With Each Breath We Take: A Medical Reminiscence

Like birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and holidays, we all have our own private assortment of dates that stay with us over the years. Public and private tragedies and triumphs fade over time to just marks on the calendar. But then the anniversary date looms once again, and it all comes back to us.

Sunday, June 26, 2011 is such a date for me. Dare I call it “a day that will live in infamy”? The date this year falls on the Sunday between my birth date on the Gregorian calendar (June 19th) and my birth date on the Hebrew calendar (27 Sivan — this year, July 3rd). That fact may be coincidental, but it does feel appropriate. After all, I had a rebirth of sorts on that date five years ago.

So Happy 5th Birthday to me? Bring on the balloons!

Five Years Ago

I was standing at JFK airport in New York seeing some groups off on their summer adventures. As a travel professional, such activity was not unusual for me. Nor is it now. Today, Sunday — June 26, 2016 — I will be at JFK seeing groups off on the next round of summer adventures.  What has happened in between these two dates still seems almost surreal. The fact that I will be able to stand in JFK as if nothing had happened, just doing my job, feels like a miracle.

Five years ago, after days of feeling slightly under the weather — mainly tired, I suffered a major medical crisis and was rushed by my Ilan to the emergency room. Carol, along with Adina, Ilan, Gilad and Dafna were at my side — spiritually and physically, frightened that their heretofore healthy father and husband was clearly quite ill. Friends and family couldn’t have been more helpful — help that was painful to accept and only wish I can somehow repay a portion of it.

The diagnosis? A major pulmonary embolism — one which came closer to killing me than I choose to ponder. A series of blood clots had first formed in my leg due to deep vein thrombosis or DVT. They had then broken free and traveled to my lungs. A further delay in medical treatment would have cost me my life. Luckily my family had refused to listen to my protestations and had gotten me to emergency care before it was too late.

As I lay in South Nassau Community Hospital on Long Island, the attending ER physician said to me, “You have a triple PE — we have to admit you.” Ignorant and naïve as I was, I thought she meant something about my going to the gym that morning. I responded, “OK, but I have a flight home in a couple of days.” Surely thinking I was some kind of lunatic, she kindly replied, “I think you’re going to have to change those plans — you beat death by a couple of hours.” At first I still did not fully fathom what she was trying to tell me.

I learned quickly to have a sense of humor about my medical “episode.” But my emotions were all over the map. I felt ancient when I was waiting in the ER with screaming babies and toddlers. That was made up a few years later during a thankfully “false alarm” episode, as I felt young and energetic (relatively) when I was admitted to a geriatric ward at Tel Hashomer.

The “long story short” version of my medical episode: I was correctly diagnosed, placed on blood thinners, stabilized, monitored, and released from the hospital after more than a week of very professional care. I was prescribed a regimen of continued blood thinners, cautious activity, and ongoing monitoring and evaluation. Ah, the evaluation! I have been to more specialists than I would wish upon anyone. Apparently, I am still the object of discussion among some medical groups. Often, I have gone to a doctor’s office and been known to the receptionist before I opened my mouth (then again, that could be an explanation for the constant fraud on my credit cards!)

Most importantly, I am alive — even flourishing, support socks in hand.

The Years Between

So what has happened in the intervening five years? Many milestones have occurred — other dates to add to my sentimental calendar. Children graduated, got jobs; new business ventures started; a renewed commitment to volunteer crisis relief has taken me to many destinations; am living an incredible life in Israel, my long dreamed of homeland — להיות עם חופשי בארצינו. Life here continues to flourish — for me, my family, and this wonderful Start-Up Nation of Israel.

Medically, I am doing well. After going to more specialists than I knew existed in the medical world and trying a wide assortment of medications and dosages, I learned that my health crisis had been caused not by extensive travel (as DVT is the bane of many a travel professional’s existence), but by a genetic disorder known as protein S deficiency.

Emotionally, spiritually — I am doing great. Yes, facing death did change me, no matter how hackneyed that claim. Or it didn’t so much change me as it enhanced many traits, interests, and qualities that I already had, from my spirit of adventure to my desire to help others in need.

Each time someone I meet appears astonished about another adventure I have undertaken, their first comment is often: “Well, you only live once.” I am quick to correct them, saying: “You only die once, and you live each and every minute until then.” I first truly realized this as I lay on that gurney at South Nassau.

I am fortunate for having so much — family, friends, community, work; but more than anything else, I am fortunate to have each and every minute of life. Each breath taken since I “beat death” by a couple of hours is precious and is also an opportunity to be able to make a difference for someone else.

More and more of my “adventures” these days are also attempts to help others. Was I raised by family and faith to feel for others’ plights and offer assistance? Most assuredly. I was raised with a heart and desire to help others, arguably at the expense of my family and self. But in the last five years, the sense of urgency has grown.

While happy to help any bona fide organization, I have often found that one can, surprisingly, be more effective by just getting up and going on your own. NGOs and quasi-governmental agencies can do wonderful work — but if the red tape could be replaced with white or yellow ribbons, the world would be an even better place.

For individuals with a sense of adventure and a desire to help others, the good news/bad news is that another opportunity is always around the corner. In a world filled with hate, crime, and natural disasters, we all have a place to do what we can with our own given powers and gifts. When I read the news today, I try not to dwell on politics, as I know there’s not much I can do there (actually I know there’s NOTHING I can do there). But some national or international crisis frequently catches my eye and makes me wonder about what small impact I might be able to make. If I can act on 1/10 of 1% of those speculations and try to influence others to do the same, I feel like I have earned each new breath.

This way of thinking has drawn me to Nepal, the Philippines, New York, Sderot, and Greece in the last few years, where I have faced the aftermath of war, tsunamis, earthquakes, and floods. The people I have met in these locales stay in my thoughts. I wonder about the mother of 12 living with PTSD on Israel’s Gaza border, the grandmother climbing from a dinghy onto the shores of Lesbos, the Nepalese child who is homeless because his village was destroyed. I know that none of these souls are in these situations by choice. I also know that the choices I make — or others make — can be life-changing for us all.

So as I celebrate my “birthday” — on a New York tarmac, I am filled with gratitude. I am grateful to G-d and to my wonderful family, friends, and each client who keeps food on our table. And yes, I am grateful for second chances. They bring us — individuals and communities — opportunities to make our world a better place, one breath at a time.

About the Author
Stuart Katz was born in Panama and grew up in San Diego. He served as National Bnei Akiva Director, is highly educated (for whatever that's worth); managed an airline; made aliyah; traveled to over 80 countries; passionate about reducing mental health stigma in Israel and around the world...he's an entrepreneur and is involved in almost any volunteer project which comes his way
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