For six years, Sheba Hospital was just my place of work. Between nine and five, I was a social worker. I came every morning, offered support to the families of children with cancer, and held their hands at the most difficult moments. But at the end of the day, I returned home to her husband and two daughters, to normalcy, to a world where everyone lives happily ever after.
Cancer in children is the cruelest thing in the world, and when a new family arrives, they need me right away. Often I was present at moments of death. Death. A concept our routine-numbed brain cannot grasp. I still remember the first time I was in the room when a child took his last breath. That scene will never leave my mind. Never.
From my place I thought I understood their trials, their despair. But I didn’t really understand at all. I thought I was Immune. They were the patients. I was the social worker. I’m in the other box. The safe box. Then, one day, my life changed completely.
In September 2010, my life turned upside down. I had fever and felt really miserable. I felt that something was not right and I went to the family doctor to do blood tests. I told him I was afraid I had leukemia. He laughed and said that people who work in the field always think they’re sick.
After doing the blood tests, I went to work. A few hours later, the doctor called me. He wasn’t laughing anymore. He said that I have to go to the Emergency Room immediately.
I stepped into the room of one of the doctors on the ward, the test results in my shaky hand, and asked him to have a look. All of a sudden, he was white as a sheet. He asked someone to walk me to the Sheba Hospital Emergency Room. The hospital was my second home but I don’t think I could have made it there alone. I underwent further tests, was hospitalized that same day, and the following morning, already began treatments that continued for a month and a half.
My clients showered me with love. I had an intimate bond with many of the families, who had drawn me into some of the most difficult moments in their lives. It was very hard for me to be in the ward where I worked, but I received a ton of warmth and good wishes. Throughout my hospitalization, members of the hospital staff were constantly visiting my room. It’s not as if I worked in a bank and the friends from work call and ask if they can come. “This is their place of work. They come every morning to their station and stop at my room on the way. Once it hit me that I am actually walking around in a robe in the hallways of my workplace. I really flipped. And then there was the night that I broke down and screamed hysterically. Later I was afraid of what my co-workers and clients would think of me. Maybe these people, who know me as a professional, expect a higher standard of behavior. Well guess what, I’m human just like everyone else.
The sentence I heard most often from my clients, now turned friends, was: ‘Take everything you told us and do it. It works.”
After the chemotherapy, I recovered but I couldn’t decide whether to return to my old position or move to a different ward or even a different field. I felt it would not be right to go back to pediatric hemato-oncology. A social worker is supposed to be very empathetic to her client but not to identify with him so closely. I sensed I would identify with the children and it would be difficult for me to help them. As a member of the staff, I could be detached, but as a patient, I saw things differently. My final decision was to switch to the pediatric psychiatry ward. But it was not to be. Not then anyways.
Shortly after my remission was official, I noticed that black-and-blue marks on my legs and sores in my mouth. So I took tests, printed out the test results and went in to the doctor I had gone to the first time around. It was like walking in to a movie that I had seen before. Again, he turned white, and again I was hospitalized.
This time, the oncology staff spoke to me about a bone marrow transplant. My knowledge was not to my benefit. Sometimes the staff members forgot that I am a patient and answered me with brutal honesty. Some perceived me as a colleague and spoke openly about things that I didn’t necessarily want to hear.
“I suffered at the physical level — I vomited non-stop, I had sores in my mouth and in my digestive tract, I could hardly eat or talk, I lost tens of kilos, I suffered from extreme weakness, I lost my hair, I lost my independence. I turned into a block that just lay there, subject to other people’s mercies. There were nights when I closed my eyes and I had not a doubt that I would not open them the next morning.
I couldn’t even communicate with my children. There was a point when I realized that I was thinking of them less and less and that is when I really panicked, because they are the most important thing in the world to me. I was afraid that maybe my spirit had given up, and that my body would soon follow suit. People thought that because I am a social worker, I would know what to do and what to say to myself. But it doesn’t work that way.
Despite the frequent visitors, a feeling of isolation is what I remember most vividly from that period. It didn’t matter how many people were around me, I was alone with myself, isolated with my fears, my pain, my decisions. I once cared for a girl who said that it drives her crazy when her mother says, ‘If I only could, I would take your pain away from you,’ because she can’t. A person is alone with his illness plus the fear that, even if it is cured, it will come back.
Alone… until someone comes along who can truly enter your world. Vered Melamed, Ezer Mizion’s social worker who frequented my ward, was such a person. In fact, every single Ezer Mizion staff member and volunteer that I met in the ensuing months was able to join me in my pain. They say that an organization takes its attitudes from the top. Knowing Chananya Chollak, the founder of Ezer Mizion, I can see that this is true. Rabbi Chollak is a person who encompasses every Jew into his own “I” and this outlook filters down to each member of Ezer Mizion at all levels. I knew Vered before it all happened. She was there for me when, I experienced the abrupt turnabout from caregiver to care recipient. At first, I pushed her away, because I was too self-absorbed but she kept on coming, gently, not intruding on my privacy but letting me know she was there until she captured me in her warmth.
There were craft kits and the weekly art program that Ezer Mizion brings to cancer patients in the hospital wards, encouraging me to be creative and inspired. During the long hours in isolation, I created necklaces, bracelets, pajamas, and all kinds of artistic items for my daughters, and that is what lifted up both them and me. The projects helped me not feel the pain and loneliness for days at a time. There were retreats and trips, programs and holiday activities- all designed to keep our spirits up during the months of treatment. And, so vital to my well-being, there is a shoulder to cry on, someone who understands, someone who really cares.
Today too, almost a year after my recovery, I still have not resumed normal life completely. People tell me, ‘Smile, it’s all behind you now,’ and I answer them that the disease really is still sitting behind me-sitting on my back. After my first recovery, I released the fear, and then the disease returned. I can’t help thinking that if I let go again, it may jump out from the corner that it is hiding and say, ”Boo! Thought I left you? Hah! I’m still here.” I know it doesn’t make sense but that doesn’t stop me from feeling that way.
The fear does not go away.
A few months ago, at a party in my daughter’s pre-school class, they gave out pictures of the children. I gazed at the photograph of my daughter cradling a baby doll in her arms, and was overcome by anxious thoughts that a few years down the line, when she holds a real baby, I may not be there for her. I know it isn’t rational, the disease won’t necessarily come back just because I allow myself to think that I am back to normal life, but I prefer to keep quiet. You can’t argue with feelings. The Ezer Mizion staff understand that also.
Ezer Mizion provides an enveloping cushion of broad-range professional support for people with cancer and for their families.”
I feel lucky that my home did not break up, as I’ve seen happen all too many times in my position as social worker, and that I still have a good relationship with my girls.
After I recovered, I flew with Maya to my brother in London and I told him it was hard for me that Gali was not with me. Maya started screaming at me: ‘Hard for you? Do you know that the entire time you were in the hospital, I took care of her? I had to hold her hand when she went to sleep, I reassured her that Ima would come back and that everything would be all right!’ I stared at my young daughter and , for the first time, realized that she, too, had been undergoing a nightmare and only felt free to unleash her feelings now that I was back. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for all the Ezer Mizion staff who had done their best to take over my routine, doing homework with Maya, providing meals, going shopping with them for school supplies and much-needed shoes, even doing laundry, and taking both girls on fun trips to put a smile on their faces. They talked to my kids and allowed them to express themselves. My kids were not alone in their nightmare. I understood what an ordeal that Maya, such a young child, had endured. At that moment I understood that it wasn’t luck at all. Ezer Mizion had held my family together for me just waiting for Ima to return. I whispered a silent thank you and hugged Maya tight. “Ima is back, now. Ima is back,” I cried.
For further info: ezermizion.org