“I thought the chances of it being a tumor were almost zero,” I managed to squeak
As told to Yael Schuster
Sunita looked me straight in the eye. “I think you should see a doctor,” she said.
I trusted my manicurist implicitly with all things nails, but with my medical care… not so much. So when she stopped mid-massage to ask me if I was aware of “something there” between my right index finger and thumb and suggested I check it out, I poked the area a bit, felt nothing, and got on with my life.
Back with Sunita five weeks later, I suddenly remembered her odd comment. “It got better, right?” I asked, mainly to make conversation.
Her eyes once again locked onto mine. “Bigger,” she said.
I must’ve heard wrong. “Did you say better, or bigger?”
“Bigger,” she replied. “You really should see a doctor.”
If I felt a bit silly in the orthopedic hand specialist’s waiting room the next day, I felt like a perfect fool when I told her I was there on the advice of my manicurist. Not only does she think I’m a hypochondriac, she thinks I’m a hypochondriac snob, who finds her action in life at the salon, I remember thinking.
Her expression and tone oozed dismissiveness. “A tumor in the hand is exceedingly rare, and your chance of having one is practically nil. Your hand feels completely normal to me, but if you’d like, you can go for an X-ray down the hall,” she said.
That came back normal, and I was halfway out the door when she handed me a prescription for an MRI “just in case you want to allay any lingering fears.”
When I showed up at the radiology facility a few days later, I was told that the doctor had requested a specialized MRI with a high-powered lens and contrast dye, which could only be done in the hospital. Considering the circumstances, this seemed overkill to the extreme, especially because she seemed to be humoring me even with the regular X-ray. But I’m the kind of person who finishes whatever I start, and I’d see this through as well.
Two days after the high-tech MRI done only on the suspicion of a Nepalese manicurist, the doctor called. “Reena, there is something worrisome on the scan. I already contacted a colleague, an orthopedic surgical oncologist, and his office will call you shortly to set up an appointment.”
I couldn’t absorb what she was saying. “I thought the chances of it being a tumor were almost zero,” I managed to squeak.
“I guess you’re part of that tiny percentage,” she offered lamely.
The oncologist’s office called and set up an appointment for the next day. But there was something I had to take care of immediately beforehand.
A few months earlier, my daughters and I had taken a Friday night stroll and came upon an elderly man lying on the ground, bleeding from his head. As I helped him up, I instructed my daughters to knock on the nearest door and call Hatzalah. When my children were young, I made up a song with Hatzalah’s number and drilled it into them; that night it was put it to good use. After Shabbos, a woman who heard of the night’s events called to learn the song — her daughter was a preschool teacher and could perhaps teach it to her students. That got me thinking: every Jewish preschooler in town should know this song. A singer I’m not, but once I realized this could potentially save lives, I felt morally obligated to take my show on the road.
That’s how I found myself at the local Montessori preschool just two hours before the most terrifying appointment of my life, all smiles, teaching my signature tune to a room full of kids. Good thing, too, because otherwise my mind would have been trapped in a horror film starring myself.
On my way out, the preschool director stopped me in the hallway and asked, “Is everything okay, mammele?”
To my dismay, hot tears coursed down my cheeks. I was mortified in front of the preschoolers as they ogled with confusion the smiley, singing lady who was now crying like a preschooler herself.
And then my husband Dovid and I made our way to the oncology department, hidden in the innermost bowels of the hospital. We went through an endless series of doors that seemed to open only one way, as if to say, “We’ve got you, there’s no turning back.” I was a scared child, senses heightened, and saw the words “cancer” and “oncology” everywhere I looked: over doors, labeled on the backs of wheelchairs, in bold letters atop clipboards.
As I sat on the exam table with my feet dangling, the doctor got right to the point.
“You have a tumor in your hand, and it needs to come out,” he said, pointing to the shockingly large mass visible on the MRI scan. “We’ll have to open you up, remove a small piece of the tumor, and run a quick pathology while you’re still under to see if it’s cancerous. If it’s benign, we’ll take out the rest. If it’s malignant, we’ll sew you back up, you’ll have chemotherapy and radiation, and then hopefully we can take out whatever is left.
“The tumor is wrapped around a critical tendon deep in your hand and has tentacles that reach into multiple other structures — so if it’s malignant, removing the tumor with clean margins may mean losing your index finger and thumb. Even if we manage to save your fingers, there’s a strong chance your function will be severely impaired after such delicate surgery.”
Despite the tumor’s size, it was very flat, which explains why it was almost impossible to feel by hand.
Strange as it sounds, my first thought was that it would have been nice to receive this devastating news with my feet firmly planted on the ground, maybe even while sitting in a proper chair. But sensitivity wasn’t his strong point; he seemed to view himself as the superhero swooping in to save another helpless victim. And if I lost a few fingers in the process, his tone said, so be it.
Right on cue, a door in the wall slid open and a secretary strode in, handed me a clipboard, and said, “Sign here for surgery, we have a spot open in six days.”
As I took the pen with my dominant right hand, I felt like I was signing away my fingers. Who knows how much longer I’ll be able to sign my name, I thought.
My brother-in-law is a rabbi in Boston, a city teeming with top doctors. When he heard that I might lose my fingers, he immediately reached out to one of his congregants, a top orthopedic hand surgeon, for advice. This busy surgeon apparently had strong feelings on the matter because he took the time to call a total stranger.
“You absolutely cannot have this surgery done locally — the risk to your hand is too great,” he said. “You must see Dr. Werner, and only Dr. Werner. He is an upper extremity orthopedic microsurgeon who specializes in hand tumors, and he’s in New York. This guy is world-famous for limb preservation. If your fingers do need to come off to access the tumor, he’s developed a way to temporarily attach them to the thigh to keep them ‘alive,’ and once the tumor is removed, he reattaches the fingers to the hand. My partner is a friend of his, and I’ll make the connection.”
I was uninterested in the extra upheaval of surgery in another city, but after a few days of strenuous coaxing, my brother-in-law and his congregant managed to talk reason into me and I canceled the surgery with the local doctor. Now I had to sit tight and hope Dr. Werner got the message: Give Reena an appointment ASAP, she’s a friend of a friend of a friend.
I was 45 at the time, a mother of seven, my youngest four years old. I needed myself in full gear. I pictured myself fingerless on the deck of my ship as it slowly sank, powerless to do anything about it. This is how my tefillos went: Hashem, You cannot remove me from the game; too many people depend on me. If You need me on the sidelines for a while, I’m okay with that. But sidelined with missing fingers isn’t an option. Okay?
If I’d had the ability to emotionally detach and observe myself, I’d have been fascinated to see myself morph into a different person. I’m type capital A; I run a super-tight ship. I’m laser-focused and always on. Other people might pay for their coffee at the drive-through and realize blocks later that they left it on the counter, or leave their wallets in stores, but when these things actually happened to me, I found the loss of control alarming.
Sleep became the stuff of dreams; I barely slept at all. I’d wake Dovid in the middle of the night and say, “How can you sleep at a time like this? You might soon be married to someone with just eight fingers, does that concern you?”
One morning my daughter came into the living room and looked at me oddly; I was holding my siddur between my fourth and fifth fingers. “Just practicing not having fingers,” I explained.
My sister called and asked how I was holding up. “At ten I cried, at eleven I ate half a supersize Twix bar, at twelve I cried again, and at one I ate the other half.”
Ouch, self-pity really didn’t suit me.
During this time, I confided to a close friend that I might lose my fingers.
“Reena, aren’t you the one who saved Mr. Wasserman’s fingers?” she suddenly asked, with the excitement of one who finds the missing puzzle piece under the couch.
Her words jolted me. Seven years prior, a friend’s father was at great risk of losing his hand due to a complex medical situation. He had already lost both feet and one hand; his last extremity was now hanging in the balance. A rabbi had come to speak to a group of women as a zechus for him, and he suggested we each find a partner and together take on an extra mitzvah. My friend Elana and I considered various options. Elana is an occupational therapist, and she made the observation that if only Mr. Wasserman’s index finger and thumb could be saved, it would make all the difference in his ability to function.
In middle of the night it came to me: What mitzvah could be more fitting than netilas yadayim?
We got right to work blowing new life into this mitzvah that is often performed without thought. We printed, laminated, and hung in our kitchens a list of things that should be done to perform the mitzvah in the ideal way. I became coach and cheerleader for the cause. Missed a spot? Do it over. Dried your hands before making the brachah? Try again. Forgot to raise your hands after washing them? You got this… I also trained myself to say the brachah out loud, even in public, which is completely not my style. Soon all this became second nature in our home, and remains my family’s trademark mitzvah until today.
About a week after we began this undertaking, Elana called me. “You’ll never believe this, they were able to save Mr. Wasserman’s thumb and index finger! The ramifications of this are huge,” she gushed.
The dots were connecting; I saw two stories begin to merge. My hand now needed tefillos, and maybe, just maybe, I’d been accruing merit for my own yeshuah these past seven years. At the same time, my terror rose a notch as Elana’s words about the vital importance of the thumb and index — the very fingers now under threat — came back to haunt me.
Right after my diagnosis I created a list of about the 50 people closest to me, in order to share updates and encourage them to daven for me. Each message was unique and addressed the person by name — it was important to me to keep it personal. Friendly sort that I am, random people got added to the list, like the woman who overheard me tell Sunita about the tumor and said she’d daven for me. It didn’t take long for me to realize that this list of people, ready to go — and the netilas yadayim program, also ready to go —would together make a beautiful couple. I made the shidduch, and soon my phone was pinging with pictures of nieces and nephews, neighborhood kids, and friends all across the country punctiliously executing my family’s special mitzvah — whose spiritual effects, we hoped, would protect my hand from harm.
After six days of waiting, Dr. Werner’s secretary was on the phone. The call came in at 4 p.m., and I was told that my appointment was for 10:00 the following morning. I lived hours away and was responsible for a houseful of kids, but it was a clear case of say nothing, just run. By 5 p.m. I was on the train to New York.
When my seatmate turned to me with a friendly “how are you,” my incredulity at the situation came pouring out.
“I’m supposed to be home now, it’s supper and homework time and I have seven kids. But I’m going to New York because I have a tumor in my hand.” It sounded bizarre to my own ears.
If the first oncologist was sandpaper, Dr. Werner was warm, velvety sand. I sat on the exam table while he examined my hand. He started to speak, then quickly stopped himself.
“Why don’t you sit down on a regular chair, you’ll be more comfortable,” he said kindly.
To this guy, I’m a person with a hand, I thought. To the other guy, I was a hand that happened to have a body attached to it.
After patiently explaining everything in layman’s terms and being certain I understood, he said, “And if you’d like, I think I can help you with this.”
No clipboard in my face, no assumptions, just a megadose of humility from a man who’d reached the pinnacle of his field.
Nothing was sugarcoated: Even if the tumor was benign, permanent pain, swelling, loss of mobility and sensation, tingling, weakness, and, by extension, function, were all real concerns. This tumor had slyly entrenched itself by setting down many deep roots — it clearly planned to call my hand home — and evicting it would likely come with collateral damage. But the doctor refused to discuss the possibility of losing fingers at this stage and said the other doctor should never have mentioned it. While their manners were polar opposite, the two doctors agreed on approach — open my hand, extract a small piece of tumor, run pathology on it, stat. If initial indications were benign, remove the rest of the tumor; if it seemed malignant, sew me back up and (if proven malignant) send me off into the universe of oncology.
The high stakes weren’t easy to digest. “We’ll pray,” I said.
“That’s always a good idea,” Dr. Werner replied.
I exhaled for the first time in two weeks. I felt hopeful and in good hands. It was striking to realize how much sway a doctor’s style has on the psychological state of his patients.
Five days later I was back on Amtrak, this time with my husband. Surgery was scheduled for 5:30 the next morning, and we were staying overnight with friends who lived near the hospital. In his kind and gracious way, Dovid insisted that I recuperate at my parents’ home in Brooklyn until my follow-up visit ten days after surgery.
Shortly before surgery Dr. Werner came over, still wearing his coat and umbrella in hand. He was so human, just another man off the street.
“This will hopefully be good, and we’ll be over the hump soon,” he said.
I was terrified — even briefly contemplated running away — and being reminded that the worst-case scenario wasn’t guaranteed helped calm me.
Before I knew it, I was in recovery, and the news was encouraging: Dr. Werner had been confident enough in what the pathology showed to remove the entire tumor, and he was cautiously optimistic about my mobility. The ten-day countdown to the final pathology diagnosis had begun.
After 20 years of being a highly kinetic, get-it-done-yesterday dynamo of a mom, I was stuffed back into my role as kid in my parents’ home. Spoonfeeding and all. The regression was at once weird and delicious. With the general of the netilas yadayim campaign now out on sick leave, my mother was called up from the reserves and encouraged everyone she knew to keep the operation at full steam. Time would soon yield important answers, and we needed all the zechusim we could get.
As day ten inched closer, my dread grew. On day nine, one day earlier than expected, I saw Dr. Werner’s number on my phone and felt my body go slack with fear.
“Hi, Reena, great news!” he said. “The tumor is benign.”
I felt limp with relief. Thank You, Hashem! For keeping my body whole. For sending me back to my post at the helm of my bustling ship. For sparing me from a devastating disease.
At my initial occupational therapy session six weeks after the surgery, the therapist was so astonished at my hand strength that she tested herself for comparison — and I outperformed her. After a three-month course of therapy, my hand function was completely normal, beyond all expectations, with no residual damage at all. In my mind, my remarkable, almost miraculous recovery is inextricably linked to the efforts of so many to improve their performance of the mitzvah of netilas yadayim.
We recently had four light fixtures installed outside our house. The electrician apparently bumbled the wires because each switch turned on the wrong fixture. This is what could happen with a poor hand surgeon, I thought. Try to move your index and your middle finger moves instead.
Hashem’s timing is exquisite. My very last therapy session was just days before the coronavirus lockdown. My good-as-new hand was ready to take on demanding tasks both familiar and unimagined: more cooking, cleaning, and laundry than I’d ever done before, plus fixing a washing machine, connecting electrical wiring, fixing my son’s bike, and other repair-person tasks that shall remain nameless.
Why G-d chose Sunita from the Himalayas I’ll never know, but what I know for sure is that He sent this woman with uncanny tactile sensation across the world and into a nail salon to save my hand. If not for her, the tumor would have been identified at a stage where significant damage was inevitable.
I also know that the first doctor’s arrogance and lack of tact — his talk of losing fingers, to be precise — brought about the best possible outcome. If not for the terror he instilled in me, he’d have likely done the surgery, and there is almost no chance the result would have come close to that of the top hand microsurgeon in the country.
Best of all, numerous people are now performing the mitzvah of netilas yadayim in an elevated way. Just recently, over a year after the surgery, my daughter’s teacher told me that her family’s efforts are still going strong. My own right hand has been the source for the ennoblement of a mitzvah via the hands of so many, and for that I consider myself singularly blessed.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 851)
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