| Family Tempo |

Breath of Faith

Her lungs failed. Her brain was bleeding. Yet her family clung to hope

Chani Guttman was 27, the happy mother of three young children. Life was good. She enjoyed her part-time job, the kids were cute, and life seemed to be unspooling along a pleasant, familiar path.

One Shabbos, the young family joined Chani’s parents for a seudah, as they often did. Oddly, Chani found the climb to their third-floor apartment — which she’d done countless times — very challenging. She could hardly catch her breath; soon, she was wracked with coughs. The strange phenomenon repeated itself over the next few months: Every time the Guttmans joined Chani’s parents for Shabbos, Chani had a hard time with the stairs.

Soon, Chani began noticing this shortness of breath anytime she had to exert herself. Realizing that something must be wrong, she began the trek from doctor to doctor. Her general practitioner couldn’t find anything, so she went to a pulmonologist and asked that he check her for asthma.

“You’re just anxious,” the doctor told her. “There’s nothing wrong with you.”

But as the months passed, Chani’s condition worsened. “Everything is fine,’’ the doctors told her. “It’s all in your head; you’re developing anxiety. Don’t worry.”

Chani wasn’t reassured. “I felt unwell. I couldn’t breathe. Those were facts. How could it be that nothing was wrong? I knew it wasn’t psychological. There was no reason I should be developing such anxieties.”

By now, Chani’s cough had worsened, and she had frequent coughing fits even when she wasn’t engaged in strenuous activity. Her GP sent her to the emergency room, but there, too, all tests were negative.

“Go home,” they told her. “You’re completely healthy.”

“I started to believe that I was really imagining things and there was nothing wrong with me,” Chani relates. “I forced myself to try to ‘control it,’ and act like a fully healthy person. Every day, I fought to get out of bed, to clean, cook, and care for my children. The doctors said if I worked and carried on with my regular schedule, my condition would improve. But it didn’t. It only became more difficult.”

Then one day the phone rang. It was the radiology department from the hospital. “We went over your CT scan,” they told her. “It would be a good idea for you to come back.” Frightening words, but Chani felt a strange sense of relief. Was someone finally about to get to the root of her malaise?

 

When Chani got to the hospital, the head of the department examined her. “This is strange.” She frowned. “We don’t usually see such young women with such low saturation.” She sent Chani for another lung CT, which revealed a strange deterioration in the condition of her lungs.

“The doctors couldn’t put their finger on anything specific, and they eventually sent me home,” Chani says. Chani followed up with an appointment with a top pulmonologist, only to receive the same “diagnosis” she’d gotten earlier: You need psychotherapy. You have no visible medical problem.

“I felt terrible,” Chani recalls. “I couldn’t breathe. When I tried to eat, I threw up from the exertion. I couldn’t stand. I lost 44 pounds. I stopped working and lay in bed all day. I so badly wanted them to diagnose my problem and validate my misery, but instead, I kept getting the same condescending answer. ‘If you try to overcome it,’ they all said, ‘you’ll see serious improvement.’ I couldn’t get out of bed or get enough air in my lungs for the simplest of tasks — and they were suggesting I go for a walk?”

“One day, I went to the hospital for follow-up — a simple follow-up, like I’d done many times, grabbing just my wallet and cell phone before I left. The doctor who reviewed my lung X-ray said, ‘I see a hole in your lung, but it’s unrelated to your condition.’

“The treatment for that is pretty simple — they attach a drainage tube to the lung, and the patient stays in the hospital for a week. But I was shocked. I needed to hurry home to pick up my kids from preschool — and they were telling me I couldn’t go home for a week?”

Punctured lungs are relatively common. They can happen to anyone, and the treatment is simple. The doctors reassured Chani that it usually works.

It didn’t.

On Monday, Chani was hooked up to a drainage tube. By Tuesday, she was in significant pain and very weak. By Wednesday, she could barely speak. The doctors, at a loss, removed the drainage tube and realized the site had become infected.

They conferred at her bedside and decided to sedate her. This would allow her body to rest and the antibiotics to fight the infection. But as they reached that conclusion, all of the monitors began to beep. Chani’s body was shutting down.

“We were standing outside and suddenly saw our precious daughter being rushed into the ICU,” Chani’s father recalls. “We saw the staff hurrying to the ward to resuscitate her. We didn’t know what to do — we just cried and davened. And we waited. A half hour later, the department head came out and said, ‘We can’t get her to breathe. It’s as if there are two rocks in her chest instead of lungs.’ ”

The hospital staff hooked Chani up to an ECMO machine, which replaces the function of the heart and lungs. The blood leaves the body, is oxygenated in the machine, and is returned to the body. Doctors warned Chani’s husband and parents to prepare for the worst.

On Friday, two hours before Shabbos, a doctor emerged from Chani’s room and told her family that Chani had had a stroke. He pulled her scans up on his computer and showed them the hemorrhaging near Chani’s brain stem — then presented them with an unfathomable, unimaginable decision.

Chani was minutes away from certain brain death, he told them baldly. They could perform immediate emergency brain surgery — but, he admitted, there was still a 99 percent chance that she’d never wake up.

Chani’s family was beside themselves. “There is a medical askan, Reb Eli Brunner, who’s a real tzaddik,” recalls Chani’s father. “He helps the patients’ families in Sheba-Tel Hashomer Hospital. We asked him to do what a Jew does in times of trouble: ask the gedolei hador. He asked Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who told him that we must authorize the surgery.

The next challenge was to find a surgeon who would agree to perform the surgery; the chances of success were so slim that many surgeons refused to even attempt it. Rav Elimelech Firer joined the family’s efforts, and found a pediatric neurologist who agreed to operate.

“We were completely broken,” Chani’s father relates. “Chani’s husband wasn’t even in the hospital, so the doctor asked me to sign the medical consent form, but I couldn’t. What father can sign the document that would probably kill his daughter? I preferred to leave everything bi’Yedei Shamayim.”

The doctors looked at the family sympathetically, and advised them to say goodbye to Chani before she was wheeled into surgery. Then Chani’s husband arrived at the hospital — and smiled. “A smile?” Chani’s father asked. “We’re surrounded by pain and tears!”

“I don’t understand,’ their son-in-law responded gently. “All along, the doctors said that they don’t know what’s going on, and they don’t understand Chani’s medical condition. And now, all of a sudden, they know? They can tell us that the decree is irrevocable? HaKadosh Baruch Hu can do anything, and the doctors can’t know what’s going to happen.”

When Rav Chaim had given them his psak, he’d also given them a brachah — and told the family to try to get as many people as possible to accept Shabbos ten minutes early as a zechus for Chani’s survival. The family hurried to spread the word.

“The timing was Heavenly orchestrated as the operation began ten minutes before Shabbos,” her father recalls. “Later, we received ‘regards’ from thousands of people who’d left everything and hurried to accept Shabbos earlier as a zechus for our Chani’s recovery, from thousands of women who’d poured their hearts out before their candles — just as the surgery began.”

At the end of the surgery, the doctor came out, subdued. “I did my best,” he told the anxious family, “but we can’t know yet whether or not I succeeded.”

Chani spent the next week hooked up to the ECMO machine. A week later, on Shabbos afternoon, the doctors called the family again to show them the latest test results. Chani’s hemoglobin had dropped to three — a level at which there’s no life. Once again, the doctors told the family to say goodbye.

But one doctor had a different message, Chani’s father remembers. “Dr. Ben-Nun, one of the angels who was by our side during that time, told me, ‘There’s something I learned from the chareidim, and it’s called hishtadlus. I, for my part, do everything for every patient until the moment he dies, and I don’t leave them even one second before that.’ ”

Slowly, miraculously, Chani’s condition began to stabilize. One day, Chani’s father excitedly beckoned to a nurse: “Come! Come quickly! I saw Chani blink!” But instead of sharing in his excitement, the nurse hurried off.

A few moments later, the department head called Chani’s father over. “We feel for you,” he said with a sigh, “and it’s not pleasant for me to tell you this, but you need to know it: Your daughter won’t live. Don’t get your hopes up. Her brain isn’t responding.”

A few days later, one of the nurses saw Chani move an eyelid, and later, she began moving her hand, but the doctors were adamant: There was no hope. The pulmonologist ruled out the possibility of a lung transplant. “It’s a shame to waste precious lungs on a person who won’t live,” he said bluntly.

Yet despite the doctors’ despair, Chani’s family found strength in the support they were given. A friend organized a gathering for women in Yerushalayim, and 600 women and girls came. Rav Uri Zohar spoke movingly, asking everyone to take on a kabbalah for a refuah sheleimah for Chaya Chana bas Miriam Pesha, to write it on a paper, and put it into a box. Chani’s family placed the box at the head of her bed, where it remained for the duration of her hospitalization.

Chani’s plight galvanized a nation to action. She needed a tremendous amount of blood, and the hospital staff suggested that family members come donate blood — the hospital was short on her blood type. That day, Rabbi Chaim Walder came to the hospital to give the family chizuk. Chani’s father spoke to him, mentioning the blood shortage.

That was Sunday. On Monday night, Rabbi Walder shared Chani’s story on his radio program and asked his listeners to donate blood for her. By Tuesday morning, blood donation sites were mobbed and people were sending the family photos of the long lines of people waiting to give Chani their blood.

Magen David Adom increased their manpower at the blood donation sites around the country. By Thursday, over 1,000 people had donated blood for Chani, registering their donation to her ID number. At that point, the hospital sent word to stop the donations — they had more than enough.

“I went to Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s house almost every day,” Chani’s father recalls. “He would tell me, each time, that Chani would be healthy. ‘There’s no chance,’ I’d cry to him. ‘The doctors don’t believe that she’ll live.’ ‘The doctors?’ Rav Chaim would say. ‘They don’t know anything.’ ”

Every day, it seemed, another doctor would throw up his hands in despair and tell Chani’s family that this was it, it was the end. And every day, Chani’s family and friends — a circle that had grown to encompass thousands of strangers davening for the young mother — whispered Tehillim, took on new kabbalos, learned in her zechus.

“Tefillos work beyond nature,” Chani’s father says firmly. “They’re strong. They have incredible power. We have no other explanation for the miracle that happened.”

The physicians didn’t share the family’s faith. Even when Chani was transferred to the rehabilitation ward, the head of the department was certain she didn’t stand a chance. “Did you ever see a plane take off directly from the gate?” he asked Chani’s mother. “That’s the likelihood that I can save your daughter. She has to be transferred to the pulmonary critical care unit and she needs to stay there until the end.”

“My wife was broken,” Chani’s father recalls. “But I told her, ‘Hashem sends us the right shlichim. If this doctor isn’t the shaliach, we’ll transfer her to a different place.’ ”

Providentially, the doom-bearing department head soon went abroad. Two junior physicians filled in for him. “One of them really connected with us,” says Chani’s father. “He treated Chani with unparalleled devotion. During that time, Chani woke up and her condition gradually improved.

“When the department head returned, he went into her room and, a short while later, emerged all excited. The next day, he went in to her again and told her, ‘You really have to thank Hashem. We can’t understand how this happened, but your lungs have begun to function.’ ”

Just 99 incredible hours after Chani began attempting to breathe on her own without a respirator, she was completely weaned off it. But there was still a long road ahead: After a month in respiratory rehabilitation, Chani was transferred to neurological rehabilitation.

“Those were difficult days, but there were sparks of light hidden in them,” Chani’s father recalls. “People connected to our story and stormed the heavens for her recovery. Hundreds of thousands of Sifrei Tehillim were recited on Chani’s behalf. Even the doctors admitted that it wasn’t their efforts. There was something above nature that happened through the power of tefillah.

“Rav Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rav of the Kosel and mekomos kedoshim, called me when the situation looked hopeless and suggested that I come once a week to daven in the shul in the Kosel Tunnels, opposite the Kodesh Hakodoshim. I went every Motzaei Shabbos to the minyan chatzos at that holy site — every week, until the amazing week when Chani joined us — to give thanks for the past and daven for the future.

“Chani is no longer just our daughter — she’s the daughter of all of Klal Yisrael. She survived, thanks to the wonderful people who make up our nation, thanks to their sacrifices and good deeds.”

“Last Succos,” Chani recounts, “I met a woman from Belgium. She approached me and asked, ‘Is it you? Are you Chaya Chana bas Miriam Pesha?’ I felt uncomfortable, but nodded.

“ ‘You have no idea how much we davened for you,’ she said. ‘Every Leil Shabbos, groups of women would get together and say Tehillim for your recovery.’ Another woman, from Brazil, told me about the hundreds of perakim of Tehillim said on my behalf in that distant country. I have no relatives in Belgium or Brazil, nor in many other countries from where I received regards. I have no idea how all these people heard about me. What I do understand, though, is just how great was the miracle I experienced. It took very strong tefillos to pull me out.

“Baruch Hashem, I’m at home, healthy, and functioning,” Chani shares. “But I still need tefillos. I’m not completely back to myself, and my lungs don’t yet function as they should. I thank Hashem every day for keeping me alive, and I ask you to keep supporting me, by davening for Chaya Chana bas Miriam Pesha.

“I feel like it’s my mission to tell people that no matter what, you can’t despair of Heavenly mercy. Even under the most hopeless and extreme circumstances, tefillah does wonders.”

“We lived in the hospital for four months,” Chani’s father recalls. “During that time, I never left the door of the ICU. Every time the door opened, we were certain the doctors were coming out to us, throwing up their hands and crying with us. And each time anew, we pulled ourselves together and chose life.

“We chose life and we received renewed emunah in the power of tefillah as a gift, because the nissim we saw showed us crystal clear how tefillos work.

“When you see a person at death’s door, and a few months later she’s walking, almost like any other person, what is it if not an illustration of the power of tefillah? What is it if not the result of the tears shed and words coming from the heart? It’s all the incredible result of tefillah.”

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 710)

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