The vacation of Rabbi Elie and Avital Weissman from Plainview, Long Island was terminated when their pediatrician called to apprise them that the lab results for their four-year-old had revealed leukemic cells (read: head immediately to the Emergency Room).
The Weissmans did not need to request a hospital recommendation. Their cousin is the celebrated pediatric hematologist Efraim Weinblatt of Winthrop Hospital on Long Island. Dr. Weinblatt is noted not only for his expert care, but also for his unparalleled bedside manner (and, I cannot resist mentioning, for being the younger brother of the magnanimous communal activist Lee Weinblatt – less famous for his profound photographic contribution to my 1997 film Do You Believe in Miracles? and cover photo for my book It’s A Small Word After All).
Within half an hour of their arrival at the hospital, Dr. Weinblatt, who is the head of the department, was performing tests on little Yehuda Weissman. Over the next few months doctor and patient would be seeing a lot of each other, and in short time Yehuda began to love his physician, despite all the jabs and pricks, as a grandfather.
Dr. Weinblatt’s commitment to patient care makes him one of the few hematologists that permit chemotherapy to be administered with the patient at home for most of the treatment, as opposed to six straight months in the hospital. Dr. Weinblatt marshaled all of his expertise to administer experimental chemo that might destroy Yehuda’s form of leukemia. Alas, the treatment was not successful, and the next desperate resort was a bone-marrow transplant that was pegged at having a 33% success rate.
The transplant was to take place in New York City at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital. This meant not only a different venue, but also a different approach. One-out-of-three is not the kind of language that Dr. Weinblatt would ever employ, let alone even allow himself to think. The man is a fount of hope. Alas, care was transferred to the experts in Columbia, headed by Dr. Diane George with a huge wink from the Rofeh Kol Bassar.
Yehuda’s ten-year-old sister Leba was a perfect bone-marrow match, and the successful transplantation occurred in June 2015. Licking leukemia, even today when the odds have doubled from just 30 years ago, still involves tremendous fear and trepidation, and lives being fully disarrayed. For parents whose child has been diagnosed with cancer, it means fundamentally moving into the hospital, consulting with doctors, and curtailing their normal existence and livelihood. It doesn’t matter if you are a pilot, a cook, or a rabbi.
But this is where the Young Israel community of Plainview raised the bar and perfected a standard not unusual across the landscape of religious Jewish communities. Taking their cues from what needed to be done, the community rallied by harnessing technology and selfless concern so that Rabbi Elie and Avital could focus on Yehuda without distraction.
A website was set up so that all could see what needed to be done and track its execution, efficiently and anonymously. Every week the Weissmans’ laundry was collected and returned folded and ironed, plants were watered, meals delivered, and shopping arranged – even a bas mitzvah for their oldest daughter was coordinated from soup to nuts. If the above list seems rather inclusive, it is really not reflective of the myriad of issues that may occur in family life, certainly not in a complicated one with a sick child. Whatever needs arose were posted on the website and tackled instantaneously.
The Weissmans next-door neighbor, the one Rabbi Elie sold the community’s chametz to for a dozen years, would drive Yehuda to the hospital on Shabbos or Yom Tov if the need arose. The Young Israel arranged a different driver to bring Avital home from the hospital in the city so that she could sleep an abbreviated night’s sleep in the car ride home. This driver was paid by the same anonymous sources that bankrolled all the other expenses.
The other part of this story, which has a fairy-tale ending, is that of the four-year-old protagonist. He may not have noticed the pitiful, puppy dog eyes that followed him wherever he went, but he surely felt the pain and the nausea from his disease and its treatment. What is a little boy to do, deprived of an immune system and quarantined in a hospital room for nearly two months?
Yehuda played with Lego, and his most prized possession was a fire station that he assembled with a red roof. Like many little boys, firemen and fire trucks engaged a large swath of his imagination, and this theme turned out to be a leitmotif in Yehuda’s saga.
The fiancé of Yehuda’s nurse, Maggie Hidalgo, was a real live member of New York City’s Bravest. In respect to Maggie’s charge, he would visit the hospital with all of his appurtenances. For Maggie, Yehuda’s hospitalization was remarkably heimish. Her mother was a housekeeper in the Five Towns whose employer insisted that extra Shabbos delicacies be cooked so that Mrs. Hidalgo could take home treats for her family. So Maggie had grown up on gefilte fish, kugel, and cholent.
For a little boy who had been locked in a hospital room for seven weeks, discharge would mean emancipation. He would no longer be shackled to wires, tubes, monitors, or the Reaper that crouched at the gate. The journey home just had to be momentous. In this instance, it was fiery jubilation. Fireman Bill from Plainview (a member of the Young Israel) kept his promise that Yehuda would come home in a fire truck. When fire commander Phil, who also did not wish to miss out on any of the action, was questioned about the fact that a Nassau County fire vehicle is not allowed in the city, he replied sardonically, “What are they going to do? Give us a ticket?”
When Yehuda returned to Plainview, he was transferred from the fire command car to a mammoth hook and ladder, and here too he was allowed to sound the siren and flash the lights. An honor guard of Plainview firefighters joined the homecoming, equipped with toys which they had bought for the son of their town who had finally returned.
But such a journey could not be complete without our Yehuda also ascending in the ladder to its very height, held tightly in the air by Fireman Bill, as the two looked down upon a community that knew how, and had been blessed, to put out a fire.