When illness overturned Chani Brand’s world, her faith was her anchor
IT was an ordinary Friday in Bnei Brak, and Chani Brand had just finished putting up the cholent when she noticed a rash on her arms. She wasn’t concerned — the rash wasn’t hurting her — but, remembering a tip that her mother, a nurse, had told her, she pressed on the rash to see if it blanched or faded with pressure. It didn’t. Chani knew that could be a worrisome sign and decided to see a doctor to check it out. But when she got to the clinic, it was packed, and she made an about-face. “I figured — how serious could a painless rash be?” she remembers ruefully.
Her mother, a nurse, advised her to mark the spots with a pen so she could see if they were spreading. As Shabbos progressed, it became clear the rash was spreading aggressively. Still, Chani remained unperturbed, and didn’t get to the doctor until Monday, who prescribed a few blood tests.
That Monday afternoon, Chani went shopping, leaving her baby, Shimmy, at her parents’ house. When she returned in the evening to pick him up, arms laden with packages, her husband was already there waiting for her. Gently, he told her that the test results had come in, and the doctor’s orders were to go to the emergency room ASAP.
“It sounded like a joke,” Chani remembers. “Why would I go to the emergency room?” But her mother, the nurse, was concerned. “We’re going this minute!” she told Chani.
Dazed, she followed her mother and husband to the car. “I didn’t even bring a bag with basic necessities,” she says. “It was obvious to me that the whole thing would be over in an hour or two. I didn’t bother telling my father how to prepare Shimmy’s formula, because by morning I’d definitely be back.”
A Journey Begins
In the emergency room the situation became ominously clearer. Chani was informed that her platelet count was down to 6,000. To put that in context, a normal count can range anywhere from 150,000 to 450,000. “Until then, I hadn’t realized that I was in mortal danger,” Chani says. “No one bothered to explain anything to me. Here I was, 23 years old, with everyone around me trying frantically to save my life while I didn’t feel a thing.”
The doctor put Chani on a course of steroids as a first-line treatment and then told her she would be admitted to the internal medicine ward. She was caught off guard.
Internal medicine ward? I’m going home soon. Shimmy is waiting for me to prepare his formula, she remembers thinking.
An orderly arrived with a wheelchair. Confused, she looked around for the old or handicapped woman he must have come for. Then she realized he was there for her.
He wheeled her into a crowded room, full of patients that were decades older than she. “I barely slept two hours that night,” Chani recounts. “At four a.m. I approached the nurse and asked if she needed help with anything. She was very polite, though she was fighting back laughter.”
In the morning Chani was sent to the hematology ward, where she finally got a diagnosis. A hematologist explained that she was suffering from thrombocytopenia, a condition in which the body fails to produce an adequate number of platelets. The doctors were at a loss as to what had caused it.
Separated from her baby, Chani longed to go home. “Every morning I waited to hear that I would be released. I missed Shimmy desperately, even though he was brought to visit me every day. He was the darling of the ward, driving his riding toy and having fun.”
But the doctors told her that she could only be released once her platelet count reached 50,000. After four days in the hospital, Chani wanted to go home for Shabbos so badly, but it wasn’t meant to be.
“I remember that Thursday so vividly,” she says. “I couldn’t believe that I was going to have to spend Shabbos in the ward, but then the results came… My life was still in danger. I lit Shabbos candles with a pounding heart and flowing tears.”
Slowly, Chani’s counts went up, and the doctors were cautiously optimistic that she’d be released on Sunday. Delighted, she sent her husband to buy chocolate for the devoted staff. She was more than ready to go home and put this episode behind her.
She left the hospital on Sunday, but her new routine now included a weekly blood test to monitor her platelet counts. “I left the hospital feeling simultaneously free and a prisoner,” she says. “I lived in the shadow of ever-present fear. No one knew whether my body would continue producing platelets.”
Despite the endless tests Chani took, the doctors couldn’t determine the cause of her thrombocytopenia. They concluded that she was suffering from ITP (Immune Thrombocytopenia), an autoimmune disease characterized by an isolated low platelet count in the absence of other contributing factors.
Chani was assured that a count of 50,000 platelets, while low, wasn’t life-threatening. But after only a few weeks’ reprieve, her numbers plunged again to 20,000. This time, Chani knew that she had to admit herself to the ER. It was Thursday, and more experienced this time, she came with whatever she needed for Shabbos in the hospital. When she arrived at the ER, the doctors informed her that her platelet levels had fallen even further. Her morale plunged accordingly.
Chani had a close cousin who was getting married the next week, and she asked the kallah to daven that she be able to come to the wedding. The kallah said Tehillim for her all night long. By the very next day, her counts had surged.
“We don’t always see our tefillos fulfilled immediately,” Chani qualifies, “but here I experienced amazing Hashgachah. The change was so drastic that the doctor was afraid there was some mistake and wanted to redo the test.
“This was a clear illustration of the saying, ‘A mentsch tracht und Gott lacht, man plans and G-d laughs,’ Chani says. “When I was rushed from a shopping trip to the ER and didn’t dream of a prolonged stay, I was hospitalized for a week. And this time, when I came with a suitcase packed for Shabbos, I was released early, against all odds.”
The doctors put Chani on an intensive steroid regimen, and while she suffered a wide range of side effects, from poor appetite alternating with ravenous hunger to insomnia and nausea, nothing compared to the swelling.
“I took on a new shape. I swelled out in every direction,” she says. “My eyes sank deep into my puffy face. From head to toe, my proportions changed. I could barely recognize myself, so what could I expect from others?”
While Chani was tempted to just stay home and avoid the staring and comments she was bound to encounter if she went out, she bravely decided that she wouldn’t waste time and energy hiding her very obvious condition. Buoyed by the encouragement she received from her mother, she resolved that rather than letting all sorts of rumors circulate about her condition, she would give people the facts herself.
“I won’t forget the first time I went out in public,” she says. “Suddenly I saw a friend of mine smiling at me from a distance. ‘A doughnut!’ she called out. You have to understand how round I looked… I laughed and continued walking.
“Another time I went to a wedding. A relative who met me walking into the hall almost fainted. ‘Yes, it’s me,’ I said frankly. ‘It’s just that I’m on steroids, and these are the side effects.’ This is how I helped everyone — especially myself — get used to this new situation Hashem had put me in. I don’t believe in secrets — they’re a waste of energy.”
Still, some sensitivity on the other side is always appreciated. “Feedback can be inspiring. It’s comforting to hear things like, ‘Good for you for continuing life as usual,’ ” she says. “But it can also be devastating when people drop lines such as, ‘Oh, no, that’s how they discovered my friend’s cancer…’ ”
A New Frontier
At one point, Chani started a treatment protocol which involved a series of four treatments, each entailing a six-hour infusion. Determined to be independent, she convinced her husband and mother that she was fine, and that they could go back to work.
But a minute after they’d left the hospital, her neck started to swell, and she felt like she was choking. Still, she held firm to her resolution. “It was enough that I was feeling down, I didn’t want to be a drain on everyone around me,” she says. “I was touched by their devotion, but I couldn’t bear the idea that everyone was messing up their schedules for me. I got rides from volunteers and spent hours alone on the ward. The knowledge that the family wasn’t topsy-turvy gave me strength.”
For months Chani was on a dizzying rollercoaster ride, fighting to increase her platelet counts, only to see them plunge again. After a year, when her numbers had finally stabilized, a new issue surfaced.
Chani’s doctors ordered an immunoglobulin test to check her immune system’s antibody production, and it yielded dismal results. She wasn’t producing antibodies. Now there was an immune system disorder added to her medical profile. It was the classic chicken and egg situation. Did the thrombocytopenia cause the immune system disorder or did the immune system failure cause the thrombocytopenia? Currently, Chani and her doctors have no answer.
This new frontier in her medical battle made the first one pale in comparison. “Basically, my body is unable to produce antibodies against any disease,” Chani explains. “A simple ear infection that every one-year-old has in the winter had me rushing to the hospital with bleeding from my ear, because my body couldn’t fight the infection.”
This second blow took a heavy toll on Chani’s morale. “When I’d go to the hospital, I couldn’t muster up the energy I had when I’d gone to deal with my platelets. I was broken; I felt like my life was over,” she says simply.
The change in her mood was especially dramatic because of the euphoric high she’d been on because of the steroids. Naturally her family was concerned. “Have we lost Chani?” her sister asked.
On His Team
Chani began looking for chizuk. While receiving transfusions, she’d listen to lectures, particularly Rav Elimelech Biderman’s talks. There were speeches of his she’d listen to five times. “His words helped me cling to hope,” she says.
While struggling with the fallout of her compromised immune system, Chani compares the faith and strength she derived from Rav Meilech’s lectures to antibodies, “antibodies of a different kind, against depression and despair.”
Chani remembers attending a family get-together, and looking around at the others. But instead of being jealous of their normal lives, she put on her spiritual lenses. Chani, she told herself, of all your family and friends, Hashem selected you for this challenge. I, Chani Brand, belong to His team. The connection she felt brought her to tears.
Another time when she was feeling down, her husband inspired her. He told her about the Jews who couldn’t learn openly because of religious persecution. So they blocked the windows with thick drapes to shield the light. The nimshal, her husband explained, is that when a Jew feels hastarah, Divine concealment, in his life, he needs to remember it’s only reflective of the even greater light hidden within.
“I think that a vort like this is oxygen,” she says. “Distress? Pain? They aren’t here to distance us from HaKadosh Baruch Hu. They’re not even a punishment. On the contrary, a great light lies behind it.”
But Chani doesn’t pretend that she found ideas that spoke to her and then lived happily ever after.
“Life is like a pendulum — and sometimes it swings wildly,” she says. “Don’t think that because I listened to lectures, I was on a constant high. I often had to give myself a boost, to look for strength within myself, to not let go until I found it.
“Like when my digestive system also started making problems, and I had to add gastro appointments to my already crowded calendar. B’chasdei Hashem, it was just a ‘minor’ stomach infection, but… it was chronic. Now all I needed was a secretary to keep track of my appointments.”
Chani was trying her best to maintain an equilibrium of sorts, but then along came the next nisayon, and she realized that her spiritual arsenal needed a major upgrade to meet the challenge.
“If until then I was able to keep going with the help of the vertlach that I repeated to myself at every opportunity, the accident shook everything up again,” she says. “Even though it was more than a year ago, I remember that dark Friday like it was yesterday.”
It was midnight on the Thursday night of Chanukah when Chani’s husband left Bnei Brak to do some errands. Chani went to bed, but the phone’s ringing woke her up. Her husband was on the line. In a faint voice he said, “I lost control of the car, we fell down a wadi, the car is destroyed, and we’re being evacuated to the hospital. There’s almost no connection here so I can’t talk, I just wanted to let you know that I’m okay.” Then all she heard was a dial tone.
“I jumped out of bed drenched in sweat,” Chani remembers. “I pinched myself, literally, to figure out if I was dreaming. My husband had crashed in a wadi? The car was gone? Hospital? I didn’t know how to cope with this.
“Thoughts flooded my brain. I remembered the Chanukah party my mother-in-law had organized the night before. I was afraid that that may have been my husband’s farewell party from the family.
“Later my husband called again from the paramedic’s phone. He was alive, breathing, in one piece… None of the Hatzalah members who arrived at the accident scene dreamed they’d find anyone alive. It was a deep wadi, covered in mist, and the car was completely crushed. My husband and his friend crawled out from under the ruins barely believing they were still alive.”
Her husband’s life had been spared, and the Brands couldn’t have been more grateful. They held a seudas hoda’ah, and her husband bentshed gomel. “We knew we’d merited a miracle,” she says.
Once again, the young family thought that relative normalcy was on the horizon, only to be disappointed. Along with the totaled car, the family had lost their income. Chani’s husband had supported the family by doing intercity rides and deliveries, but with no car, he couldn’t work.
To make things even more challenging, the accident came on the heels of Chani’s efforts to improve spiritually. “About two months before the accident,” she says, “I made a resolution to strengthen my tzniyus and to light Shabbos candles as early as possible. In general, we tried to take our Shabbos observance up a notch. We skimped all week to be able to get nice food for Shabbos. I won’t forget opening the salmon and looking for Yosef Mokir Shabbos’s diamond,” she laughs.
“I longed to do hafrashas challah. I gathered the money shekel by shekel until I could buy a mixer. Everyone thought it very strange — we could barely make ends meet, why the burning need for a mixer? But only I knew of my desperate desire to do hafrashas challah that week…
“I waited for a miracle, for a sign. But instead, another blow. No income at all.”
At this point Chani felt she could no longer endure it. “I was falling apart. Oh, I remembered all the talks I’d heard, the midrashim, the vertlach. But the pain… I found myself talking to HaKadosh Baruch Hu like a shattered little girl. ‘Tatteh, how much more?’ My health was gone. The car was gone. Our parnassah was gone. How was all this happening to me? ‘What’s going on here?’ I asked Him. ‘Do You have anything to say to me? Am I that underserving?’ ”
Chani had reached rock bottom. “It was the kind of moment in life from which there’s nowhere left to fall,” she says. But lying bruised and battered in the abyss, she turned her eyes Upward. “You can only go up from there. I started searching, listening, reading about the meaning of life. The meaning of pain. How do you make it through life successfully? How do you hold onto simchah? I needed every line of emunah I could get, every word of hope, anything.”
Empowered by Choice
Chani joined a shiur in Tanya, and found it provided her with clarity in a world of darkness. She also started reading Moreh L’Dor Navoch, a compilation of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s letters translated into Hebrew. The Rebbe talked about purpose, mission, fulfilling mitzvos, and the power of bechirah, and she felt something penetrating. “Something started shifting in my heart,” she said.
In what proved to be a pivotal conversation, someone advised Chani to study something she’d enjoy. She enrolled in a drama course offered by Shmaya, an organization dedicated to helping people with disabilities. Shmaya’s slogan is “Unlimited Possibilities,” and they passionately believe that no one should let a disability hold them back from fulfilling their dreams. In the drama course, Chani learned both professional acting techniques and tools for life.
She remembers one class that created a paradigm shift for her. The lecturer was expounding on the concept of retaining our free choice despite what life brings us. “If someone offends you, the insult is a fact. The decision of whether to be insulted or not rests with the victim. You’re the sole owner of your own emotions. Even the person who offends you can’t force you to be offended,” the teacher explained.
She then went further and expanded the idea to include disability. “Even if a person has a disability or a disease, the decision of whether to grow from it or shrink from it remains his. The decision of whether to be happy or sad, to weep or to sing, lies with you, and only you. Looking for excuses… like ‘the infection,’ ‘the disability,’ ‘the hospitalizations,’ won’t get you anywhere.”
Chani found this mind-blowing. “I didn’t just write this down, I applied it to life. And my life has changed. I’m the happiest person in the world. This isn’t just a slogan I repeat; I actually feel it. I’m no longer a sick woman, that’s not my identity. I’m a healthy and happy woman. Strong and believing. So yes, I also have a load on my back. But to let that take away your life? Hold you back? Stop you from growing?”
Tomorrow, Chani will be going to the hospital for her weekly antibody treatment, but she’s still smiling. “We have to remember that everything is a Divine blessing, planned down to the last detail.
“It isn’t always easy, but we came to This World to work, no? And we have the privilege to endure it with simchah. How? With emunah. When you live emunah, speak emunah, and breathe emunah, you have a fulfilling and happy life.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 803)
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