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With Every Breath

Eliezer Shulman

Professor Eliyahu Sorkin witnessed his own Chanukah miracle last week while treating Rav Aharon Leib Steinman in Maayanei Hayeshuah’s ICU

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

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FROM STRENGTH TO STRENGTH Although the medical staff felt his chances of recovery would be better at home, it was a sendoff of honor. “We might have been the ones administering the medical care,” says Professor Sorkin, “but we all felt we received even more than we gave. Before the Rav left, we all stood around him as he gave each of us a blessing — it was he who gave us strength.” (Photos: Mishpacha Archives)

P rofessor Eliyahu (Patrick) Sorkin, head of the intensive care unit at Maayanei Hayeshuah medical center in Bnei Brak, didn’t think he heard correctly as he began the intake procedure for Rav Aharon Leib Steinman shlita, who was rushed to the ICU the first day of Chanukah with breathing difficulties caused by severe flu and developing pneumonia.

“First question: Which medications does the Rav take — heart medication, blood pressure medication, things like that?” Professon Sorkin asked the venerated 103-year-old sage.

“Well, once in a while I take Tylenol,” Rav Steinman answered in a raspy whisper.

“Okay, and what else? Which blood pressure medications? Anything for the heart?” the professor pressed.

“Nothing,” Rav Steinman insisted.

Professor Sorkin turned to his colleague, Professor Avraham Weinberger — head of the department of medicine and the hospital’s rheumatology clinic, and Rav Steinman’s personal physician — for confirmation.

“It’s true,” Professor Weinberger averred. Later, he shared how he advised Rav Steinman not to fast last Yom Kippur because of his weakened state, but the Rosh Yeshivah wouldn’t even hear of that option. “How do you know,” Rav Steinman asked his loyal physician, “that I’m not allowed to fast? How many people my age have you ever treated?” Dr. Weinberger admitted that the number was zero. “In that case,” the Rosh Yeshivah told his dedicated doctor, “you may merely suggest it, but you can’t forbid me from fasting.” In the end, Rav Steinman did indeed fast, as he’d done for the last 90 years straight.

Every Day a Gift

While tefillos were being invoked for Aharon Yehudah Leib ben Gittel Faiga, all eyes were focused on Maayanei Hayeshuah, where a battle for Rav Steinman’s continued health — and his very life — was being waged.

“People probably assume that, given the spirit of the world medical establishment today where ‘quality of life’ has become the password to treatment protocols, Rav Steinman’s prominent position prompted us to put in a lot of extra effort for such an elderly person, but that’s not true — for this hospital at least,” says Professor Sorkin, a world-class professor of emergency medicine and Chabad chassid originally from France who previously served as head of ICU at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. “I’ve worked in many places, but here age is irrelevant. Our staff believes in fighting for life at every age and stage.”

He remembers how 13 years ago Rav Steinman, who was then 90, was hospitalized after a bout of weakness. He was a prominent rosh yeshivah, but it was before he became redefined as a leader of the Torah world and before he embarked, at the age of 95, on his famous journeys to personally share inspiration with communities around the world.

“When the sanctity of life is your highest value, it doesn’t matter how old a person is. When Rav Steinman was 90, we gave him our all. And look what he accomplished in the ensuing 13 years — the strength and inspiration he contributed to the chareidi world in the last decade is immeasurable. So how do we have the right to rate the value of any day of life?”

In order to keep the pneumonia at bay, Professor Sorkin and his team had to find a suitable dosage of antibiotic — strong enough to knock out the invading bacteria, but gentle enough not to damage the Rosh Yeshivah’s frail and extremely thin body. It’s known that Rav Steinman is underweight and barely eats at all, and so they settled on a children’s dosage of antibiotic in order not to overwhelm his system.

Yet during the week of Chanukah, Rav Steinman’s health began to nosedive; the doctors had expected to see a reversal of the respiratory infection, but that wasn’t happening. And the rest of his systems were weakening as well, complicated by the fact that he wasn’t eating even his usual daily ration of one bowl of cooked cereal a day. While the staff was prodding him on to take one more spoonful, Professor Sorkin entered the room. “Professor Sorkin,” whispered the Rosh Yeshivah, “maybe you want some farina?” “No, thank you,” the doctor declined gracefully. A few minutes later the Rav asked the doctor again, and again the doctor refused. “Kevod haRav, you already asked me,” he said. A small smile played on Rav Steinman’s parched lips. “Well, now you understand what I’ve been dealing with — just like you keep telling me you don’t want it, I keep telling them I’m not interested.”

Still, Professors Sorkin and Weinberger were desperate to stabilize the Rosh Yeshivah, and in the end the remedy came in the form every Yiddishe mamme can testify to: more food. He was given a boost of nutrition through an IV, which strengthened his body and helped stabilize his systems.

The medical team was quite surprised that this simple procedure could produce such a turnaround, but as they were soon to learn, nothing was “regular” when dealing with the health of the centenarian gadol hador. Toward the end of that critical week, when the Rosh Yeshivah was having severe breathing difficulties and news of impending catastrophe was sending prickles of alarm throughout Bnei Brak and the entire Jewish world, the medical staff was preparing for more drastic measures — artificial respiration or a tracheotomy — which would mean prepping the area around the neck.

While a battalion of relatives, talmidim and admirers stormed the heavens on Rav Steinman’s behalf, Professor Sorkin kept his own eagle eye on the gadol hador, monitoring every nuance that can’t be measured by a machine

Suddenly Rav Steinman’s grandson Reb David Shapira and his long-time chavrusa Rav Moshe Yehudah Schneider — both of whom were on vigil and standing outside the room — heard the Rosh Yeshivah scream “Gevalt!”

They ran inside, and the Rosh Yeshivah who could barely breathe, let alone talk, managed to whisper to them, “They want to take a blade to my beard!” (Rav Steinman not only doesn’t trim his beard, but it’s been many years since he’s even touched it, which is why it’s in stiff tufts that sometimes break off).

In the end the medical team held back from any invasive breathing procedures, which Professor Sorkin says is nothing short of a miracle. “The fact that the Rav’s oxygen levels were so low that he could barely breathe, and yet came back to himself on his own without drastic intervention is simply a neis. There’s no explanation for it, except for the explanation that ‘this is Rav Steinman.’ ”

That wasn’t the only time the Rosh Yeshivah intervened when it came to matters of halachah, despite his severely weakened state. On the Friday night of Chanukah, not only was his breathing becoming progressively labored, but his lips were exceedingly dry, which set off alarm bells for his attending family and the staff. But when a male nurse approached with a damp cloth to wet his mouth, the walls practically shook with the Rav’s feeble roar — “Sochet!” Even in his touch-and-go state, Rav Steinman wouldn’t permit a possibility of transgressing the Shabbos melachah of wringing out.

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