July 16, 2024
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July 16, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

My Frightening Teenage Illness and the Lifelong Challenges and Strengths It Gave Me

Twenty-four years ago I went to the movies at night with my father to see “Boys Don’t Cry.” As intense and emotional as the movie was, there was an underlying subtext in my life happening while I watched that film.

That morning I had gone to the hospital for pre-op testing before the major surgery I was going to be having to save my life. At 16, I had been diagnosed with a life-threatening blood disease. After a year of being treated with IV treatments such as chemo, nothing was working, so the last resort was to remove my spleen. That morning we showed up at the hospital mentally prepared for the surgery. And they sent us home. My blood counts had come up a bit and the doctors felt I could have one more day at home before the surgery and the long recovery. So my father took me to see “Boys Don’t Cry.” It had absolutely nothing to do, on the surface, with what I was dealing with, but there were moments when I glanced over at my father and he was crying.

For a year, I watched all the friends I made in the clinic at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami die from their various cancers. I missed my junior year of high school. I missed out on more than that. But the surgery saved my life and I walked away with two big issues: an immune system that doesn’t have all the tools it needs to fight infection and an incredible amount of survivor’s guilt.

Over the years, with the help of some incredible doctors, I have battled the immune system issues (it’s constant), but my survivor’s guilt never went away. Sometimes when I go to teach, students ask me where I get my energy and sense of humor. I jokingly say it’s the Starbucks, but in reality, it’s this overwhelming sense of really not knowing what’s going to happen tomorrow, and therefore, needing to appreciate each moment we have. Because there is no going backwards. I’ve tried to dedicate my work and my life to living in memory of those I’ve lost along the way.

I should add that my parents, both busy Jewish communal professionals, were enormously supportive through my medical ordeal and my journey, over the past two-and-a-half decades, to integrate this experience into my life in a healthy way. My dad, Gary Bomzer, was the executive director of a JCC in Miami, and my mother, Renee, worked in the alumni office for March of the Living. Both had many demands on their time, yet I never felt like they were struggling to be there for me when I needed them. And thank God, they both are still here as I look forward in my life.

For years after the surgery, my childhood friends and I have celebrated April 4 as “no spleen day.” There’s no hallmark card for it, so we made our own. We ate pizza (I wasn’t vegan back then), we danced and sang karaoke. We lived, and I privately honored and mourned all I had lost: my childhood, my friends from the clinic, my sense of security that “everything would be OK,” because now I had proof that it wasn’t always the case.

Years passed and I became a mother. Spleen day seemed less and less relevant since I was so caught up in taking care of the children I live with and the hundreds of children we teach at Fresh Theatre Arts on a weekly basis. Except, every once and a while, a student will ask me where I get my energy from. And every year spleen day comes and goes. And I remember … and reflect … and honor those I’ve known and lost who will never be forgotten So, happy #24. No day but today.

One other aspect of my medical odyssey remains with me and inspires me, to this day. And that is the image of my mother and her Tehillim book, which she took with her on every appointment. As I dealt with doctors and treatments, mom was always nearby and intent on reciting Tehillim. She still has that well-worn book, and I have a lifelong appreciation of the comfort and hope that prayer offers.

In memory of Aleza Baltuch Winslow, z’l, my child life specialist, who passed away from cancer at a young age.


Tova Halpern is the founder and artistic director of Fresh Theatre Arts, which provides support for public schools, yeshiva day schools, camps and recreation programs in staging youth theatrical programs and workshops. She works with 40-45 institutions each year and is proud to include RPRY in her client roster. Tova and her husband live in Highland Park and send their three children to RPRY. For more information on Fresh Theatre Arts, you can contact Tova at [email protected]

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