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Shira Pasternak Be'eri
Living and loving in Jerusalem
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Seeing the person behind the tubes

When Leonard became a 'John Doe' patient, unconscious in a hospital bed, I felt I had to make sure those charged with saving his life would know who he was
Eliezer and Shira Be'eri with doctors and nurses of the cardiac intensive care unit at Shaare Zedek Hospital (Courtesy Shaare Zedek Hospital)
Eliezer and Shira Be'eri with doctors and nurses of the cardiac intensive care unit at Shaare Zedek Hospital (Courtesy Shaare Zedek Hospital)

When Leonard arrived at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, he was admitted as “Ploni Almoni” – Hebrew for John Doe. That’s what happens when you arrive alone in an ambulance, unconscious, after suffering a cardiac arrest at a sports center, and are struggling to live after being resuscitated repeatedly, unable to talk, and with no ID.

For the first day of his hospitalization, until I could sort out the paperwork, that’s how he appeared on the labels on his hospital orders. I shivered at the thought that my husband, father of my children, a senior doctor at a Jerusalem pediatric hospital, had lost his identity and was known – even briefly – as John Doe.

Nothing prepared me, though, for seeing what that John Doe looked like in his hospital bed after two obstructions had been cleared from his heart. His skin was ashen gray, his eyes were closed, and his mouth wide open. His neck was skewed at an unnatural angle and he had an endotracheal tube down his throat. A ventilator was breathing for him and there were tubes everywhere, some leading in and some leading out. Bruised and bloated, he had been stripped of his clothes, his glasses, the kipah that usually adorns his head, the sparkle in his eye, and all the usual markers of who he is.

As I looked at him, it struck me that the medical staff tending to this balding and graying man who had arrived unconscious from the cath lab had no sense at all of who he was. Although I knew they were devoted and committed to his care, it was important to me that his doctors and nurses be able to see beyond the drugs that needed to be administered, the bloods that needed to be drawn, and the fluids that needed to be cleared, and to have a sense of the person lying in that bed.

So I went home and made a sign.

I found a beautiful picture of Leonard on the website of ALYN Hospital, where he is known as Dr. Eliezer Be’eri and is the deputy director general of the hospital and head of the respiratory rehabilitation department. In the photo, he is examining one of his patients, and the care and concern that he brings to his job is evident.

Above the photo, I wrote the following Hebrew words in very large letters:

Hello! My name is Eliezer Be’eri. This is what I look like when I am not sedated and ventilated:

Dr. Eliezer Be’eri of ALYN Hospital in Jerusalem treating a baby (Courtesy of ALYN Hospital)

Below the photo, in smaller letters, I added a brief CV, beginning with Leonard’s most important definition of self, continuing through his medical training, and culminating in his current job.

I closed with the reason why it was so vital for my husband to return to himself and ended with thanks:

I am Uriel, Moshe, and Gil’s father, Guy’s grandfather, and Shira’s loving husband.
I did a residency in pediatrics at Hadassah Mount Scopus,
I did a fellowship in pediatric cardiology at Harvard,
And today I am the director of the respiratory rehabilitation department at ALYN Hospital.
My children are waiting for me – both at the hospital and at home.
Thank you for your devoted care.

I printed out the sign and stuffed it in my bag as my sons and I hurried to the hospital to resume our bedside vigil.

“You want them to know he’s a doctor,” said my 24-year-old on the way. “You’re right,” I admitted. I did. I was in advocate mode. I wanted the doctors and nurses who were caring for my husband to know that he was one of them. I wanted them to know that this cardiac patient had himself trained as a cardiologist and that this man on a ventilator was himself an expert in ventilation. I wanted them to know that he was a high-level doctor (this was the only time I have ever name-dropped “Harvard” when referring to a fellowship at Children’s Hospital) and that he needed the finest care possible. “It’s more than that, though,” I continued. “Even if he wasn’t a doctor, I would want them to see him as a person. He could be a schoolteacher, a shopkeeper, or a bus driver — it wouldn’t matter. I think it’s important for them to have a sense of who it is that they are treating.”

When we arrived at the hospital, we taped the sign on the tray at the foot of Leonard’s bed, where the medical staff could see it.

“This is wonderful!” one of the nurses exclaimed upon first sight. “I always do the most that I can possibly do for my patients, of course I do. But having a sense of who they are is so much more motivating! This is what I have been missing!” Inspired, she began to think about further applications. “Maybe we could ask families to bring in a picture of what the patient looks like when they are not in the hospital, like you did. Or have tablets next to the beds so that families could upload a photo and a few lines about their loved ones.” The next time I saw her, the nurse told me that a photo of my sign had been circulating on WhatsApp and that the head of the cardiac ICU had said that perhaps they would incorporate this idea in the unit.

Not everyone liked my sign. “You don’t need this anymore, do you?” asked one doctor in annoyance, upon seeing the sign after my husband had woken up from four days of oblivion. It wasn’t clear if he was objecting to the presence of a no-longer-relevant sign, if he was bothered by my rather obvious bragging, or if he resented the implication that the medical staff might need such a reminder. I whisked the sign away, eventually burying it at home in a pile of hospital-related papers from a time I would rather forget.

But some four months later, as 2021 drew to a close and I reviewed what I had accomplished during the year, I remembered the sign and thought about the potential impact that it could have. Chastened by the one doctor’s unenthusiastic response, I asked my husband, who had against-all-odds recuperated enough to have such a conversation with me, whether he thought such signs could be of value in hospital settings. In response, he shared with me a quote that he teaches to medical students and bears in mind when he works with his ventilated patients, who often have severe disabilities:

In recognizing the humanity of our fellow beings, we pay ourselves the highest tribute. — Thurgood Marshall, US Supreme Court Justice 

As Leonard explained it, when confronted with a stranger who is attached to a ventilator, tubes, and IV lines, who never says “hello” or thanks you for your efforts, and who does not communicate in any way, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the patient is a human being with a rich world of emotions and values, aspirations, and loved-ones behind him. Recognizing that patient’s humanity, particularly when it’s difficult to do so, is an affirmation of your own humanity.

“When I was lying in that hospital bed,” he said, “I deserved the best possible treatment – not because of what I had done in the past and not because of what I might do in the future, but because of the simple fact that I was a human being in need of help. You wanted the staff to know that I am a doctor so that they would pay more attention to me. That’s natural; families advocate for their hospitalized loved ones in whatever way they can. But more than that, you wanted the staff to see the person beyond the tubes and the monitors, to see me as a human being, as we should see every person in need. You wanted them to see, even if just a little, the person you know and love. Your sign helped them do that. Perhaps similar signs could help others as well.”

I resolved then and there to write about my sign, so as to pay the idea forward.

It’s hard to find good in my husband’s sudden cardiac arrest. His miraculous survival, of course, has increased our appreciation of what we have and what we almost lost, and has given us perspective on what’s really important. But the experience has also brought with it a sense of loss and insecurity. It has divided our lives into “before” and “after,” especially since some of the physical damage that was done is irreparable. It has imposed dramatic changes on our lifestyle and has cast a shadow of uncertainty over the future we face. This is a difficult and disquieting time. But if the story of my sign makes it easier for caregivers to recognize the spark of humanity in their unconscious patients and to see the person behind the tubes, I will find comfort in knowing that my husband’s ordeal has helped others, and will take solace in the fact that it has repaired our world in one small way.

For when we recognize someone else’s humanity, we affirm our own.

Photo montage by Shira Pasternak Be’eri (Photo of tubes by Marcelo Leal on Unsplash; photo of Eliezer Be’eri courtesy of ALYN Hospital)
About the Author
Shira Pasternak Be'eri is a Jerusalem-based editor and translator. She is married to Leonard (aka Eliezer) and is the proud mom of three boys, two of whom are soldiers in the IDF. Born and raised in New York, she has been living in Israel since 1982. And yes, she is Velvel Pasternak's daughter.
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