It’s incredible how the details remain so indelibly etched in our minds. The details of the day that life as we knew it was shattered forever. It was the day our beloved son Tzvi was diagnosed with leukemia r”l.
It was first day of summer vacation. The excitement and joy of a few weeks of carefree time was in the air, but something was wrong with Tzvi. As my other boys prepared their bathing gear to go swimming, Tzvi retreated to the couch. “I don’t feel well,” he mumbled. “I don’t want to go.” Just like that.
“Okay,” we agreed. “Stay home and rest.” But he did not feel better later. If anything, we saw him grow inexplicably more tired and weak. By the time the afternoon came around, we decided to take him to Dr. Shanik.
Dr. Shanik took one look at Tzvi and called for a nurse. “Do an immediate CBC,” he ordered crisply. At that moment, we knew. The results of the blood work were not long in coming. “You have to take Tzvi to CHOP immediately,” Dr. Shanik told us. Our worst fears were confirmed. And then, if we had any wisps of doubts left, Dr. Shanik’s next words blew them away. “Something’s wrong with his bone marrow. You must leave to CHOP within a half hour.”
Tzvi was very ill when he was diagnosed. His hemoglobin was very low, putting him in a critical state. Within minutes of our arrival at the ER, the intense flurry of activity began. Nurses and doctors rushed in and out, ordering and carrying out a full battery of tests and procedures.
The definitive results came a few hours after our arrival. Leukemia. Our wonderful, precious, darling son, just weeks before his bar mitzvah, had leukemia. Would life, as we had always known it, ever be the same?
By now, it was late afternoon. Although we couldn’t think of food, we were famished. We hadn’t brought much along and it was hours since we had eaten. We were feeling weak and dizzy. We glanced at the papers Dr. Shanik had given us and at the bottom of the page was Chai Lifeline’s number. We called, and they replied, “We’re coming.” Rabbi Sruli Fried, Regional Director of Chai Lifeline Lakewood, was with us less than two hours later.
If we have to describe what the arrival of Rabbi Fried, possibly the image of a lifeboat would be appropriate. There we were, thrown headlong into the mighty churning waters of serious illness, feeling as if we were drowning. And here was Chai Lifeline, coming towards us, offering us a lifeboat, a literal lifeline, in time of utter distress. The feeling of relief defies description.
We marvel at Chai Lifeline’s incredible art of being there for their families on every level. They took care of our family in the hospital and at home. They did everything and more for Tzvi and his siblings. For us, as the parents and anchors of the family, this meant the world. We knew that we could focus on our son’s needs and be there completely for him, because Chai Lifeline was there to take care of everything else.
This showering of hope and care began the morning after Tzvi’s diagnosis. Rabbi Fried came back with toys and games for Tzvi and with his trademark nesi’as ol and genuine care, love and support. He spent a lot of time with Tzvi, who besides for feeling terribly ill was scared and bewildered. Volunteers even came to decorate Tzvi’s room, since he was not allowed to leave his room for the first month of his hospital stay.
Delicious, fresh hot food was always provided for those of us in the hospital and for our family back home. Reading material, snacks and other necessities were available in the well-stocked Chai Lifeline hospital locker. For overnight visits, we used the Chai House, which had anything one could possibly need.
After Tzvi was stabilized and he completed the first intense round of treatments, he was allowed to come home and continue his therapy on an outpatient basis. Although he was home, he was very ill and needed round-the-clock care.
Chai Lifeline arranged for volunteers to take over every aspect of running our house and caring for our children so that our energies could be directed towards caring for Tzvi. They arranged for cleaning help and assistance with the morning rush. Additionally, they arranged for volunteers to come daily for over a year to help in the afternoons and evenings. This was a supreme chessed, one we can never repay.
Knowing the toll illness takes on a family, Chai Lifeline was there to ease the emotional burden too. Events throughout the year meant so much to Tzvi and the rest of our children. There were grand parties, Shabbos getaways, trips, Sunday workshops and more. We all felt that there was always something exciting to look forward to.
During the school year, Chai Lifeline arranged a live hook-up for Tzvi. They installed a video camera at his yeshiva and provided him with a laptop computer. He was able to follow along with his shiur which helped him keep up with the lessons, and also enabled him not to feel so isolated. Once he got stronger, Chai Lifeline provided a yungerman to come to our home and help Tzvi keep up with his learning.
And then there was Camp Simcha. We’d heard about “Camp Simcha magic,” but always thought those words were some fancy PR hype. Let us tell you, they are not! We could never have imagined it to be as good as they say it is – and it was much, much better!
Tzvi had been ill for so long that he had lost his spark, his love of life. Gone was the happy, carefree son we knew. Instead, a frail, fragile and listless boy had taken his place. Camp Simcha gave him back his childhood, putting a smile on his lips and a sparkle back in his eyes. Camp Simcha rekindled his spirit and brought us back the Tzvi we knew. Perhaps a line from the note we sent to the camp staff at the end of the summer says it best: “Dear Camp Simcha, we sent you a patient and you sent us back a child.”
If we could sum up what Chai Lifeline has meant to us through the two years we’ve been part of their “family,” we would say that they’ve enabled us to remain a family. They made it possible for us to carry on when the burden was too heavy and to focus on what we needed to do most, while they took care of everything else. They enabled us to hope when all seemed so dark and frightening. And most of all, they showed us the deepest and truest meaning of pure chessed and love.
When Lakewood families face illness or tragedy r”l, they turn to Chai Lifeline. Now Chai Lifeline is turning to you. Join the community as it pays tribute to Chai Lifeline tonight at Bais Faiga Hall in Lakewood, NJ.
The guest speaker will be Rav Eitan Feiner, mara d’asra of Cong. Knesses Yisroel, The White Shul, in Far Rockaway, NY. Dr. Peter C. Phillips, MD, Director of Neuro-Oncology Program at CHOP, will receive the Community Service Award, and R’ Psachya Skaist will present a video documentary titled “Trials and Triumphs – A Father’s Perspective.”
The reception will begin at 9 p.m. and the program will commence at 10 p.m.