July 22, 2024
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July 22, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

As a hospital chaplain, I respond to many emergency cases in addition to visiting the patients on the list I am assigned. The list contains the person’s name, bed number, and religion. It is not limited to Jewish people; I visit people of all faiths and denominations, and learn from meeting each of them. Most people welcome and appreciate my visits, even though many have not specifically requested it. I continue to visit the patients with whom I have developed a relationship for as long as they remain in the hospital.

I love how every day is different. I often do not know what the day will bring, whom I will meet and if/how I will be able to help the patient. However, one thing remains consistent: every person I encounter has their own unique story and they are often very eager to share it.

A few months ago, I met an older woman, D, and was immediately struck by her beautiful, brown eyes and warm smile. She mentioned she had undergoing chemotherapy for nine years for breast cancer. She said this with a faint smile and slight feeling of pride. My initial reaction was that of amazement. Nine years is a very long time to have such a “battle” with cancer. I could not even begin to imagine all of the pain and suffering she had been undergoing during those long nine years. This must be some strong woman.

D told me, “This [cancer] is nothing compared to what I have been through.” It was unclear what she was referring to. She looked into my eyes and hesitated briefly. She then told me she was an Auschwitz survivor who was sent there when she was 15 years old. That was NOT something I expected to hear. Though I knew not a thing about D, I did know that this woman sitting before me must be a woman of strength, courage and determination. D mentioned that she recently started to open up a bit and speak to others of her experience in Auschwitz. She continued on to say that she had been through so much in her life, in addition to her suffering in the camp. This woman had more to tell? What else could she possibly have experienced? Her story then unfolded…

When D was taken to Auschwitz, except for her mother and herself, her entire family, 23 people, were murdered before her eyes. Although she had grown up in an observant Jewish home, she completely lost her faith in God. She told me how no words could ever describe what she had seen and the pain she had felt.

When she was liberated, she went to Sweden and then to America. D then started her life anew. She became a model, got married and had two children. Her husband passed away several years later due to illness. A few years following that, one of her children was killed by a drunk driver. She described the agony of losing her child as “having [her] heart ripped out from [her] chest.”

Several tears rolled down her cheek as she described with great detail the wonderful relationship she had with her son, and how in the blink of an eye he was taken from her by a reckless driver. One minute he was here and the next minute he was gone–no time to say goodbye. Years later, D was diagnosed with breast cancer and has been undergoing chemotherapy ever since. “And that is my story,” she concluded. When D was finished, I noticed a great sense of relief in her facial and body demeanor. Her life “story” was finally heard with empathy and properly acknowledged.

To most people, the diagnosis of cancer, or that of another serious illness, would be devastating. People know their lives will be turned around and their days will be filled with doctor’s appointments, hospital stays, medications and the associated side effects. There is a fear of the present and fear of the future. D, however, did not see her diagnosis as most others would, because of everything that had transpired in her life. She survived a concentration camp, witnessed the murdering of family members, watched her husband die, and then lived through the loss of her son’s tragic and sudden death.

From D’s perspective, she had been through a lot worse than cancer and managed to survive; cancer would be no different. She would survive the cancer because, in comparison to everything else, it was “nothing.”

Although I learned many things from this visit, I found this to be a remarkable, extreme example of the power of perspective. I believe that every situation we encounter in our life can be seen in many different ways, depending on our perspective and how we choose to view it. Situations can take on a whole new meaning when we stop and see them from a different angle. This ability can help us cope with many challenges in our life. Obviously, this is much easier for us to do when our “challenges” are rather “minor,” but if we can train ourselves to do this exercise for the smaller things in life, we will be able to cope better when bigger issues arise.

It definitely requires a lot of mental energy and often does not come naturally to us. As Rabbi Zelig Pliskin says, “When you reflect on life, you will see that many of the things that happen to a person are not inherently good or bad. Rather, it is just a matter of how each person chooses to react to a given situation.”

I will always remember D and her exceptional story. She taught me how perspective can help transform our attitude. She taught me that perspective is power.

By Debbie Pfeiffer

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