Encounter at the Mayo Clinic

I looked out the window from the eleventh floor of the Mayo Clinic and I was certain that I was dreaming. After all, anything is possible in a dream. The view from the eleventh floor looked like an image from a postcard. Everything seemed to have been miniaturized, and in the center of the tableau, as it appeared from the gastrological surgery ward, I saw King Hussein of Jordan wearing a flowered robe and standing next to a tree, with Rav Yisroel Meir Lau beside him. In fact, the two of them were embracing, supporting my supposition that I was dreaming. Hussein, the king of Jordan, looked thin and weak, but he was smiling the same smile I recognized from the photographs that had appeared in the Israeli media. Yes, it was the king himself. A king is a king, even in a robe. And I could not fail to recognize Rav Yisroel Meir Lau.

We had flown to America with Tower Air, which was known at the time (20 years ago, in the winter of 1998) as a chareidi airline. We were warned in advance that Tower Air does not operate within the limits of time, and those warnings turned out to be correct. The plane took off after a delay of an hour and a half. We received no coffee because the coffee machine had just broken. The loudspeaker system on the plane was on the blink as well. But the flight attendants were all friendly and kind to the chareidi passengers, and they did their best. All in all, I was glad that we had flown with Tower Air, where the customer service made me feel at home. The loss of that airline is one that we should mourn.

I had come to America as the traveling companion of an ailing individual who needed to meet Dr. Michael Sarr, a world-renowned medical expert. According to Rabbi Elimelech Firer, Dr. Sarr was the only doctor in the world who could successfully remove the patient’s blockage and repair his digestive system. The first attempt to do so, which had been performed at Beilinson Hospital in Israel, had been unsuccessful, and the following one had only worsened the situation. Dr. Sarr from the Mayo Clinic was the only address he could turn to.

The Mayo Clinic, one of the most advanced hospitals in the world in general and in America in particular, is located in the city of Rochester, Minnesota. There are some cities that contain hospitals, but Rochester is a city within a hospital. The population of Rochester at the time was about 70,000, with another 80,000 people living in its suburbs, and all of those people were somehow connected to the medical center. The Mayo Clinic consists of a number of massive buildings spread out throughout the city. While the outpatient clinics in Shaare Tzedek, for instance, occupy a single floor, this hospital’s clinics occupy a nine-story building that stretches from one end of a street to the other. The surgical center, where my traveling companion was hospitalized, occupies an eleven-story building containing many specialized departments, including an x-ray center. The hospital buildings are all connected by subterranean tunnels, sparing patients the necessity of exposure to the sun or rain as they move from one building to another. Those tunnels are not dismal, poorly lit passageways. On the contrary, they are brightly illuminated and cheerful, lined with stores selling baked goods, souvenirs, and toys. In other words, in addition to the Mayo Clinic above the ground, there is an entire underground complex that is equally impressive.

The city of Rochester is proud of its status as an international center of medical expertise. That status has led to the establishment of a number of thriving hotels within the city, which serve the visitors who come from all over the world to avail themselves of the hospital’s services. These hotels are not the typical vacation resorts offering a wide variety of recreational activities. The guests come for medical purposes, not for relaxation, and they spend their time in Rochester yearning to return home with their loved ones in good health. The most important features of the hotels, then, are the sleeping accommodations, the quick and easy access to the various buildings of the hospital, and their ability to provide for all the basic needs of a patient and his family members.

Admission to the hospital follows a rigid procedure, and solid payment arrangements are expected. You get what you pay for, and in the Mayo Clinic you pay a lot and receive a lot. The hospital offers healing on a scale that cannot be found in other medical centers. My companion’s very life was in danger, and the only hope of recovery seemed to lie in the Mayo Clinic. Fortunately, he had a generous and wealthy relative who took it upon himself to fund his medical care in its entirety. We arrived at the Mayo Clinic with our minds fully focused on healing and with a prayer in our hearts.

The airport is not located in Rochester. It is in the nearby city of Minneapolis. That is how I made the acquaintance of Rav Moshe Tuvia Lieff, who was serving at the time as the rov of Congregation Bais Yisroel in Minneapolis. Rav Lieff introduced us to several baalei teshuvah in his community, showed us the local Bais Yaakov, and arranged chavrusos for us with several yeshiva bochurim. At the Talmud Torah, we met Rabbi Yaakov Wachsman, a rising star at the time who had previously taught in Monsey.

The warm reception in Minneapolis helped sweeten the experience for us. We had been told that Rav Lieff was a master of kiruv and harbotzas Torah and that he had developed a Torah community with great talent. We soon discovered that he was a master of hachnosas orchim as well. He equipped us with many provisions that later turned out to be invaluable. Rochester has no Jewish-made bread, for instance, to say nothing of cholov Yisroel.

I will never forget Rav Lieff’s visit to our hotel the following week on Erev Shabbos. It was after the first operation. The patient whom I was accompanying was forbidden to eat anything, and even if he had been permitted to eat, he wouldn’t have been capable of it. Nevertheless, he insisted on having cholent on Shabbos.

Cholent?” I exclaimed. “You can’t swallow anything!”

“But it’s the halacha,” he insisted.

“But you will simply throw up anything you swallow. You know that!”

“True.” He remained insistent. “But it’s still a mitzvah.”

In other words, if there was a mitzvah to eat hot food on Shabbos, it was irrelevant that he would not be able to keep it down.

“All right,” I gave in, “but where will I get it from?”

“Go to Minneapolis, to Rabbi Lieff.” That was all that he had the strength to say. I knew that he would have paid a fortune to be back home, healthy and well, and capable of eating like any other human being, but that was not our situation at the moment.

I wasn’t sure if he was serious about his request, or if he was making a joke in an effort to alleviate his suffering. He might not have realized that the trip to Minneapolis was an hour and a half in each direction, but he certainly knew that we did not have a car, that I wasn’t familiar with the route, and that it was already getting late. Besides, did he really think that I would travel to Minneapolis for the sake of some cooked potatoes?

“Maybe I could make you some tea and put it in a thermos?” I suggested. “That would also be chamin…”

“Do whatever you want,” he said morosely, and he turned his back to me.

Glumly, I concluded that we were condemned to remain in disagreement. But before long, there was a knock at the door. It was Rav Lieff himself, with steaming pot in his hands and a Shabbos hot plate tucked beneath his arm. “I thought you might be makpid to have hot food on Shabbos,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.

  • • • • •

At the airport in Minneapolis, we were greeted by Dovid Isser Green, a Chabad shliach in Rochester who is a veritable malach. Out of the 150,000 residents of Rochester, Dovid Isser Green is the only religious Jew. There are other Jews there, but they are the type of people whose Jewishness is not obvious – perhaps not even to themselves. There is certainly no Jewish community, but there is Dovid Isser Green. His home is the Chabad House of Rochester, and his heart is open to everyone.

His home boasted an impressive Torah library along with a collection of video tapes. (He is still there today, but I imagine that the technology has been upgraded since my visit.) He even has a mikvah, donated by the Gutnik family. One of the rooms in his home serves as a shul, although I am not sure if it has ever seen a complete minyan of frum Jews. Dovid Isser is there to help any Jews who may come to Rochester and will be in need of his help – such as Nachum Admoni, the head of the Mossad, or other visitors from communities ranging from Lakewood to Haifa. And such as myself and my companion.

Dovid Isser is in contact with Rabbi Elimelech Firer, who notifies him whenever visitors from Eretz Yisroel are expected to arrive. Every Jew who comes to Rochester is invited to benefit from his assistance. The hospital also recognizes him as an official interpreter. This is a service provided by the hospital to patients from anywhere in the world, and Dovid Isser is the interpreter for Israeli or Yiddish-speaking patients. He does not lead an easy life in Rochester. There is a certain solitude about his existence. He brings kosher food for himself and for others from Minneapolis, where he travels every day to transport his children to their schools.

“Aren’t you afraid of the effect that the non-Jewish surroundings will have on your young children?” I asked him. No, he asserted, he was not afraid.

As I mentioned, Dovid Isser met us at the airport in Minneapolis. From there, he accompanied us to Rav Lieff’s community, and then he brought us to Rochester. He pointed out his home from the road, and then he drove us to the hospital, where a room had been booked for us in the gastrological surgery ward in the eleven-story building. “You can get acclimated at your own pace,” he said. “I will come this evening to make sure that you have everything you need. Tomorrow, I will come with you to your appointment with Dr. Sarr. He is one of the best doctors in the world,” he added, noting our anxiety. “He has hands of gold.” We soon discovered that for ourselves, and we found that he has a heart of gold as well.

We discovered that Rochester is a city unlike any other in the world. It is a place where all the people are the same, and everyone is perpetually calm. After dark, the streets are empty; the hustle and bustle begins early in the morning. The entire city is like one large hospital. In the hotel, as in the hospital itself, the windows do not open. The air is regulated and climate controlled. No one smokes in Rochester; a visitor from abroad who lights a cigarette feels like a pariah.

It is a very sterile city. The bus stops are built facing away from the street, so that the people waiting for their buses will not have to inhale the fumes from passing vehicles. The people are frighteningly polite, everyone greets passersby with a “good morning,” and it is pleasant and entertaining until the sixteenth time. By the time you receive your 49th “good morning,” it becomes a nuisance. There are no traffic lights at the crosswalks, since the drivers stop for pedestrians in any event. I saw motorists greeting the pedestrians crossing the street and even offering their help to those who were struggling to walk.

Our first meeting with Dr. Sarr was naturally anxiety-inducing, but a young-looking doctor who greeted us several minutes before the appointment helped reduce the tension level. “How would you like us to address you?” he asked the patient. “Would you like to be called ‘mister’ or by your first name? Or do you have a different title? What about ‘rabbi’?” He recorded the answer in writing. He was polite and friendly, and he laughed when we asked him when we would meet Dr. Sarr. “I am Dr. Sarr,” he said.

It isn’t the money – or perhaps it isn’t only the money – that causes the most senior doctors to act with such humanity. It is also the atmosphere, the mentality, and the sense of mission. Dovid Isser was there, serving as our interpreter. Dr. Sarr examined the images that had been taken that morning and offered his professional opinion, explaining what would be done in the operation. Then he surprised us again by asking for another test to be conducted. “It is a complicated test,” he said, “and we have a doctor here who is the best in the world in that field. His name is Dr. Alex Geller. He will come soon and explain the procedure to you, and then he will set a time for it. I assume that it will be on Friday.”

The medical tests performed at the hospital make for an incredible story in their own right. All the tests take place in the same building, and a staff member accompanies every patient to each test, guiding him through the labyrinth of corridors. The staff does everything in their power to help the patients. During the hospitalization, when we had a private room, a woman came to the room every day with a cart containing many large pictures. Every patient is entitled to have the pictures on the walls of his room changed every day.

Dr. Sarr examined one of the x-rays and then Dr. Geller arrived. He was a tall, broad, imposing man. “Shalom,” he said, speaking in Hebrew. He asked if we would be willing to speak in English, out of respect for Dr. Sarr. We were amazed: We had come all the way from Yerushalayim to Rochester, only to discover that the foremost expert in this gastrological exam was a Hebrew-speaking Jew. We eventually learned that he was from Kfar Saba, he had originally been a kibbutznik, and he was completely unfamiliar with Yiddishkeit.

It is customary to explain all the risks of a procedure to a patient, and we soon discovered that the test itself was no less daunting than an actual operation. It was an invasive test that involved the use of a scalpel. Would the patient be in pain afterward? Yes, the doctor confirmed. Were there risks? Yes, to a certain extent. Could there be side effects? Yes, he said again, but we might as well hope for the best. “The hospital is here for you at all times, and you are staying in the hotel, so what could be the problem?” he asked.

Dr. Geller was completely calm. In Hebrew, the instructions didn’t sound all that bad. “If you feel sick, or you experience pain or vomiting, call the ward or come in. You can always call me directly,” he added, giving us his business card. The problem was that the test was to be performed on Friday. What would we do if something happened on Shabbos? We didn’t know English, and we ourselves wouldn’t call Geller on Shabbos. The doctor himself, though, didn’t understand why it would be a problem.

  • • • • •

As it turned out, the apparition that I saw was not a dream at all. King Hussein and Rav Yisroel Meir Lau were indeed there. During our stay in the hospital, King Hussein also arrived from Amman. He came on his private jet, accompanied by officers in his army, and he received a reception fit for a king. In the Mayo Clinic, the staff is accustomed to treating patients who are world-famous tycoons, including Arab sheikhs who made their fortunes from the sale of oil, but it isn’t every day that a king comes to the hospital.

Binyomin Netanyahu had visited Hussein during his previous hospitalization, and someone in the Mayo Clinic told me the following story: “Several months ago, your prime minister, Netanyahu, came to visit King Hussein, who was hospitalized here. A few days before his visit, the Israeli and Jordanian security personnel came here, along with the people from the embassy, and examined every nook and cranny of the building. In one of the corridors, they encountered a Jewish man whose son was also hospitalized here. The father approached the Israelis and asked if the prime minister would come to his son’s room to greet him during his visit. He told them the exact location of the room, and added that it would be a great surprise for his son and would lift his spirits. ‘We will see,’ they replied.

“I knew that in America, especially from a diplomat, an answer of that nature really means, ‘Leave me alone and don’t bother me,’” the person telling the story continued. “In fact, Netanyahu did not visit the child. His visit here was very short. There was a major commotion, with a huge media and security presence. Netanyahu was in a great rush, since his entire entourage was waiting for him at the airport. He hurried back to them and went on to Washington.”

“Then there is really no story to tell,” I said.

“No, that isn’t the end of the story,” he replied. “The next day, a stranger came to the child’s room, knocked on the door, and politely entered the room. ‘Would you be willing to receive a visitor?’ he asked.

“‘Who?’ the father asked.

“The answer shocked him: King Hussein! Indeed, just a short time later, King Hussein came to visit the boy. They sat and talked for a while, they took a picture together, and then the king left. The next day, King Hussein asked for all the bouquets of flowers he had received to be sent to the Jewish boy’s room.”

Hussein returned to Jordan and returned to the hospital again several months later, either because his condition had deteriorated or because the doctors had scheduled intermittent treatments all along. The second hospitalization overlapped with our own time in the Mayo Clinic. One day, Rav Yisroel Meir Lau came to visit him. When we stood in our room in the ward and looked through the window, the sight of the Jordanian king in his flowered robe and the Israeli rov in his black coat was not a mirage at all.

  • • • • •

But that is not my main story. Our stay in the Mayo Clinic was marked by many ups and downs. There were difficult times in the operating room, in our room in the ward, and even during our stay in the hotel. We had to wait at length for various tests, then for an operation, and then for follow-up procedures, until we were finally able to return home.

One of the most difficult nights was the Friday night after the test performed by Dr. Geller. Although he is a highly skilled doctor, he was correct when he warned us about the pains and aftereffects that were likely to occur. As I prepared to go to Dovid Isser Green’s shul to daven on Friday night, my long-suffering companion asked me to go to the ward instead to find Dr. Geller and to ask him what to do. Should he take a stronger painkiller or perhaps return to the ward?

“He won’t be in the ward now,” I said.

“Perhaps a miracle will happen and he will be there,” the patient replied. “We have to do hishtadlus.” For a minute, I thought that I saw tears on his cheeks.

Hishtadlus would be to daven,” I replied.

He chuckled. “You heard that there has never been a minyan there. Why bother?” he replied.

“Still,” I said, “it is a shul. It’s better than davening here alone.”

We had already lit Shabbos candles and arranged the food on the hot plate. “I will go there for Mincha,” I told him, “and then I will hurry to the ward.” I left him alone with a heavy heart. He was trying to hide his suffering, but it was clear to me that he was in pain. I made an effort to appear at ease, but I was very concerned. When I left the room, I decided to change my plans: I would go to the hospital first and then to the shul.

I hurried to the ward, but I discovered that the doctor wasn’t there and that there was no chance that he would be there on Shabbos. No senior physician spends much time in the ward even on a weekday, much less on a weekend. I managed to take the elevator downstairs before shkiah and I hurried to Dovid Isser’s home. Perhaps he would find some way to contact Dr. Geller, perhaps through a non-Jew. There was no minyan, but there were a few people there: Dovid Isser and myself, his two sons, and two Jewish doctors who had come with their wives.

Fifteen minutes later, I opened the door to our hotel room with the key that I had hidden behind a flowerpot. From the darkened interior of the room, I heard the weakened voice of my companion. “You have no idea how long I have been waiting for you.”

“I am back,” I said, “and sooner than you thought.”

He whispered, “I am feeling sick. Did you find Geller?”

Alex Geller, who was standing beside me, could not restrain himself any longer. “Shabbat shalom,” he announced. “I am here too!”

“Dr. Geller?” my companion exclaimed, sitting up in bed.

“Yes. I am here. Everything will be fine. Tell me what is hurting you.”

“Wait a minute, Tzvika, where did you find him?” he asked.

“You won’t believe it,” I replied. “In the Chabad house.”

Geller laughed. “Don’t suspect me of being religious,” he told my companion. “I don’t even know how to daven. My wife asked me to go, and I didn’t see any reason to turn her down. Now,” he said, getting down to business, “what hurts you?”