Even after all these years, the summer of 2008 will forever be burned in my mind. What started out as a very happy and enjoyable summer turned into a whirlwind of fear and unknown, only to bring me back to the most calm and secure places. These events serve as a reminder, consoling me to keep my emuna and to feel Hashem in the darkest of places.
My family and I were spending the summer in Vacation Village, a nice summer gig. We had three kids at the time who were young, and just being away was a novelty. I was working as the preschool camp director, and my husband spent a few hours a day as the chinuch staff for the day camp. We also had the fun privilege of living in and supervising the counselors’ dorm. I worked really hard, often working in the evening dealing with the dorm and day camp needs, but being in the country with young kids can be so beneficial.
I had slipped on a patch of ice the previous winter, and sometimes would walk with a limp when my injury acted up. So when some of the moms mentioned to me that my almost two-year-old was limping, I laughed and said he was imitating me. They laughed too, and I just put it out of my mind for a bit. The summer was at its last few weeks, and I had to acknowledge the fact that my son’s limp was coming more frequently, and his foot did look a bit swollen. I checked for redness, or bug bite, but there wasn’t any clear explanation for what was going on.
My parents and my grandmother came to spend the Shabbos leading up to Tisha B’Av with us up in Vacation Village. It was always lovely to spend time with our family, and a relaxing Shabbos is the best time spent. My mother, who is always intuitive, was concerned about my little one’s foot. She advised me to call the doctor as soon as possible. As we tend to think our parents overreact, I said OK, but really didn’t feel it was warranted. Then it occurred to me that perhaps when he took a tumble at some point, as toddlers do, he may have broken something in his foot.
My husband, being the parent with free time, called around and found an orthopedist located in the country, and took him in to be checked. I hardly remembered that they went, as I was immersed in running the camp. Then my husband called me to update me on the appointment. The doctor had said to go to Hackensack hospital right away. David couldn’t explain to me why, the doctor just said to go. So we did what we do when a health concern comes up: We called our trusted pediatrician. And then the short conversation that every parent has nightmares about happened.
David called Dr. Schuss and told him what had been happening, and what the orthopedist had said. Dr. Schuss followed up with the doctor, who was very well respected, and told us to listen and just go. We, of course, were going to follow the medical advice, but didn’t know what the rush was. David asked Dr. Schuss, half laughing, “We will go admit him. But it’s not serious, right? It’s not something like cancer, right?” When the answer came, “Get him to the hospital now,” our world started spinning, and time somehow froze at the same time.
I was the mom. I should know what to do. I should be there with my child. My job was a big one in camp, and I didn’t know how long my son would be in the hospital, what the outcome would be, or how to split myself between a job hours away from where my child would be. So David packed him up and went off, with our only car, back to Bergen County, to Hackensack Hospital. I was left behind with my two other children, my panic, and my world crashing down from all sides.
I still had to run my division of the camp and keep things going at the dorm. My two other children, ages six and four, still wanted to swim after camp, have dinner, and play with their friends. I couldn’t stop my thoughts from racing, and called my husband hourly for updates. My two-year-old was admitted for testing. This was Tuesday.
Wednesday morning I dragged my exhausted self to work. My counselors were arguing about some trivial matter and I had no patience to calmly deal with them. Parents still wanted to speak with me regarding their children, and I couldn’t focus. My husband updated me that my son was going in for an MRI of his foot, and would be put under to ensure that he would stay still. As if my emotional state could handle that news.
The results came a few hours later: They would need to do a biopsy on his foot. That was scheduled for Thursday. Of course, that meant going under anesthesia again. Something was wrong. The panic was rising. I was helpless. I was so far away from my sick child. I had to rely on my husband to ask all the questions, and was frustrated when he didn’t have the information I wanted. (He was just as panicked and emotional as I was.) I couldn’t do this anymore.
I spoke to the camp board, two very kind women. One had been through horrors of having an ill child in the recent past. I told them what was going on, and that I just needed to be with my son. They understood and told me to go. OK, now what? Here I was, with two kids in the country, with no car. Bringing my kids with me would be counterintuitive in concentrating on my two-year-old’s care. My parents, who had just been with us for Shabbos, were preparing to fly to Israel for my nephew’s bar mitzvah. My mom, with her love and concern, offered to cancel their plans and come help us. While I knew everyone would understand them not going to the bar mitzvah, I told her to go. Davening at the Kotel, reaching out to Hashem, would be a help. My in-laws, who lived in Long Island, told my parents to go. They would be here with us.
By now, most of my camp parents knew what was going on. Two very special women, whose children I had in my division, came to me to help. They were brainstorming how to get me to Bergen County. They offered to drive me. I couldn’t think, the fog was too thick. I didn’t want to put anyone out, but I needed someone to guide me. The ladies found a bus that goes straight to Route 17, and my husband could meet me there. The thought of looking up a bus schedule caused panic; how could I figure this out? My friends calmly found a bus that left at an appropriate time, and they would drive me there and get me on the bus. I still had my other two kids with me. Another kind family from Vacation Village offered to take my kids in. Our children were the same ages and this way my kids would be able to stay in camp and be taken care of while my husband and I were at the hospital. This was Thursday.
I got on the bus, not sure where I was going, but the driver assured me that he would let me know when we were at the Route 17 stop. My husband would meet me and we would go to the hospital. I have no idea what I did on that bus ride. Davened, cried, spaced out? All I know is that I was going to hold my child and be there when they figured this out. I got off the bus and looked around for landmarks to direct my husband. After quite a bit of time, we found each other. My mother-in-law and David’s grandmother were at the hospital with our son.
We picked up pizza to bring to the hospital. I remember speaking to my sister-in-law who was making the bar mitzvah in Israel. She cried that she wasn’t able to help. I asked her to daven and I would keep her updated. We finally made it to the hospital and to my son. We sat with my husband’s family and waited for the results of the biopsy. My in-laws, in their kindness and generosity, offered to have our older kids by them for Shabbos, if we could get them to Teaneck. So David drove Friday morning back up to Vacation Village to collect our older two, and drove into the city to meet his father. The kids excitedly went on the train with their grandfather to spend Shabbos in Long Island.
Finally we got the results of the biopsy, and a plan was forming. The diagnosis was osteomyelitis, which is inflammation of the bone, or bone marrow, often caused by an infection. Our pediatrician, who was in contact with us all through the week, and the wonderful infectious disease expert, Dr. Bear, explained to us what that meant and what we needed to do. The infection was bad, his numbers were very high, and intravenous antibiotics were in order, long term.
The next step was to have a port placed into his chest to administer the antibiotics. This would be placed surgically—another round of anesthesia. While we were so relieved to have a diagnosis and a plan, we were a wreck. We were living off of the wonderful Bikur Cholim room at the hospital, which was so well stocked for Shabbos. It is very hard to sleep in a hospital, with doctors and nurses on their rounds coming to check in on the patient, as well as chairs to sleep on. We stayed with our son the whole time, not wanting to leave his side. My friend, who likely has no idea of her impact, brought me a coffee Friday morning and homemade Shabbos food. Her visit was a kindness I will never forget.
The surgery was scheduled for Shabbos morning. The urgency of beginning the antibiotics made it necessary to go ahead with the procedure, even on Shabbos. Because it was Saturday, the protocol was a bit different. I don’t know why and I was too frazzled to ask. I just wanted to feel OK and in control again. I wanted my just-two-year-old, whose second birthday was lost somewhere in all this, to run and play. Thankfully, he was happy and liked playing in the playroom. He managed to get into all the toys even with being hooked up to an IV and limping.
Shabbos morning came and we were waiting to be taken to the pre-op area. Being so last minute, we hadn’t met the surgeon and didn’t really know what to expect. The nurse came, and we went off to the surgical unit. The pressure that had been building, in what was only one week, was so strong. You can only hold it together for so long. After he was prepped, our son was met outside the surgical doors by the anesthesiologist, nurses and the surgeon. I held my toddler close to me and prepared to hold him in the OR until he closed his eyes and I would leave him with a kiss. The staff explained that because it’s a Saturday, parents can’t go past the doors. I had to hand over my son to strangers. The tears started coming, and I had to hold back so my son would not be scared.
The anesthesiologist, seeing my distress, gently put his hand on my son’s back and asked me what his name was. I mustered up the strength to answer the simple question; “Nachum,” I said. He smiled at me and said, “That’s my Hebrew name.” I was surprised; such a funny coincidence, as Nachum is not a common name. He gently took my son and said he would take good care of him. We stood there watching the double doors swallow up the team and our Nachum. What else could we do? The one thing that Jewish people have always done: We went into the waiting room to daven Shacharis. My husband donned his tallis, and I stood in the opposite corner with my siddur. The emotions couldn’t be controlled any longer, and the tears burst out. My siddur was damp as I reached Shemoneh Esrei.
Right there, in that hospital waiting room, after a week that felt like years, in the middle of the Amidah, one thought struck me like a bolt of lightning. IT WAS SHABBOS NACHAMU. The Shabbos following the saddest time of the year, Tisha B’Av. The Shabbos in which we read in shul of Hashem’s promise, Nachamu, Nachamu ami, Be comforted, my nation. My son, Nachum, was being in the OR with a doctor named Nachum, on Shabbos Nachamu.
All of the emotion had blocked my strongest source of comfort, my strength. The knowledge that we are not alone, we are carried every step of the way—in the best of times, and especially in the most challenging and darkest times. All I had to do was feel Hashem with us, through His messengers. The kind camp directors, the wonderful friends who got me back home, our pediatrician who was with us the whole way, the family and friends who came to visit and helped watch our older children. And in that moment, I felt the comfort. I felt Hashem.
The next eight weeks were challenging, moving into a new home, a trip to the hospital after bathing my toddler, forgetting that his port had to stay dry, our visits from our visiting nurse. Navigating child care and teaching the daycare how to administer the medication, as well as waking early each and every day, making sure that the antibiotics were given at the proper intervals. We made it through, and now all that remains is a small scar, and a lesson.
A lesson that I carry with me always, but sometimes forget: Hashem is always with us. We don’t understand His ways. We have questions that may never be answered. The message of “Nachamu, Nachamu ami” is a powerful one. We, as a nation, desperately need comfort now. What we have gone through (and continue to) has been more challenging than anything most of us have ever faced. Hashem is here, He has a plan, and this will end. Most importantly, we should feel comfort in the knowledge that Hakadosh Baruch Hu will be the one to send us our ultimate comfort. Our Father in heaven is carrying us, always. May we all be zoche to the nechama.
Leah is an early childhood educator who lives in Bergenfield with her husband, David, and their five children.
By Leah Pietruszka