July 7, 2018, Shabbos morning, 5:50 a.m. I was lying in an ER bed in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in despair over the slow-as-molasses medical care. Don’t get me wrong, I love middle-America, but medical treatment shouldn’t be like country music songs. This was my second visit to the ER in just a few days, as a result of debilitating abdominal pains that were complicated by massive dehydration and a number of other contributing factors. They had already assessed that I was suffering from an extreme case of diverticulitis, but couldn’t agree on how to treat it. Antibiotics or trauma surgery; either way, I had zero confidence in them.
I knew I had to get out of there, however, the estimate for an ambulance from Scranton to New York was somewhere between $10-20,000 and by the time these people processed any paperwork it would already be Chanukah. It was now 3 p.m. Things were happening in the background. I called for the head nurse and told her I wanted to be transferred to Columbia Hospital in New York City. She told me that Dr. Frank, the man who could authorize the transfer, would come see me in the evening to discuss, and that the care management team would come on Monday to arrange for the transfer. I said, “Listen, I don’t mean to disparage the way things move out here in Pennsylvania; I am from New York, and things happen a helluva lot quicker than they do here. My ambulance will be here at 4:45… I need my discharge, transfer papers and a CD with my CAT scans so I can be on my way.” She left the room flustered and came back five minutes later announcing that she spoke with Dr. Frank and my discharge papers would be ready immediately. My wife began collecting my belongings.
At 4:45 on the dot my door swung open. “A gitten Shabbos!” I hear, as two Satmar chasidim, Moshe-Aryeh and Avrum, from Hatzalah of Kiryas Yoel wheeled in a state-of-the-art Stryker Stretcher. מי כעמך ישראל. They put me on the stretcher, grabbed the discharge packet with the CAT scan CD from the nurse and wheeled me out of there. We exited the back of the hospital into a state-of-the-art Hatzalah ambulance. They loaded me in, closed the doors, the lights and siren were activated, and we flew!
After he checked my vitals like a consummate professional, Moshe-Aryeh told me to close my eyes and rest. I peeked to see him meticulously reading my medical papers, only putting them down when he was finished to pick up a Gemara. After a little rest, I opened up my eyes and he said to me, “You said earlier you didn’t have a siddur,” and he handed me one. An ambulance with Gemaras and siddurim? I took it from him and davened Mincha, focusing intently on the irony of the fourth paragraph of Shemoneh Esrei, which says “ומי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד בארץ.” After Mincha we sang zemiros as we flew 90 mph on Rt. 80.
One hour 40 minutes flat later we arrived at Columbia, met in the ER by a team of colorectal surgeons who processed me and instantly started me on IV fluids and antibiotics. The nurse putting in the IV asked, “Are you going straight to surgery?” I said, “I don’t think so, why do you ask?” to which she responded, “It is very rare to see a team of surgeons come down to the ER, you must be a special person.” I said, “I’m not a ‘special person,’ I just know a special person,” and then I closed my eyes.
So How Did This Impossible Feat Happen?
It was 5:59 a.m. Shabbos. I had just finished talking to two Scranton hospital trauma surgeons who looked like they were straight out of a classic SNL skit. I was scared. While I realized how critical it was to get out of this hospital, I did not know how to accomplish this, and my depleted state made it even more difficult to make decisions. Just then, I remembered a rare hero tzadik who does special favors and is generally known as “The Fixer.” I smoked a few cigars with this legend often; nice guy. I texted him: “Are you up? I’m in the ER in Scranton.” The Fixer quickly responded, “Yes. Call Me. Can u have one of the doctors call me. Also, if possible to send reports of ct. please do. ASAP.”
After he spoke with the trauma surgeon who examined me and who was preparing to take actions he wasn’t specifically trained to do, “The Fixer” called me and said, “We’ve got to get you out of there.”
I was faced with two seemingly insurmountable problems. First, I was warned that getting Scranton to agree to release me under the circumstances was tricky. Second, an ambulance from Scranton to NYC would likely cost $10-20,000. I texted back, “Let’s wait,” but unbeknownst to me, “The Fixer” had already gone to work in the background coordinating with the colorectal surgical team at Columbia and calling his Satmar connections who dispatched a free ambulance that was sent from Monroe, New York, to Scranton (Hatzalah is a no-charge, community-oriented public service to all Jews). From what I understand, the Hatzalah ambulance dispatcher, who was sitting at her Shabbos lunch table with her family, did not inquire whether or not I had long curly-fry peios. They heard that a Jew was stranded on Shabbos in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and that’s all they needed to hear.
12:01 p.m. Shabbos: “The Fixer” wrote: “What do u think about transfer? To Columbia?” I wrote back: “I don’t know. The cost will be at xhorbitant.” I then wrote: “I love you. For real.”
1:34 p.m. I wrote: “I’m starting to get scared,” to which “The Fixer” responded: “Chasidim r gonna get u.”
I smiled for the first time.
“The Fixer” then wrote: “Dr. Frank rushing to get stuff done. Send Miriam to radiology to get all imaging now! I’m in touch with all and Satmar commandos on it. Everything will move fast now.” מי כעמך ישראל????!
Miriam asked the nurse for a copy of the CD with my scans and was told that the process of obtaining a CD takes about a day to process (remember, we are in Scranton, Pennsylvania). I told “The Fixer” who immediately called the radiology department in the Scranton hospital and spoke with the chief radiologist who—as it just turns out—was trained in medical school by none other than “The Fixer.” Needless to say, a CD with my CAT scans was rushed up from radiology within 10 minutes.
After arriving in Columbia and being admitted, “The Fixer” stayed on top of my case, not only visiting me numerous times each day, but making sure I had the very best of each discipline following me. He ensured that every aspect of my case was reviewed with numerous specialists from each field and saw to it that the chief of colorectal surgery, Dr. Ravi Kiran, take my case. I was discharged a few days later on IV antibiotic treatment, and after not eating for one full week, had the best meal of my life at EJ’s Pizza (much to the horror of most of Facebook). After three weeks of IV antibiotics and home care, Dr. Kiran operated on me and, with the help of God and Dr. Kiran’s gifted hands, the result was an excellent success.
So what is the moral of the story? A few years ago, somebody called me up and told me that their pipes were backed up and they didn’t want to lose all of the carpet in the basement. The timing was not great, I was busy, but nonetheless I figured I would do a mitzvah. I went over and snaked some drains and, even though I got some toilet sewage on my hands, I cleaned the drains and vacuumed the sewage from the carpet. Some point later, somebody called me who was out of the country who forgot to remove their s’chach from their sukkah. They were afraid that the incoming bad weather would ruin their s’chach and sukkah, so I dropped what I was doing and I went to his house and I got on a ladder and, as the storm began to hit, took all the s’chach and put it in his garage. A few years later I was driving after a winter storm and saw a car stuck at the end of the driveway in a snowbank. I stopped to see if I could help, but the guy in the car waved me off, saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll call a tow truck.” I said, “Are you crazy? Let me go home and find a winch rope and I will pull you right out,” and so I did.
That’s right, all of these favors were done for “The Fixer.”
I helped him with his s’chach, and in return he had me “covered.” I towed his car, and in return he towed me from Scranton to New York. And finally, I helped clean out his pipes that were clogged with sewage, and in return…
For me, my experience was uplifting. I have learned to see the many amazing “goods” in the story and not focus on any of the “bads,” and I feel blessed by my experience. The surgical interns described to me the sight of seeing Dr. Kiran taking the two open ends of my colon and fusing them together, and to hear the surgical precision of a three-hour procedure described by medical students who observed was simply amazing, and my kavana when saying Asher Yatzar will forever be changed as I say “נְקָבִים נְקָבִים, חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים.” I personally saw how beautiful Jewish achdut is and the power of chesed. As physically drained as I was when Hatzalah opened the door, I was instantly injected with an inspirational adrenaline as I shot up in my bed and began singing “tzadikim, tzadikim.” I will never forget that awesome moment!
Unfortunately, many of the people I shared my story with couldn’t resist the temptation to make some sort of disparaging comment about chasidim. These comments included, “I wonder if after they dropped you off at Columbia, they burned an Israeli flag?” or “Yeah, but I’m sure they cheat on their taxes.” Other than the fact that these comments amount to nothing more than ignorant generalities that most wouldn’t dare to spout about other ethnic groups, there was so much that troubled me. For years I quietly sat at meals or gatherings and heard people bash other groups to the “right” of them (funny how we are so accepting and open-minded of anything to the “left”), usually spreading unsubstantiated stories born mostly out of religious insecurity or ignorance. I always found it incredible how people were comfortable destroying large groups of Jews without personally knowing any of them.
But the issue of hasty generalizations is not the main problem. I found it hypocritical and disingenuous that people who so often spoke of “shalom” and “achdut” were able to so reflexively zero in on a potential shortcoming of a member of this amorphous group known as chasidim and minimize their great acts of chesed by finding a flaw. In fact, I believe that this is precisely what the Haggadah identified in the rasha when he mocked “Ma zot?” as the Rasha always finds the one thing to cause division and conflict.
When I questioned a few of these people about their swift judgment, their predictable answer was “well, they judge us.” I do not believe this is true, and the fact that “they” came to get me in Yehupitz, Pennsylvania, is proof otherwise; regardless, we need to truly understand what achdut means. Other than my father, I have not met a perfect Jew. We all have flaws, and the central definition of achdut is that we are “one”—irrespective of our flaws. One means one, not multiple circles on a Jew Venn diagram map. When Moshiach comes, with God’s help soon, we will all stand together in the Beit Hamikdash. I do not believe there will be separate sections for all the sects of Judaism we have chosen to abhor. We will see that in God’s eyes we are am echad, and we need to prepare for that day not only to avoid the embarrassing realization that we have been wrong for so long, but because doing so will actually hasten the coming of that day.
The next time you see a chasid, or for that matter anyone from a sect of Judaism other than your particular group (even though each of us is convinced that their style of Judaism is the correct one), smile and say “hello” because, like it or not, they are your brother. As different as you think you are from them, when they hear that one of “us” is in need they do not judge us—the way I have seen that we judge them; they reflexively heed the call to chesed.
By Michael Cohen