The last thing I remember before losing consciousness was optimistically thinking that a few minutes of rest would put me right
The Thursday after Purim started off uneventfully, but it was only through a conflux of clear miracles that I lived to see the end of it.
I live in Hollywood, Florida, where I serve as rosh kollel of the Hollywood Community Kollel. Due to the pandemic, I hadn’t been able to see my mother, who lives in Lakewood, for more than a year, except for one brief, socially distant visit. I received my second vaccine in the beginning of February, and when my mother got hers at the end of the month, I jumped at the chance to visit.
The trip worked out well. It was great seeing my mother, and we both appreciated the time spent together. But after three days, I had to head back.
It was 5 p.m. when I left Lakewood, and I figured I had plenty of time to return my rental car and make my JetBlue flight at 8 p.m. from Newark Airport. Traffic was light as I headed north on the Garden State Parkway, and I spent my time making phone calls for the kollel, glad I’d made the trip and thinking about when I would be able to return.
I had to fill up on gas before returning the car. I noticed the Cheesequake Rest Area ahead — a service area I’d used dozens of times during my years living in Lakewood and my frequent visits since — and I prepared to exit. But for some inexplicable reason my hands froze, and I continued straight, instead of taking the right turn into the service area. I shrugged it off to tiredness and continued onward on the Garden State Parkway.
My wife’s friend Mrs. Rivky Wakzsul from North Miami Beach, Florida, had planned to come into Lakewood with her daughter, a kallah who was looking to buy a sheitel. They would have preferred an appointment early in the week, but Mrs. Wakszul had committed to her office for those days and didn’t want to go back on her word. On Wednesday, a close friend was making a simchah, and she didn’t want to miss it, leaving Thursday as their only day to travel. There were no seats available on Spirit, their preferred airline, so they tried other airlines and managed to find two seats on JetBlue, an airline on which they had never flown. The Wakszuls didn’t want to travel Erev Shabbos, so they booked tickets leaving Thursday morning and returning that evening.
As I drove past Cheesequake, I directed my GPS to lead me to the next closest filling station and was relieved to see the exit was just ahead. I moved to the right, determined not to make the same mistake but, once again, inexplicably, I sailed past the exit.
At this point, I was a little more concerned. A quick look at the clock showed me that if I got off at the next exit, although it would be a bit tight, I was still on schedule to return the rental car and make my flight.
I drove on, my only thought to exit the highway. As I approached the designated off-ramp, I became confused. The roadway didn’t seem to match the picture on my GPS, and I hesitated until it was too late.
Now I began to worry. Flights to Florida were full and expensive, and I didn’t think there was another available flight that night. I wanted to get back for first seder the next morning and to join my family for Shabbos.
The GPS sent me to an exit further up where I finally managed to get off the highway. Unfortunately, the gas station was several miles away, and in the dark, it was difficult to drive quickly. It was going to be tight, and I davened to Hashem to help me make my flight.
I filled up on gas, finally, and managed to get back on the highway, albeit far north of Newark Airport. But I successfully exited, followed the signs, and turned my car south in the direction of the airport.
After successfully completing their purchase, the Wakzsuls left Lakewood with time to spare for their return flight. Then Mrs. Wakzsul remembered that she hadn’t seen her son-in-law. She quickly turned her car around and parked opposite the beis midrash where he was learning. After a quick conversation, they were once again on the road, making their way quickly to the airport.
I approached the rental-car return, but was unsure of the exact turnoff. The GPS wasn’t helpful, and I circled twice before bringing my car in on the third pass. I arrived at 7:10, just one minute after the Wakzsuls pulled in. Now, I was desperately late and in real danger of missing my flight. I quickly gathered my belongings and raced as fast as I could to the AirTrain leading to the terminals.
As I hurried along, Tehillim on my lips, I began feeling short of breath. I wasn’t terribly concerned because I wasn’t in the best shape — my wife had been after me for months to take better care of my health, get evaluated by my doctor, and lose weight — and I wasn’t quite up to running through airports. I was forced to stop several times to catch my breath, which only increased my anxiety.
Mrs. Wakzsul saw me and noticed my breathing. She called out to ask if I was okay. Lost in my own thoughts, I neither heard nor noticed her.
Upon exiting the shuttle, I quickly made my way to the ticket counter. Despite my checking in close to departure time, the agent accepted my luggage. Incredibly, there was little wait. I hurriedly took my boarding pass and proceeded as quickly as I could to security, where the Wakzsuls, who hadn’t traveled with luggage, were well ahead of me in line.
On their way to the gate, the Wakszuls stopped to buy a drink. The line there was long, so I reached the gate before they did, even though I had been behind them at security. Sweating profusely and breathing heavily, I was relieved to see the flight had not yet begun to board. I found the nearest unoccupied seat and gratefully sank into it.
Suddenly, my head began to spin. The last thing I remember before losing consciousness was optimistically thinking that a few minutes of rest would put me right.
At this point the Wakzsuls reached the gate and tried to find seats in the crowded terminal. As they walked by, Mrs. Wakzsul noticed me slumped in my seat, and remarked to her daughter that something about me seemed odd.
They settled into seats two rows behind me, but a nagging voice in her head kept telling Mrs. Wakzsul to do something. She approached a fellow and asked him to poke me to see if I was sleeping or in need of help. The man prodded me, but I didn’t respond. He lifted my hand, and it came down lifelessly on my lap.
Mrs. Wakzsul’s scream sounded throughout the terminal. Several men laid me down on the floor and one of them began CPR, while the Jewish passengers gathered round and said Tehillim.
Hatzalah Statewide received a frantic call. Hatzalah Statewide was founded by Dr. Nosson Zemel, a visionary from a longtime Newark family, to service Jews residing outside of the established New Jersey Jewish communities. Yossi Malek and his partner Yonatan Guige from Hillside, New Jersey, responded to the call. Sirens blaring, they made the trip from Hillside to the airport in record time, arriving at the scene in nine minutes. The Port Authority doesn’t permit Hatzalah to operate in Newark Airport, but the duo didn’t stop to ask permission. Barreling through security, they were fortunate that a sympathetic airport employee waved them through.
Meanwhile, the fellow doing CPR tired and was unable to continue. A slightly built woman of Indian origin relieved him, but after several minutes of getting no response, she was ready to give up. She stopped and announced that it was time to cover me up. Again, Mrs. Wakzsul screamed.
“He’s a husband and a father. Please try one more time!”
The woman reluctantly tried again, and this time, baruch Hashem, she got a response. As she grew tired from her exertions, a Jewish man, the owner of a construction company, took over.
Someone ran to the gate agent to ask for the AED (automatic defibrillator machine), but the dispassionate agent, clearly more concerned about the flight departing on time than the emergency unfolding in front of her, said she didn’t know where it was. A passenger shouted that it was hanging near the restrooms, and someone ran and retrieved it. The construction-company owner proceeded to shock me — twice. I resuscitated but quickly collapsed again. He employed the device a third time, and this time I came to.
Yossi Malek and Yonatan Guige arrived just as the city rescue unit came. They quickly placed an O2 mask over my nose and mouth and I gulped in the much-needed oxygen.
As I slowly regained my senses and lifted myself off the floor, I noticed Mrs. Wakzsul looking at me with a combination of worry and concern. I also saw three Port Authority officers and an EMT looking at me with great apprehension. I didn’t understand why I was on the floor or why they were looking at me like that.
Mrs. Wakzsul updated my wife while I was taken to Newark Beth Israel hospital where I underwent nine-hour surgery. A team of surgeons did a quadruple bypass and put together my shattered ribs. It was only later, after my recovery from the successful surgery, that I spoke with the participants involved and realized the enormity of what had happened.
The doctors told me my heart attack was imminent. It was triggered by my run to make my flight, but had I gotten on the plane in a calm manner, the drop in pressure as the plane gained altitude would also have triggered a heart attack, and I wouldn’t have gotten off. My delay in getting to the airport, the chain of events that brought the Wakzuls to the gate at the same time as me, that the agent took my matzah-filled luggage even though I arrived so late (otherwise I would have rescheduled for the following day), the fact that it happened before I got on the flight — which I would not have survived, doctors told me — and that my fellow travelers were trained in CPR, were all part of a bigger plan. My doctors told me the chance of survival after the oxygen deprivation I endured is less than five percent, and the chances of cognition not being affected far less than that, but in Hashem’s tremendous kindness, I am here to tell the story.
I am exceedingly thankful to the ordinary people who did extraordinary things: Mrs. Rivky Wakzsul who cared, got involved, and ultimately saved my life. I am forever indebted to the anonymous people who performed CPR on me and didn’t give up. I am greatly appreciative to Dr. Nosson Zemel and the chevreh at Hatzalah Statewide for their incredible kindness in taking care of me and my wife during my extended stay at the hospital.
Most of all, I have a sense of awe and gratitude to the Master of the Universe who controls all our lives, Who showed me and my family great chesed, and Who gave us a glimpse into some of the complex dynamics of His actions.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 860)
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