An Interview with Rabbi Sruli Fried
By Rabbi Shraga Freedman with Rabbi Dovid Sussman
This Tisha B’Av marks the first yahrtzeit of my dear nephew, Yosef Shalom Feldheim a”h, who passed away at the age of three after a yearlong battle with cancer. Throughout his ordeal, I was exposed to the incredible chesed performed by the people of Chai Lifeline. They were there when the news of his diagnosis was first received, and they supported the family throughout the grueling period of his illness.
Chai Lifeline is an organization that is constantly engendering kiddush Hashem. I was fortunate to have an opportunity to hear a bit about the organization’s work from Rabbi Sruli Fried, who has served as the regional director of Chai Lifeline in New Jersey for the past 12 years.
What is unique about Chai Lifeline in contrast to the many other organizations that provide services for the sick?
“There is a tremendous amount of chesed for the sick and infirm in the Jewish world, and there are even organizations in the non-Jewish world that provide all sorts of services, including entertainment and medical referrals. But what is unique about Chai Lifeline, and what we consider our greatest strength, is our individualized case management. We care for all the needs of a patient and their family – not only the more obvious needs, but even the minor details that often tend to be overlooked.
“Even under ordinary circumstances, it can be quite a challenge for a family with children to function on a daily basis. There is always an overwhelming list of things that have to be done: preparing the children for school or camp, doing laundry, picking up the dry cleaning, shopping for food and other necessities, arranging babysitting when the parents have to be out, and many more details. When a child is sick, the family’s life becomes vastly more complex. There are constant appointments, the parents are likely to be constantly shuttling back and forth between their home and the hospital, and everything in the household becomes topsy-turvy. Under those circumstances, having someone take care of all the ordinary details of the family’s life can mean the difference between calm and chaos. There is a wide array of things that we can do to help the family: babysitting, shopping for food for Shabbos or for new clothing, driving carpool, or even having someone provide emotional support for the mother when she learns that her child has had a relapse. The case manager from Chai Lifeline functions as an advisor, a friend, a social worker, a helper, and even a cleaner, all in one.”
What do you feel is the most fulfilling aspect of your job with Chai Lifeline?
“The other day, I was substituting for a case manager who was out and I received a frantic phone call from the mother of a sick child. She explained that another child was scheduled to start camp the following morning, and she had forgotten to buy a camp bag for the child. I hurried to run that errand for her, and I brought the bag to her home. She was extremely grateful. From my perspective, that is the most meaningful part of the job. Although I spend most of my time dealing with administrative tasks such as overseeing the staff, fundraising, and organizing school intervention, my greatest pleasure comes from managing cases, having direct contact with the people, and making a difference in their lives with the small things that we do for them.”
What sort of reactions have you gotten from doctors and nurses to the services you provide?
“To give you an idea of the answer to that question, let me share a story that occurred recently. There was a very special young girl named Malky Hirth who tragically died from cancer not long ago. Shortly before she passed away, her parents were told that she had only a few days left to live. Her father immediately called his Chai Lifeline case manager and told him that his eldest son, who was learning in Eretz Yisroel, had to be brought home. The phone call took only a few seconds, and then he returned his full attention to his daughter in her hospital bed. A nurse who was standing in the room was astounded. ‘This is unbelievable!’ she exclaimed. ‘There are so many details that have to be taken care of to get that child home – flights, rides, and other arrangements – and all you had to do was make a simple phone call! I see that Chai Lifeline is much more than just an organization,’ she added with great emotion. ‘It’s a family!’”
I am sure that some of the cases that you encounter do not have happy endings. I have no doubt that your work brings you face to face with profound grief and heartbreaking tragedies. How do you deal with these emotions?
“We cry. If I ever stop crying and become desensitized, that will be the day I retire.”
Do you find that the patients and their families have an impact on the people who work with them – the hospital staff and the staff of Chai Lifeline?
“Illness often brings out the purest qualities in a human being. We often witness incredibly inspiring displays of grace and emunah from families dealing with the illness of a loved one. I have often been told by doctors that they were amazed and humbled after they shared the most horrific news possible with the families of their patients, and the families responded by expressing their gratitude to the doctors for doing their best. One doctor said to me, ‘I see that these are people who constantly thank G-d in their prayers every day. That is how they are able to be grateful to the people around them, and to lead lives of gratitude.’”
Where do these families find the strength to display such nobility of character?
“The families themselves often do not believe at first that they are capable of it. You have no idea how many times fathers or mothers have told me immediately after receiving tragic news, ‘There is no way we can handle this,’ or, ‘My spouse doesn’t have the emotional capacity to deal with this.’ But within a very short time, they are forced to dig within themselves for the power to deal with their situations, and they discover inner reserves of strength that they never knew they possessed. This is a powerful message for all of us. These patients and their families are not alone. Every person undoubtedly possesses reserves of untapped strengths and potential. Why should we wait for a tragedy to bring out that potential? Every one of us has the ability to extend ourselves, to step outside of our comfort zones and to surpass the limits that we have always thought confined us.”
Do you have any advice for patients and their families about dealing with doctors and other hospital personnel? After all, a patient is always in a difficult situation: On the one hand, it is important to be pleasant and to display trust and confidence in his doctors. On the other hand, it is also important to be assertive, to advocate for the patient, and to ensure that he is receiving the best possible care. What is the best way to strike a balance between these two priorities?
“That is a very important question, and we could prevent much chillul Hashem by adopting the right approach. The most important guideline is this: Don’t try the side door until you have first knocked on the front door. Don’t use all sorts of convoluted methods to accomplish something if you could simply take the direct approach. For example, if a patient or parent feels the need to solicit a second opinion, he should be forthright with his doctor about it. It is perfectly all right to say to a doctor, ‘With all due respect, I am going to get a second opinion before we proceed as you suggest.’ Medical professionals understand that parents should advocate for their children. The alternative is to go behind the doctor’s back, and then for the doctor to find out from a colleague that the patient has gone for a second opinion without telling him. It is important to take the straight path: to be yoshor, to be transparent, and to be communicative. By the same token, it makes a major difference when we explain our cultural differences to the staff in a hospital, when we clarify to them why we do certain things that they may not understand. That is the sensitive and appropriate thing to do.”
Sensitivity is one of the hallmarks of Chai Lifeline – sensitivity to the patients, their families, and the medical system with which they must interact. And it is clear that that sensitivity, in its many forms and manifestations, is one of the keys to the massive degree of kiddush Hashem that the organization continues to foster.
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Article Appeared in the Yated Ne’eman
Kiddush hashem, The letter written by Malky’s doctor at Johns HopkinsKiddush hashem, The letter written by Malky’s doctor at Johns Hopkins