If the name Tziona bat Sasha sounds familiar, it’s because Tehilim groups, shuls and schools have been davening for her since January 2013. That’s when Tziona Zellis was struck by a car while she stood on the sidewalk. The damage to her leg was immeasurable and, six years later, Tziona has undergone more than 20 surgeries and endured countless life-threatening infections. In March of this year her family made the difficult decision to have Tziona’s right leg amputated in order to save her life. Sadly, the amputation was not successful and the infections returned and in June she had an additional above-the-knee amputation.
Tziona hasn’t let these challenges deter her from living her life. Not only did she return to school, she earned a degree as an occupational therapy assistant and was the class valedictorian. Unable to attend graduation because of another surgery, she live-streamed her speech. “I decided to go into occupational therapy because of my experiences, and it will help me going forward. I also hope to be able to one day help other amputees and victims of catastrophic injuries get their lives back. And my mom is an OT,” Tziona shared. “Eventually I’ll be able to do whatever I want. My goal is to be completely independent and even have a full and active lifestyle.”
While Tziona’s original hospital stays were in New York, she’s been doing her rehabilitation at Kessler Rehabilitation Center in Saddle Brook. Thanks to Bikur Cholim Bergen County, Tziona and her family have not had to worry about kosher food or even where to stay for Shabbat/Yom Tov.
According to Meredith Yager and Tsipi Gurell, co-presidents of Bikur Cholim Bergen County, the Bikur Cholim Room in Saddle Brook opened last December on the main floor in the Meditation Room. The room is always stocked with the basic food supplies and, on an as-needed basis, is increasingly stocked, based on the individual needs of each patient and family.
“We were involved with Tziona from the day she transferred to Kessler,” they said. “Tziona arrived the Friday before Shavuot, which was a three-day holiday this year. When we told Kessler the circumstances and asked if they could find them a place to stay so that no one had to be alone, Kessler allowed Tziona’s parents to stay in an empty hospital room. In coordination with Rachelle Zomick, a close family friend, we also coordinated a Meal Train for the Zellis family, in addition to the food and snacks available in the pantry. Since they’re far away from home, it was important that we could be there as much as possible to ease the burden.”
Sheryl Zellis, Tziona’s mom, told The Jewish Link, “We have such hakarat hatov for Bikur Cholim Bergen County. We’re from Langhorne, Pennsylvania. We were very touched and humbled by the outpouring of chesed from people who were complete strangers bringing up meals. While it’s nice when an organization takes care of their own, I think that the effort is even more meaningful when they’re taking care of strangers. They were treating us like they were part of our community. That’s true chesed.”
According to Zomick, “When Tziona told us she’d be coming to Saddle Brook for her rehabilitation, we were not surprised how quickly they soon realized that, while they were not in Pennsylvania, they still had family here who were determined to make them feel at home and cared for.”
Tziona and her family are now facing a new challenge. She turned 26 this month and technically should have been removed from her parents’ insurance. Thanks to Sheryl’s doggedness she managed to get Tziona’s coverage extended another year. But insurance has only paid for some of her expenses to this point. Though the prosthetic leg has been authorized by insurance, they still don’t know how much of the $100,000 cost insurance will cover. Plus, they’re still struggling to keep up with the co-payments, deductibles and medications, plus they needed to make their home in Pennsylvania accessible and adapt Tziona’s car—all additional added expenses.
“It’s not common knowledge that insurance will only cover a new leg every five years,” Tziona explained. “But no amputee goes five years without a new leg. There are also many components that make up the leg and any one of those might need to be replaced as well. And frequently the first leg you start with ends up being switched out for a different one.”
One of the best birthday presents Tziona received this year was the approval for her in-patient rehabilitation with the prosthesis. Tziona has returned to Kessler for prosthetic training with the leg. She’ll go through intensive, hours-long occupational and physical therapy sessions each day before she can be discharged and then she’ll continue the regimen at home.
“I’ve had the opportunity to see Tziona learn to walk first as a baby, then relearn after the accident, and soon, with the prosthetic she’ll learn to walk and run off into the future,” said Sheryl. “It won’t be easy and there will be bumps in the road but she’ll be able to be independent and be the self-sufficient adult she deserves to be.”
Sheryl had to quit her job to be with Tziona, and Tziona’s father, David, has had to cut back on his work schedule as an attorney to take care of their 15-year-old son with Down Syndrome. They also have a married daughter and a son studying in Israel.
The family has set up a Go Fund Me page. To learn more about Tziona and to donate, visit Gofundme.com/tziona.
By Sara Kosowsky Gross