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Lifelines: With Every Stitch

C. Saphir

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” I was just three years old when my Bubby’s friend asked me the question. “A doctor,” I promptly replied. “You mean a nurse,” Bubby corrected me.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


Photo: Shutterstock

"What do you want to be when you grow up?” 

I was just three years old when my Bubby’s friend asked me the question. “A doctor,” I promptly replied. 

“You mean a nurse,” Bubby corrected me. 

“No,” I said. “I mean a doctor.” 

This was in the 1960s, when female doctors were a rarity, and a frum female doctor was almost unheard of. 

Nobody besides me ever imagined I’d be a doctor. I was a girl, I came from a chassidic family, and I hated school. I had a very hard time reading and was probably dyslexic, but in those days, kids like me were just considered stupid. I had to work extremely hard just to do okay in elementary school, and being a Type-A personality, I had a very hard time accepting just okay. It wasn’t until the end of high school that I actually taught myself how to learn. 

But creativity and working with my hands came very easily to me. My Bubby and all her sisters were milliners and seamstresses, and at the tender age of three, I began learning from Bubby how to sew clothes for my dolls. Later, she taught me needlepoint, crocheting, and flower beading. On top of that, my father, a general contractor, taught me how to fix things around the house and use power tools. From a young age, I learned to paint rooms, build furniture, fix electronics — you name it. Show it to me once and it was mine forever. 

At the age of 12, I joined a group from East Flatbush and Crown Heights who went on Shabbos afternoons to the Chronic Disease Hospital, which was part of the Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center. Many of the patients were difficult and demanding, having suffered severe strokes or been afflicted with dementia or blindness. Some would scream for someone to be with them. But one resident, Rosie, was different. She was an amazing woman, a quadriplegic who would paint with her teeth, and she instructed us how to take care of the other patients in the ward. She taught us all a great deal about how to meet the needs of others, no matter how gut-wrenching or unattractive the task that had to be done. I found tremendous satisfaction in making these patients smile or even laugh.

Photo: Shutterstock

During the summers I was the arts and craft counselor in camp, and I was always busy with music and my guitar. I wanted to play the drums, but my father — a Holocaust survivor, self-made man, and sixth-generation Lubavitcher chassid — said, “Sharon, girls don’t play the drums.” When I responded by naming a popular non-Jewish female singer who drummed, he was not impressed. “No daughter of mine is playing the drums,” he declared. 

I think my parents assumed that I would pursue a vocation in some type of craftwork or follow in the footsteps of my older sister, who was a fashion designer. They were somewhat stunned when I asked them if I could go to college. When I saw my father’s hesitation, I exclaimed, “Daddy, the Rebbe went to college!” I had learned a thing or two since my drum days, and this time, I got a yes. I promptly enrolled in the physician’s assistant training program at Long Island University. 

My parents were even more shocked when, after my first semester in college, I received the Dean’s Scholarship Award for academic excellence. 

As I was nearing the end of the PA program, I did a rotation in surgery. With my arms deep inside my first-ever surgical patient, I felt her aorta beating against my hand. Seeing gadlus Hashem so up close and personal struck me to the core, and I knew I had found my home in the operating room.

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