"I did nothing that any other Jew would not have done for his mother"
The protagonist of the following story — a Satmar chassid from Williamsburg with whom I spoke at length -- only agreed to my retelling it on the condition that I not name him or the hospital in which his mother was treated for coronavirus for over three months. (She has since recovered and is at home rehabilitating after her long hospital stay.)
He explained his reticence: "I did nothing that any other Jew would not have done for his mother." And perhaps he is right. If so, nothing could reflect more positively on our community.
Just before Pesach, his mother, who is in her early seventies, started to experience shortness of breath, even though she and her husband had been in almost full quarantine already for four weeks. The afternoon of Erev Pesach, he had his mother checked by two emergency medical technicians. The oxygen levels in her blood were not good, but not yet dire enough to mandate hospitalization.
That night the son led an expedited first Seder, and as soon as the afikomen was eaten, he told his assembled family to carry on without him — he had to go check on his mother. As he hurried to his parents' apartment, he encountered his nephew, who lives in the same building as they do, running to summon him.
Hatzolah was called, and his mother and he were rushed to one of New York's finest hospitals — indeed, one of the country's leading hospitals. The hospital, however, had two drawbacks — at least from the point of view of a son frantic about his mother's condition. The first is its well-earned reputation, even before COVID-19 struck, as being extremely tough in enforcing its rules. And the second was that — perhaps alone among New York City's major hospitals — it is not one in which the web of connections of the heimishe world are of any use.
The son did manage to persuade a sympathetic medical worker to allow him to stay with his mother until the morning, but as soon as she went off duty, he was quickly escorted out, and took a ride back to Williamsburg with one of the Hatzolah ambulances shuttling back and forth to the hospital at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Just before the second Seder, he received a call from his mother that the doctors wanted to put her on a respirator. After a series of calls back and forth with the doctors (under strict guidelines from his rabbanim), it was determined that there was no choice.
For the next several weeks, his mother was in an induced coma in the hospital. During that period, the question began to prey on him, "What will be when my mother, im yirtzeh Hashem, begins to awaken from the induced coma?" He understood that she would be totally disoriented after weeks of being unconscious, and that the absence of any family members at that moment would cause her extreme agitation. Yet even his request that he be admitted for half an hour to speak to his mother upon her regaining consciousness was denied.
Soon he got his first break, though: the hospital had a longstanding contract with a company that supplies personal nursing care, at an astronomical price. The Satmar chassid, who is a successful businessman, hired a private nurse from the firm. He then approached the owner of the company and asked him to provide him with credentials so that he could be admitted to his mother's room under the auspices of the private company.
The owner's response was blunt: "Are you crazy?"
He pointed out that such a stunt, if discovered — and a middle-aged, bearded chassid, with peyos, does not exactly fit anyone's stereotype of a nurse — would result in the loss of his company's license and the end of his business.
But the son was not prepared to abandon his quest so easily. He asked the owner what he would need to do to acquire appropriate nursing credentials. And that's where he got his second break: As a consequence of the severe nursing shortage caused by the COVID-19 crisis, New York State had enacted a law creating an expedited procedure for certifying licensed practical nurses (LPNs). One need only take a series of online courses and pass a written exam.
Our protagonist is no stranger to medical care. He is a long-time Hatzolah volunteer and an emergency medical technician (EMT). So for three straight days, he went to his office, shut the door, and listened to the online courses for LPN certification. He then took the exam and passed with flying colors.
Armed with the certification, he persuaded the company providing his mother with private nursing services to let him join the regularly scheduled nurse for the night shift.
And in that fashion he was able to provide his mother with daily proof, after she came out of the induced coma and during her remaining weeks in the hospital, of the love and devotion of her family, and of her son's willingness to continue searching for any means possible to breach the fortress surrounding her.
There is a lesson her for all of us: If something is important enough, one does not give up at the first rebuff or stop trying just because the odds are long. Success is never guaranteed. Not everyone, for instance, possesses our protagonist's personal or financial resources. And no one can know in advance what degree of siyata d'Shmaya he will be zocheh to. But one thing is clear: If one does not try, failure is sure.
That Was a Jewish Mother
As long as we are on the subject of filial devotion to a beloved parent, let me share a story of the type of parental concern that inspires such devotion. Every time I see my good friend Sam Friedland, I ask to hear the following story, which never fails to crack me up.
Shortly after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Sam decided to go to Israel for the first time. That involved divesting himself of a beloved jalopy and other efforts to pay for his ticket.
Upon arriving, he headed for a religious kibbutz, where someone he knew from Monsey was living. Unfortunately, he was assigned a roommate who was stark raving mad. His first (and last) words to Sam, in a not easily decipherable accent, were: "If you look at me, I kill you."
Sam spent a sleepless night, fearing at any moment his roommate might decide to act upon his threat. In the morning, he decamped from the kibbutz and went searching for another religious kibbutz. The first one he found had no need for volunteers, but they suggested there that Sde Eliyahu, near the Jordan River, would.
So that's where he went, despite his assurances to his mother that he would stay far from the border. He trudged up the road from the bus stop to the kibbutz and was directed to the bare office of kibbutz director-general, who had only an old-fashioned phone on his desk.
Far from receiving Sam with open arms, the older man subjected him to a searching cross-examination designed to elicit proof from Sam that he was Jewish and religiously observant, and not some sort of spy. As the cross-examination was going on, and Sam was shifting uncomfortably in his chair, the phone rang.
The secretary-general answered the switchboard operator in Hebrew, and then switched to his heavily accented English.
"Yes." And then again, after a few seconds, "Yes," looking at Sam. Then he reached across the desk to hand the phone to Sam, announcing gruffly, "It's your mother." Sam just stared at him and did not move. The man repeated again, "It's your mother," his arm still extended to Sam.
And indeed it was. Mrs. Rivka (Rhoda) Friedland a"h, (who passed away last month) had called Sam's previous kibbutz and been told that her son had left and they had no idea where he went. So she contacted the Jewish Agency and obtained a full list of all the kibbutzim in the country. She started working her way down the list until she arrived at Sde Eliyahu.
"Now, I know you're Jewish," the kibbutz secretary-general told Sam. "Because you obviously have a Jewish mother."