May 21, 2024
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May 21, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The following was told to me by Rachel, a nonreligious 74-year-old Jewish woman who was recently in the hospital for over two months. During one of my many visits with Rachel, she begged me to write and share her story and reflections with others. My personal hopes in doing so are to sensitize the readers to the feelings that people like Rachel might be experiencing and to inspire others through her courage to be vulnerable, and her perseverance.

This is Rachel’s story.

“My life was great. I was independent. I did my own shopping, cleaning and cooking for my husband. I had been looking forward to my retirement for so long, and it had finally come. I enjoyed spending time with my friends and family. And then my entire life seemed to change in the blink of an eye.

“Being given [this] diagnosis is not easy and then hearing you need surgery is frightening.

I vividly remember my very first surgery.

“While in the pre-op room, I was asked all sorts of questions by various staff members. All of the surgical risks were explained and I had to pretend that I was not scared out of my mind after hearing them. I signed off on all of the necessary papers. Several other professionals came to me, all at different times, and seemed to ask me the same questions over and over again. I tried to be polite and patient while answering, but I know I was slightly abrupt with each of them, mostly because I was drained and feeling very edgy from not having slept for days before, anticipating this day: this awaited surgery.

“Finally, it was my turn to be wheeled down the hallway to the operating room. I felt so vulnerable in the thin, printed blue hospital gown and the sheer blue surgical hat on my head; wearing it felt so impersonal. Am I just another “surgery” to the staff or am I a person? One staff member gave me a smile, a gentle reassuring touch and put a warm blanket on top of me. It was comforting.

“As I entered the operating room, I noticed the bright lights, the cabinets around the room and the instruments on the table that will be used for the surgery. I heard music playing in the background. There were many people surrounding me (doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists), each one with their own important role. They all warmly introduced themselves to me, but yet a coldness permeated the room.

“This was not TV. This was real life. This was my life.

“As I lay on the table, I remember thinking: Let’s just do this. Let’s get this over with. I want this to be done. I feel completely out of control right now and am solely relying on my surgeons and the other staff here. Please God, let my outcome be good. I never really prayed before, but I beg you, God, to accept my prayer now.

“I felt myself drifting off.

“And then I wake up. I hear constant beeping. I look around. Where am I? Am I alive? Yes—I am alive. I am still here. I survived. I have wires and various tubes attached to me. I’m not sure if it’s day or night or even which day it is, but I am grateful to be alive. Thank you God.

“My doctor had said that recovery from the surgery might be tough, but I never realized just how tough it would be.

“I am in so much physical pain and cannot even muster the strength to push the button to call the nurse. My whole body is aching. The bed is so uncomfortable and I can’t seem to find a good position.

“I am dependent on others for every single thing—I need help feeding myself, going to the bathroom, and I even need help scratching the itch on my leg. Right now, I am powerless, helpless and vulnerable. I feel that I have lost all of my dignity.

“I look terrible and don’t want to be seen by anyone.

“I feel so alone.

“I want to go to sleep, but am so afraid to close my eyes because I have a fear that I won’t wake up. I know that it is an unfounded fear, but that is how I feel. I hear innocent laughing and idle talk outside my room from various staff members. I can’t help but feel a small bit of resentment and envy toward them and the rest of the world who are carrying out their lives as usual, while mine has come to a halt.

“I lay in bed and wait for the next staff member to walk into my room just so that I can have some human interaction. I keep track of the time so I know when I am entitled to have my next dose of pain meds and I can remind the nurse. I don’t mean to sound bossy about that, but I need to be proactive.

“Watching TV is depressing nowadays. So I spend a lot of time literally staring at the walls, thinking and praying from within my heart. I cry out to God and to my deceased relatives to help me get through this.

“Each day blends into the next.

“It’s so hard to hold on while I’m just lying here. At times I feel like I am losing my mind.

I hope to get up and start walking again. This is the hope I hold on to, and that gets me through. God has a plan for me. I know he does. Or at least I need to believe he does. This is what I repeat to myself over and over.

“After many days, I am finally able to leave and begin the rehab process. Although in a sense I am very scared to leave the hospital (being that I feel safe there), I know that it is time to begin the next step in my recovery. Things could only move in an upward, positive direction from here, right? Apparently not. I contract a high fever and land back in the hospital.

“And the hospital cycle begins again.

“Little did I know how often this cycle would repeat itself.

“Surgery after surgery, one after the next: eight, nine surgeries. Here we go again, I often think. I have now had 10 surgeries! In and out of the hospital. This has been my life for months! I feel that I am becoming a huge burden to my family even though they will never admit it. I have no desire to speak with my friends.

“Will this ever end?

“Unfortunately, at this point, I am a lot more familiar with the various surgical protocols. However, I have discovered that each surgery becomes another different, unknown journey. A different team in the OR, a different recovery process, a different infection that seems to crop up, and the list goes on and on. There is no way to predict what the next hour will bring.

“I feel like screaming out, “God, are you punishing me? What’s the plan? What did I do to deserve this? Is there a purpose in me going through this? How much more of this can I endure?”

I know that I need to keep going because I have more to accomplish in this lifetime. If I give up now, then what was the point of everything I went through until now? I will get through this. I need to.

“I will have to accept this life I have been given, because in spite of all of my physical, emotional and spiritual pain, I do want to live. I might always question why [all this has happened], but I also realize that I might never have the answers. I know I have a purpose, and it is that knowledge which propels me to begin each day anew and restores my hope. I feel blessed for my family’s unwavering support. I just pray to God from the depths of my heart to continue to give me the sufficient emotional strength I need to get me through this ongoing lonely journey.”


Debby Pfeiffer is a board-certified chaplain working at Morristown Medical Center through its affiliation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest New Jersey. She resides in Bergenfield with her husband and children. She can be reached at [email protected].

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