila’s sixth month of pregnancy, something went terribly wrong. Friends had invited them out for a night on the town, with dancing and drinks at a nightclub, but Gila decided not to go. “I didn’t want to be in a crowded nightclub inhaling smoke all night,” she says, “so I decided to stay home and told Yoni to go without me.”
After a few hours, Gila came down with a headache and decided to get into bed. All she needed was a good night’s rest, she thought, and the headache would pass. But it only got worse. “The pain was so intense I realized this wasn’t a regular headache,” she says. “I decided to call Yoni, but couldn’t even get out of bed to reach the phone in the next room.”
Dropping herself to the floor with one hand over her stomach to protect the baby, Gila crawled into the next room to get to the phone. Luckily Yoni was in the club’s bathroom at the time, where it was quiet enough for him to hear the phone ring. Yoni, sensing the urgency in Gila’s voice, hopped into a cab and headed home.
When he arrived, he found his wife sprawled on the floor, screaming in agony. Yoni called an ambulance. By this point, medics sensed that Gila was rapidly deteriorating. She had lost consciousness and one of her pupils was dilated, indicating that there was pressure on her brainstem and her condition was critical.
“When we arrived at Hadassah [University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem],” says Yoni, “it was like a scene from the movies. A whole team of doctors were already waiting for us, and Gila, who they knew was pregnant, was rushed into the emergency room where a CT scan was performed on her brain.”
What doctors discovered was a large hematoma, or a bleed in the brain, the size of a small child’s fist. Gila was taken to the operating theater. The complicated surgery involved a craniectomy, a neurosurgical procedure in which part of the skull is removed to drain the hematoma, at the same time allowing the swelling brain to expand outward to relieve pressure on the brainstem.
With Gila in surgery, Yoni was relegated to pacing the halls of the hospital waiting for news. It was after 2 a.m.
and while he was trying to reach family or friends, nobody was answering. So Yoni put on a kippa and began reciting psalms on Gila’s behalf as hospital social workers arrived to offer comfort and show support.
After the procedure, which lasted over seven hours, the doctors emerged to update Yoni on Gila’s status. They explained that she remained in dire condition and that for the next 48 hours her life was still at risk.
The doctors also notified Yoni that even should she survive, as a result of brain damage it was possible, even likely, that the left side of her body would be paralyzed.
In addition, doctors warned that such trauma could impact her cognitive faculties.
“They told me that she might have to learn everything from scratch,” says Yoni. “I would have to teach her what a tree is, what a pen is, etc. I was also very worried about the condition of the baby, but at this point the doctors said that their focus was understandably only on Gila’s health.”
When Yoni was finally allowed into the intensive care unit, he didn’t recognize his wife. “She was full of tubes, and I couldn’t believe that this was Gila,” he says.
THE CRITICAL 48 hours passed, and Gila had survived.
She remained in an induced coma for an additional two weeks to allow the swelling in the brain to decrease, but with the loss of all of her amniotic fluids, a team of 30 doctors advised Yoni that the pregnancy must be terminated, due to the threat to Gila’s health and the potential risks for the child.
“This was the hardest moment of my life,” says Yoni.
“I had to make the decision to terminate the pregnancy of my child, even without Gila’s knowledge. But I had to take the advice of those 30 doctors, who combined had over 300 years of medical experience, and all of whom unequivocally recommended this course of action. So I gave the OK, as painful as that was.”
During those two weeks with Gila in a coma, Yoni was at her side the entire time, talking to her, offering her encouragement, never even knowing if Gila was able to hear him.
He would also update her on the status of their baby.
Only months later, when Gila was able to communicate, did she reveal that while unable to express herself in her coma, she was able to hear Yoni. The day he stopped mentioning the baby, she realized they had lost their child.
After another month in intensive care, Gila stabilized and began regaining consciousness. She was transferred to the main hospital ward, but at this point her only movements consisted of opening and closing her eyes.
Very gradually Gila became responsive enough to be moved to the multidisciplinary rehabilitation wing of Hadassah University Medical Center on Mount Scopus, where she would undergo a six-month rehabilitation process involving physical, occupational, hydro, speech and numerous other therapies.
According to Dr. Isabella Schwartz, head of the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Hadassah, “When Gila arrived, she was in very bad shape both cognitively and physically. She couldn’t fulfill any commands, and was not aware of what was going on in her surroundings. She also couldn’t move her body or even sit up without falling over. We knew that the rehabilitation would be lengthy as well as extensive.”
Yoni, who took a leave of absence from work, was with Gila for over 18 hours a day to assist in her recovery. One day he brought in a chart of the letters of the alphabet.
Using her damaged but still functional right hand, she eventually was able to point to letters, spelling out words to express herself.
“The first complete words she spelled out,” says Yoni, “were ‘Yoni’ and ‘ohevet’ [love]. That gave me so much strength to stay by her side and help her during the long recovery.”
On August 31, 2010, eight months after her brush with death and following intensive rehabilitation therapy, Gila was allowed to go home.
“That day,” Gila tells The Jerusalem Post two and a half years later, while sitting on her living room couch, “I cried so much. I was so happy to see my house.”
With her left arm and leg in a cast after two more recent corrective surgeries, and a Filipino aide nearby whom Yoni describes as “a member of our family,” Gila is happy at having a second chance at life.
While still in multiple therapies at Hadassah three times a week, Gila is now able to walk with assistance, talk, understand, and is nearly at full strength on the right side of her body, and to the astonishment of her doctors and therapists has begun starting to utilize the left side of her body as well.
“I still need help with a lot of basics,” she says. It’s hard to get dressed and undressed. And I need help walking, and I use a cane. I also still need my wheelchair to get around for long distances, like at the mall, but I’m making progress.”
According to Schwartz, Gila’s recovery is nothing short of remarkable. “Cognitively she has made huge improvements – in understanding, memory, reading, writing, and in her speech. I would say she is back to around 90% of where she was. Physically, in terms of motor skills, the right side of her body is at around 70%, while after her recent surgeries her left side is at around 30% of functionality. These are all surprises for the better.” Yoni says that no doubt Gila’s strength and determination have allowed her to make a near miraculous recovery.
“She is tougher than any commander in the army,” says Yoni. “Doctors who see her CT scan from where she was, and then see her today, can’t believe it’s the same person.”
Gila gives a lot of credit for her recovery to her husband.
“We have a strong relationship that not everyone has,” she says. “He gives me the strength to keep going. I fought so hard and went through many stages of improvement, but I still want more.”
Gila is also grateful for the rehabilitation staff at Hadassah, which still plays a big part in her recovery.
“Hadassah is like a home, a very warm home,” she says. “As unnatural as it is to say that I love a hospital, this place gave me, and gives me, so much.”
While there are more medical hurdles ahead, both Gila and Yoni express a desire to go back to “normal” life.
Yoni has returned to work, while Gila, who still has limitations, wants to return to a regular schedule, one not involving therapy.
“I would like to one day go back to work, or perhaps get involved with volunteering. But I need to get on a standard daily schedule,” she says.
According to Yoni, while their heathcare provider has gone “above and beyond” to assist Gila in receiving the medical attention she needs, as well as helping with the financial burden, they still lack the additional funds needed to cover the costs of the various and extensive specialized therapies. In addition, Yoni says that they would like to hire a second aide to assist Gila when their current aide has days off. “On Shabbat, for example,” says Gila, “Yoni doesn’t get a day of rest from work. He is my aide, taking care of me all the time. We would like to hire another aide, but don’t have the finances.” While they have come very far, both Yoni and Gila are determined, more than anything, to become parents.
“The doctors are not yet sure if I can have a baby,” says Gila. “But whether we can have children naturally or perhaps through a surrogate, starting a family is what we want more than anything.”
“Despite what we’ve been through,” says Yoni, “we are still very happy. What’s kept us going is finding the good within the bad each and every day. Even if Gila would be having a hard day and struggling, if we got back a positive blood test, we would greet that with a smile. And Gila, [as you can see today], now smiles all the time.” ■ Those who wish to assist the Sibony family in covering the extensive costs of Gila’s therapy and caretaker can donate via the “Friends for Health” organization at www.haverim.org.il/e/funds/one_fund/161.htm, or by calling the organization at +972-3-577-7666.