“Her name? Esther Spielman,” said the nurse. “I don’t know who she is or where she comes from. She just came in here and said her daughter can’t hear and needs surgery.”
Tricia sounded outraged at the scenario. This was NYU, after all, and appointments weren’t made on the spur of the moment. Who ever heard of someone showing up in the emergency room and demanding a cochlear implant?
“Spielman? Oh, of course,” said Mrs. Lubling in her heavily-accented English. “I sent her to you. She needs an implant and she needs it this week.” Her voice grew firm. “This week. I want a top surgeon. Please schedule her right away.”
“Mrs. Lubling!” said Tricia, outraged. “This isn’t the way we work. The patient is an Israeli citizen and has no insurance. The surgery will cost at least thirty thousand dollars. In addition, the doctor is booked for the next few months.”
“No, no, no,” the powerhouse protested. “This woman is my cousin. She can’t wait until then. She needs the surgery this week. Tell the doctor that I said he has to squeeze her in.”
Tricia sighed. She had been working in the hospital for several years and was familiar with the way Mrs. Lubling operated. If she wanted the surgery this week, the surgeon would move heaven and earth to accommodate her. She was barely five feet tall and tiny, yet senior doctors quaked in their shoes when she approached.
“Before we see if we can squeeze her in, we have to take care of the financial arrangements,” Tricia said in a no-nonsense voice. “As I mentioned, the surgery costs thirty thousand dollars and that’s already the discounted price.”
“Don’t worry about the money,” said Mrs. Lubling with determination. “I have the money. I’m coming now to take care of it. Just get her in for this week. The patient came all the way from Israel and can’t wait any longer.”
The volunteer listened, amazed at Mrs. Lubling’s promise. Where would she get thirty thousand dollars from?
Mrs. Lubling put down the phone and said in her determined manner, “In an hour I’ll have the money.”
As the volunteer continued to drive to Manhattan, Mrs. Lubling made one phone call after another to several renowned baalei chesed in the community. She spoke clearly and forcefully, giving them no choice.
“Tattele, I need ten thousand dollars,” she said. “There’s a young girl in the hospital now who came all the way from Eretz Yisroel. She needs a cochlear implant and she can’t wait too much longer.”
She listened for a minute, argued, and negotiated with each one, reminding them that this was a tremendous mitzvah and that she needed the money right away. As soon as she finished one phone call, she dialed another number, and then a third. If someone didn’t pick up the phone, she called again, and again.
“If I wouldn’t have seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it,” said the volunteer. “By the time we pulled up to the front entrance of NYU, she had raised the entire amount.”
For those who were well acquainted with Mrs. Miriam Lubling, who passed away last week at the age of 96, words are unnecessary. This story is but a drop in the bucket, a blip on the radar, just a half hour out of a day that never ended.
For those who didn’t have the merit of knowing her, stories cannot suffice. How can a few anecdotes, culled from a lifetime of giving for the klal, of tirelessly advocating for her sisters and brothers, provide a picture of just who Mrs. Lubling was?
We dare not attempt to do justice to the woman dubbed “The Angel of Mercy” not only by the patients she helped, but by the doctors with whom she dealt, who were like putty in her hands. As she once expressed, “Everyone who comes to the doctors looks at him like a G-d. I show them that doctors are human beings; that he needs you too, and he is not doing you a favor.”
This diminutive woman was not intimidated by the most powerful surgeons with waiting lists over a year long. She once famously took a cab to the airport to chase after Dr. Fred Epstein, the founder of pediatric neurosurgery at NYU Hospital who passed away in 2006. The doctor was heading to a sorely needed vacation, but there was a young child in acute trauma after a devastating car accident who needed his services.
She found Dr. Epstein in the airport, ready to check his bags, and stared him down, saying, “Doctor, you are going on vacation, but if you don’t come now, this child will never have a vacation.” The doctor relented, picked up his luggage, and went back to the hospital with Mrs. Lubling to operate on the child.
For Mrs. Lubling, who spent most of her waking hours doing the rounds at various hospitals, making sure her patients were okay, it was just another day on the job. She dedicated her life to her “cousins,” as she dubbed every single Jewish patient. She had so much energy. Her hours were like days. The volunteers who accompanied her would be exhausted by nine p.m., but she was just getting started.
On one occasion, a patient was scheduled for surgery in the late afternoon. When Mrs. Lubling arrived, she realized that the patient was in distress and couldn’t wait. She sent a volunteer to the operating room to ask the nurse to change the schedule. “Mrs. Lubling sent me to make sure that the patient will have the surgery earlier in the day,” the assistant timidly said.
“Is that so? Then I have to change the schedule,” said the nurse, who immediately put the patient in the next slot.
On another memorable day, Mrs. Lubling entered NYU hospital to find “her” seriously ill patient still stuck in a bleak, four-person ward. She had asked the nurses to transfer the patient to a sunny, comfortable room two weeks earlier, but the ward was overcrowded and there simply was no room.
“I must have this patient transferred right now,” she said to the nurse on duty.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Lubling, but there really is no room. We are very overcrowded,” the nurse replied.
“Okay, is the taxi still downstairs?” she asked the volunteer who accompanied her. “Help me get the patient ready. We are checking out and going to Mount Sinai.”
“Mrs. Lubling,” said the nurse, appalled. “You can’t just check out of the hospital because you don’t like the patient’s room!”
“Of course we can,” said Mrs. Lubling, who never took no for an answer. She turned to the volunteer. “Let’s pack the patient’s bags. We’re going.”
Amidst the commotion, the head nurse walked in and immediately took stock of the situation. “Mrs. Lubling, I promise you the patient will have a private room within five minutes.” And so it was.
The most impressive part of this story was that the doctors and nurses didn’t get upset or annoyed by Mrs. Lubling. On the contrary. They admired and respected her, for two reasons. As one doctor expressed, “It was never about her. She was putting herself on the line, day after day, making arrangements to help people she never met before.”
They sensed her tremendous mesirus nefesh and the love she had for every human being, Jew or non-Jew.
As Councilman Simcha Felder echoed, “When Mrs. Lubling called, they made the appointment, whether they liked it or not. You couldn’t refuse her. You knew she wasn’t getting paid, you knew what she’s been through. How could anyone possibly say no?”
And the second? Mrs. Lubling was a forceful personality, but she was so sweet and gentle. She spoke to both doctors and patients with tremendous affection and respect. Everyone in the hospital, from the head surgeons to the janitors and parking garage attendants, worshiped the ground she walked on.
As one of the volunteers recalled, “Mrs. Lubling had tremendous kavod habriyos and a kind word for everyone. She was ‘best friends’ with the African-American parking attendant and would hug her, complimenting her hairdo and telling her how beautiful she looked. The parking attendant would literally wait for Mrs. Lubling to come.”
In fact, Mrs. Lubling was so beloved and respected in the city hospitals where she made her rounds that the volunteer who drove her would park right in the front of the hospitals, a strict no-parking zone, and no one would bother her. “We would just write Mrs. Lubling on the windshield and the car would be waiting for us many hours later,” she recalled. “No one ever moved our car or asked us to park elsewhere.”
Mrs. Lubling’s chesed operations centered around NYU, where she served as Associate Trustee, but encompassed all the New York area hospitals, where she made her rounds several times a week. She was always beautifully groomed and impeccably dressed, wearing a smart suit, a coiffed shaitel, and elegant jewelry, as if she was going to a wedding. “The patients deserve to have a visitor who is well dressed and smiling,” she would explain. “It makes them feel better.”
Just spending a few minutes with Mrs. Lubling was a feel-good guarantee. There was something so refreshing, so real and forthright about this tiny powerhouse, who was always smiling. She would take the elevator and stop at any random floor, and then go from room to room, checking on the Jewish patients and making sure that they were comfortable and had kosher food.
If they had any complaints or issues, she would talk to the doctors and staff, and wouldn’t budge until it was taken care of. Though she was constantly in a rush – her phone didn’t stop ringing, with desperate patients and their families eager to reach her – when she was with a patient, that was the most important thing in the world. She treated everyone the same, whether the person was a renowned rosh yeshiva, a “brand name,” or a “no-namer.”
Everyone was her “cousin” and also a “very important person” or great rabbi. “He’s like the Pope,” she would tell doctors. “Take good care of him.” To which the doctors replied, “Mrs. Lubling, by us there is only one Pope!”
One of the doctors once jokingly told her, “By you, everyone with a beard is a very important rabbi. But then we see that they are just regular people.” At the time, she was taking care of arrangements for Rabbi Moshe Sherer zt”l, who needed medical treatment. Without skipping a beat, Mrs. Lubling said, “I promise you, doctor, this rabbi doesn’t have a beard!”
In 1965, Mrs. Lubling’s close friend, Rivkah Laufer, who had been diagnosed with the dreaded disease, passed away. Mrs. Lubling asked Rivkah’s husband to help her perpetuate Rivkah’s legacy by founding a Bikur Cholim in her memory. With the help of Rivkah’s sister-in-law, Fran Laufer, the Rivkah Laufer Bikur Cholim was born. It provided medical assistance, meals and transportation to patients and their families.
The Rivkah Laufer Bikur Cholim was the precursor of other such organizations in the United States during the post-war era. Although nowadays there are dozens of Bikur Cholims that provide patients with meals, advocacy and financial support, in those days the idea was a novel one. Mrs. Lubling, the mother of the Bikur Cholim, was the first to open a Shabbos/chesed room for patients in NYU Medical Center. Later, the idea caught on, and nearly every hospital has a chesed room, or two, dedicated to the well-being of Jewish patients.
The NYU chesed room, which has luxurious couches, a full library, and a refrigerator and pantry filled with fresh, ready-to-eat meals, is in a class of its own. Mrs. Lubling visited the chesed room daily, ensuring that it was clean, well-stocked, and comfortable. She was also very determined for there not to be a pushkah or any effort to collect funds for the Shabbos room, so as not to put the patients on the spot. On one occasion, when someone put a pushkah in the room, she asked a volunteer to remove it.
Thanks to the years she spent caring for her husband, Mrs. Lubling became familiar with the doctors in the various departments of NYU, and learned who were the best in their field. “She always went with the top doctors,” recalled one patient. “Only the best were good enough for her ‘cousins.’”
She used a combination of people skills, medical savvy, and sheer willpower to move mountains for her patients. She had the doctor’s cell phone numbers on her telephone and would never hesitate to call them, even late at night, to take care of her patients. She didn’t have an office and never used a computer. Instead, she had a notebook with sticky notes listing everyone’s name and phone numbers.
“Mrs. Lubling was always busy dealing with one phone call after another, with no time to breathe,” said a woman who often helped her. “She went from conversation to conversation without missing a beat.
“Just a few weeks ago, someone called to ask for an appointment with a top pediatric gastroenterologist, whose waiting list was one full year. Mrs. Lubling said, “Call me back in five minutes,” and immediately called the doctor on her phone, making the appointment. Five minutes later, when the worried mother called back, it had all been arranged. Within the next hour, she made another four appointments and received more than fifteen phone calls.”
In addition to her advocacy on behalf of her patients, and the coveted appointments she procured, Mrs. Lubling was concerned about the little things: making sure that their rooms were comfortable, that they had visitors if they so preferred, and that they were treated with dignity. She would walk into the rooms of total strangers, impeccably dressed, with a warm smile on her face, and talk to them as if she’d known them for years.
She once approached a woman in the chesed room who was not dressed appropriately and asked her to cover up with a shawl. At first the woman responded snidely, but when she heard that Mrs. Lubling was the founder of the room, she agreed to wear the shawl in her honor. When the woman put on the shawl, Mrs. Lubling cheered and made a big deal about it, telling her how beautiful she looked. Her message was always enthusiastic and positive, laced with sweetness and kindness.
She had a great sense of humor and knew just how to bring out the best in everyone. She dispensed compliments generously and would always notice if someone had a haircut or pretty accessory. “You’re gorgeous! Look at you!” she would coo to the nurse’s aides, who would hug her in gratitude. For Pesach, she would bring the doctors shemurah matzah and give them gifts as a sign of her appreciation.
She was very “people smart” and instinctively knew what to say to her patients. Sometimes, if a patient was depressed or not interested in making small talk, she would just sit there and cry along with them. Many patients attested that just sensing how she shared their burden and felt their pain gave them a new lease on life. “She was mechayeh me,” said one woman who had not said a word for two weeks. All Mrs. Lubling did was sit there and cry with her, breaking down the barriers.
Whenever her patients shared a room with a non-Jewish patient, she would stop and say hello to both patients and offer them food from the Bikur Cholim. She felt that every human being is a tzelem Elokim and deserving of care and consideration. Although she felt everyone’s pain, she was especially moved by the pain and suffering of children. She visited a young teenager from Monsey who was in NYU and, on the spur of the moment, gave her a $200 check to buy herself something beautiful to enhance her Yom Tov.
Although she put on a sunny face during her visits, when she was back in the car, Mrs. Lubling would talk to Hashem and cry bitter tears about the suffering she’d witnessed. “Ribono Shel Olam, please send them a refuah sheleimah,” she would plead. “Mir zenen nisht azoy shlect. Are we really so bad that we deserve so much sickness and pain?” Then she would tell her volunteers, “This is because we have sinas chinom. We need to have ahavas Yisroel, loving every Yid, and then all sickness will disappear.”
Mrs. Lubling visited the hospitals every single day, often going in the early afternoon and staying until late at night. Sometimes she would go home for a few minutes after her visits and then go out again to the dozens of weddings and occasions to which she was invited. How she loved to attend weddings! Simchos were her antidote. They gave her such joy and chizuk to celebrate with her patients.
When she would visit the neonatal unit and stroke the tiny babies, she would tell their parents, “Im yirtzeh Hashem, I’m going to be at this baby’s bar mitzvah. Please invite me.” And when the invitation finally came, there was no prouder “grandmother” than she.
In addition to her patient advocacy and referral service, Mrs. Lubling wore many hats. She served as the director of services for Holocaust victims at the Boro Park Jewish Community Council and was involved with Ohel Children’s Home and Services, advocating for children who had nowhere to go.
Despite a hectic schedule that would exhaust even a younger woman, Mrs. Lubling was a devoted mother and grandmother. She always made time for her beloved children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. She would call them frequently and tell them how much she loved them.
She continued her grueling schedule until well into her nineties, several weeks before her petirah. Even when she could no longer walk unaided, she insisted on leaving her wheelchair at the door and personally going to visit her patients, giving them the time and attention she felt they deserved.
Mrs. Lubling was a legend in her time. Her passing leaves a painful void that cannot easily be filled.
She is survived by her three children, Rabbi Chanoch Lubling of Flatbush and Mrs. Nechama Frankel and Mrs. Peshy Drillick of Boro Park, as well as her beloved grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren, and tens of thousands of “cousins” to whom she dedicated her life.
Yehi zichroh boruch.