"You need to listen to me, Dr. Freedman! You don't even know what I did to cause this!"
I had what felt like a million messages, emails, and other assorted communications when I woke up one morning last week. At that moment, the most important one —and the only one that I needed to check before going to Shacharis —was the message from my shul's rav telling our kehillah that the beit knesset in our yishuv was closed due to the Ministry of Health's recommendations. He had consulted with gedolei Yisrael regarding our specific situation and determined that it was important for the safety of the community to close the shul and prevent the spread of coronavirus, especially for the most vulnerable members of our kehillah.
So I made a cup of coffee to strengthen myself for tefillah and made a bottle for my toddler, who woke to daven vasikin with me. And then I scrolled through the messages: the Ministry of Health's updated regulations included limiting in-person contact to only a distance of two meters, starting within 24 hours. This meant that I would have one final day in the office for the foreseeable future.
As I raced into the office, I saw that Chaskel Goldshmidt had left me no less than three voice messages, and it wasn’t even 8:00 a.m. yet. He had also sent me at least 17 text messages about how he had "caused the Coronavirus."
Over 20 bochurim had to come in and pick up prescriptions before they raced back to England, America, Switzerland, Australia, and everywhere in between. But Chaskel was here to stay, and struggling mightily with the matzav. He wanted to come in to tell me how he was single-handedly responsible for the current crisis.
Chaskel's response to the pandemic was similar to his meltdown in the winter, when he became convinced that a pasul mezuzah on the door of his storage room had resulted in the flurry of rocket attacks from Gaza, and that his failing to fulfill a particular neder for tzedakah had caused the Chanukah attack in Monsey. Chaskel's complex mix of schizophrenia and OCD symptoms were generally well-controlled by his medications and a strong therapeutic regimen, but will all the stressful things happening in the world, his paranoid delusions and obsessions would push him over the edge.
Generally, a slight increase in his antipsychotic medication dosing for a few days and some reassuring words from me (his therapist), his family members — especially his uncle who was in touch with me on a regular basis — and a well-known chassidish rebbe/mekubal, would get him back to normal balance.
The first thing I did was send him a message letting him know that the pandemic was due to a virus and not due to anything he'd said or done. I let him know that we should follow the Ministry of Health regulations to stay safe and that being calm was especially important. I also sent a message to his family members, letting them know that I was in touch with him and to check in with him themselves.
My first patient of the morning was a bochur who was headed home on a chartered jet to South Africa. I then saw a young woman and her husband to discuss issues related to her medication regimen, given that she had just learned she was expecting. Next was a patient on probation for a substance abuse problem who was now six months sober, and needed a letter documenting his sobriety for his probation officer before the department would shut down the following day. Cases like this needed to be seen face-to-face, and video-conferencing, which is how I assumed I’d be working for the foreseeable future, wouldn't cut it.
Another young man with a substance abuse problem needed a refill of the medication he took every evening, and we discussed the value of online Alcoholics Anonymous groups in case he should become quarantined. He'd been sober for almost three years and reminded me that four cups of grape juice was the symbol of cheirus in his book.
Meanwhile, three bochurim arrived to pick up their various prescriptions and I received a phone call from a pharmacy asking me to fax in a few refills for a patient who was quarantined in Telz Stone. When I told the pharmacist that I didn't have a fax machine, she asked me to have the patient pick it up. When I reminded her that the patient was in quarantine, she told me that "wasn't her problem" and hung up the phone. It was more than enough to want to place myself in quarantine.
It was now getting close to shkiah and I wanted to daven, but I also needed to call Chaskel back and make sure he was okay. He sounded reasonably calm and let me know that he'd increased his medication dose per my advice, and then told me agitatedly, "But Dr. Freedman, you have to daven b’zeman! This is very important! I can't talk to you unless you've already davened or everything will get worse."
I wasn’t sure what he was referring to, but I hung up and ran to daven Minchah, with a plan to call Chaskel back later that evening. I finished my final patient of the day and raced to pick up my niece, Shiffy, who was stuck in the country after her flight had been cancelled, and I was relying on her female wisdom to help me pick out a pair of earrings for my wife as a Pesach present — in addition to 84 cans of tuna fish and whatever else I could find in the makolet in preparation for the much-talked about lockdown.
Finally, it was time to call Chaskel back. He’d been sending me text messages all evening
"Dr. Freedman! I'm so glad you called!" he answered. "I just feel responsible for this whole thing."
I tried to provide Chaskel with some gentle reassurance but he wasn't interested in hearing me out.
"Look, I don’t care if it's a biological weapon from the Chinese or from the Americans or the Russians or even if it's from eating bats or whatever, I still did something very bad and I need to talk to you, I need you to moichel me because I caused this."
"Of course I moichel you, Chaskel," I responded, although I really had no idea for what.
"You need to listen to me Dr. Freedman! You don't even know what I did to cause this!"
While he certainly didn't cause the coronavirus, he was distressed and I wanted to hear him out.
"Dr. Freedman, Rav Chaim says that we need to work on shmiras halashon to fix this whole coronavirus thing, and I did something very bad that probably caused this, so I need to apologize! Remember once you told me that you were very busy and didn't daven Minchah before shkiah? Well, once when my uncle was very busy and told me he missed the zeman, I didn’t want him to feel bad so I told him you also missed the zeman once, but I realized that it was lashon hara and I feel awful for speaking lashon hara about you and for causing this whole coronavirus thing!"
"Machul, machul, machul. Chaskel, you're a tzaddik," I told him honestly. "If only we were all as sincere as you in trying not to speak lashon hara, we'd certainly see this whole coronavirus thing disappear."
"So you forgive me?"
"I already said it three times, Chaskel."
"Good. Chag Kasher v’Sameach then, Dr. Freedman."
"And thank you for inspiring me, Reb Chaskel." As I hung up, I began to wonder, as I often do in this line of work, who, really, are the sane ones?
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 805)
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