Thursday, September 18, 2008

When Saviors Fail

Health care workers life lives of deep frustration.

Doctors and nurses enter the medical profession in the hope of saving lives. Unfortunately, they must watch their patients die on a daily basis. Failure leaves a bitter taste in any person’s mouth; but for those sworn to save and redeem, failure is particularly galling, and questions their very identity.

Indeed, Moses, after the failure of his first mission to Pharaoh, protests to God:

“Why have you brought all this trouble on your own people, Lord? Why did you send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh as your spokesman, he has been even more brutal to your people. And you have done nothing to rescue them!”

Moses doubts his own usefulness as a messenger. It’s not easy for a savior to fail.

I was thinking of this verse after reading an excellent account by Theresa Brown about what it’s like for a new nurse to watch a patient die:

At my job, people die.

That’s hardly our intention, but they die nonetheless.

Usually it’s at the end of a long struggle — we have done everything modern medicine can do and then some, but we can’t save them. …….
And then there are the other deaths: quick and rare, where life leaves a body in minutes. In my hospital these deaths are “Condition A’s.” The “A” stands for arrest, as in cardiac arrest, as in this patient’s heart has all of a sudden stopped beating and we need to try to restart it.

I am a new nurse, and recently I had my first Condition A. My patient, a particularly nice older woman with lung cancer, had been, as we say, “fine,” with no complaints but a low-grade fever she’d had off and on for a couple of days. She had come in because she was coughing up blood, a problem we had resolved, and she was set for discharge that afternoon.

After a routine assessment in the morning, I left her in the care of a nursing student and moved on to other patients, thinking I was going to have a relatively calm day. About half an hour later an aide called me: “Theresa, they need you in 1022.”

I stopped what I was doing and walked over to her room. The nurse leaving the room said, “She’s spitting up blood,” and went to the nurses’ station to call her doctor.

The patient tried to stand up so the blood would flow into a nearby trash can, and I told her, “No, don’t stand up.” She sat back down, started shaking and then collapsed backward on the bed.

“Is it condition time?” asked the other nurse.

“Call the code!” I yelled. “Call the code!”

The next few moments I can only describe as surreal. I felt for a pulse and there wasn’t one. I started doing CPR. On the overhead loudspeaker, a voice called out, “Condition A.” ….

They worked on her for half an hour…… And (then) my patient was dead. She had been dead when she fell back on the bed and she stayed dead through all the effort to save her, while blood and tissue bubbled out of her and the suction clogged with particles spilling from her lungs. Everyone did what she knew how to do to save her. She could not be saved.

Doctors and nurses cannot save everyone; even Moses had his failures. Yes, saviors fail - but failures can be saviors too. We just have to remember, every time we fail, to keep on going, because “it’s not incumbent upon us to complete the job, but we can’t quit either.”

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Father’s Aspirations

These are the notes to the speech I gave at my twin son's Bar Mitzvah. (I've edited it to make it a bit more readable, but it's still in note form.)

What Does a Father Hope for?

Boys, when a father looks at his children, what do you think he hopes for? What do you think he prays for? What are his aspirations?

Now you might think there’s an easy answer:

He wants his children to be happy

To be content

To have good fortune

And it’s true, that for the father in me that’s all I would want.

But I am a Jewish father…

If that’s all Jewish fathers ever wanted, there wouldn’t be a Jewish people.

If all we ever wanted from our children is to be happy and content, the Jewish people would have disappeared years ago.

Because it would have been a lot easier to give up; it would have been a lot happier to forget about being Jewish, and just live happy lives.

But we are here because Jewish fathers and mothers wanted more than happiness from their children.

The hopes and aspirations of these fathers and mothers was for their children to carry on the traditions of Avraham and Sarah, of Moshe Rabbeinu and Beit Hillel and Rabbi Akiva.

And I want to talk to you about these aspirations: the aspirations of a Jewish Father.

Actually, I had way too many aspirations to talk about so I had to leave some out – I’ll talk to you guys about them for next couple of decades, God willing!

Aspiration I: To Become a Fireman

You haven’t wanted to be a fireman in a couple of years, right? Well, actually I’d like you to reconsider. (And on the Friday night before the Bar Mitzvah, at the family dinner, a napkin caught fire and the fire alarm went off, and 15 firemen showed up!! - coincidence?)

The Midrash describes Abraham’s search for God to a man who sees a burning castle, and declares “is it possible this castle doesn’t have an owner (who cares about it’s welfare)?”.

Abraham sees the world around him as similar to a burning castle. He immediately understands two things:

There must be an architect who built it, and owns it, and that we must put out the fire.

At this moment, Avraham arrives at the Jewish mission: to be a fireman.

A Jewish fireman must do two things: he must search for, and know God, and at the same time, he must transform God’s world. A Jew must put out the fires of imperfection that rage around us.

And that’s what I want from you Akiva and Hillel; to be Jewish firemen.

Look around this room:

There are Rabbis: people who have dedicated their lives to God’s Torah and to Avraham’s mission.

They are firemen. And my greatest wish for you is that you will become Talmidei Chachamim, Torah scholars.

There are doctors and engineers and teachers and social workers: people who make the world a better place, one person at a time.

They are firemen.

There are volunteers; people who give their time and money and hearts.

Why do they do it? because they love other people. And follow the ideal of v’ahavta l’reacha kamocha, love your neighbor as yourself. Which by the way, was the central teaching of your namesakes, the Rabbis Hillel and Akiva, rabbis who lived 2,000 years ago.

These volunteers, people who love other people, are firemen.

There are activists, who refuse to accept the evil and corruption in the world:

People who come to rallies and organize to denounce the genocide in Darfur, and suicide bombings in Jerusalem, the Chinese in Tibet, and Kassam rockets in Sderot.

They are firemen!!

And boys, I really want you to be firemen too.

Aspiration II: To Love Your Family

Family is perhaps greatest lesson taught in the Book of Genesis. The entire point of Sefer Bereishit is to love your family, although it takes much struggle, indeed the entire book, to get to the point of family togetherness.

I am privileged to be part of a family with such devotion.

And that’s why today we have family members from Toronto, New York, New Jersey, Baltimore, North Carolina, Brazil and Israel.

And you know Mommy’s family; Bubbie and Zaide, and Rona and Brad and Sari.

Any you know they will do absolutely anything for us, and they are always there for us all of the time.

And, on a personal level. I cannot express in words the devotion Bubby has given to me and all her children all of her life, nor can I express enough thanks to my older brother Mayer and sisters Sarah and Chavi, as well Yossi and Adina, who did so much to raise me.

And of course, Mommy.

You know Rabbi Akiva said to his students about his wife Rachel, the most wonderful thing ever said about a spouse:

Sheli v’shelachem shelah hee – what you and I have accomplished, belongs to her.

And this is Mommy, who is absolutely devoted to me and to the shul, and to you, and to your school, and to her friends, and to her community.

She has twice arrived in communities where she knew no one, in order to serve the Jewish people. And she is always at home, ready to serve her family with a smile.

I pray the two of you will find spouses as wonderful as her.

Aspiration III: Pass the Test

The final, and most important hope that I have for you, is that you pass the test.

This is not an aspiration we want to have, but one we are forced to have.

Every Jewish father knows that in life, there have been many tests. The tests start with Abraham's life,where he was tested 10 times. But these seem to continue over and over again in history.

Actually, life always brings many tests.

You will be forced to show your determination and courage.

You will have to work hard without quitting.

You know your namesakes, Rabbis Akiva and Hillel, were determined.

Akiva was an ignorant man. At age 40 he learned the aleph bet!!

Akiva did not give up and say he was too old.

Akiva did not give up and say it is too hard.

Akiva succeeded because he was determined.

Hillel was a poor man. He couldn’t even pay the entrance fee for the Yeshiva. He climbed on a roof just to poke his head into the skylight and hear words of Torah.

Hillel did not give up because he was broke.

Hillel did not get discouraged because life was hard.

Hillel succeeded because he wasn’t a quitter.

And that is the greatest hope of a Jewish father: that he has children who can assume this responsibility, to carry on a tradition, even though it can be tough at times.

To be determined.

To have courage.

And by the way, courage doesn’t mean that you aren’t being afraid. What courage means is that you continue to go on despite the fear.

Why Today's Miracle is So Sweet

Today, it is hard for me not to think about the challenges in my own family as we arrive here.

As you know, my grandfather perished in the Holocaust.

Bubby, my mother is a survivor of the Holocaust.

And my father Chaim, died in a car accident before I was born, and I am named after him.

It was a long road getting here.

And all of those tests do two things:

They make my aspirations as a Jewish father stronger. I want you to be firemen!!

But at the same time, it makes the miracle of today’s celebration sweeter.

13 years ago, a miracle occurred in the Jack D. Weiler Hospital in the Bronx.

Akiva Meir and Hillel Aryeh Steinmetz were born.

And your birth was not just a miracle for me, but for everybody in this room.

Because 3,800 years after Abraham and Sarah left on their mission

3,300 years after the Exodus and the giving of the Torah

and 60 years after the Shoah

There are still another generation of Jews being born. Two more Jewish firemen have arrived on the scene.

May God bless you, and may you give yiddishe nakhes to everyone in this room.

Mazel tov!

Article About Blog + Apology

Hi! It's been a little while, yes. I've been busy, mostly with the wonderful Bar Mitzvah of my twin sons, Akiva and Hillel. (Who would have thought that a 900 person Bar Mitzvah could be so much work?!).

Anyway, I'll be back to blogging real soon, even with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur around the corner. (I will post some of my speech from the Bar Mitzvah in the near future.)

So, considering that I've neglected to update the blog in a month, you could imagine my embarrassment when Dave Gordon's wonderful article about this blog appeared in this week's CJN. It's like being featured in a jumbotron closeup at a sporting event, while you have a ketchup stain on your shirt.

But I will be back at blogging soon!!!