Miracle Daddy| December 7, 2011
It’s 10 p.m. and the long, twisting swaths of Highway 81 are dark and desolate as the minivan sails by, winding its way towards the Canadian border.
Rabbi Yehuda and Shaindel Simes exchange weary but satisfied smiles. It has been a good trip, evidenced by the seven snacking, chatting children in the back seat, but now it’s time to get back to the Ottawa community they cherish, where they are both beloved teachers of Torah, involved in myriad kiruv activities. In fact, remembers Shaindel, it’s time to make a mental shopping list for this week, taking into account the dozens of guests who usually frequent their home on both weekdays and Shabbosos.
“We’ll be home in less than two hours,” one of the Simes children promises her oldest brother, who’s waiting for them at home.
Suddenly, impaled in the headlights, a large form looms ominously in front of the minivan. It’s a deer on the highway. Hitting a deer, Shaindel knows, is a danger that must be avoided. She swerves not a moment too soon. The car shimmies, balks, skids, and then they are keeling over, rolling endlessly on the stretch of pavement that plays with the van a morbid game of tennis. There are shrieks, screams, and the cell phone cuts off abruptly. Then everything is terribly, deathly silent.
“Our whole family, except for our oldest son, was in the van,” Shaindel recounts. “When I lost control of the car, I remember thinking, Oh, my goodness, the car is going over! as I felt it turning and twisting. But when it all settled down and I next opened my eyes, the car was right side up, and I thought, Phew, I guess we didn’t turn over at all. In fact, we had — many, many times.
“But the whole ordeal was full of nissim. First, there was no one else next to us on the road at the time. Second, a car traveling behind us had seen the accident and immediately called 911 so that the police were there in no time — the highway was a sea of ambulances! And the biggest miracle of all was that every single one of us, aside from my husband, walked out of the car on our own. You should have seen pictures of the car — it looked like a tuna can!”
Dazed and in shock, Shaindel watched as emergency personnel swarmed around them.
“Are you expecting?” a paramedic asked her.
“I said no,” Shaindel recalls. “I was in such a state of shock that I just couldn’t remember. All I could think of was, Why are they asking me such personal questions? Then my kids said, ‘Ma, didn’t you say we’re having another baby?’ And then I remembered that yes, I was expecting, which I guess was pretty obvious to the medics. They asked me when I was due, and I simply couldn’t recall. Again, my children said, ‘Ma, didn’t you tell us you’re expecting around Rosh HaShanah, which is why you’re taking off next year from teaching?’ And that sounded vaguely familiar. I remember one of the kids exclaiming, ‘It’s a neis that we’re all okay!’ and I told them, ‘Yes, one day we’ll make a seudah.’ Next thing I knew, they were taking us to the hospital.”
Despite his mother’s fractured collarbone and some broken ribs, the unborn baby was found to be miraculously unharmed. And all seven of the Simes children in the van had escaped virtually unscathed. It truly was a miracle. But amid the euphoria at this abundant show of salvation, the fate of one family member was not immediately clear.
Yehuda had never left the car with his family.
Who Am I Now?
“They had to use the Jaws of Life to free my husband from the car,” Shaindel explains. “They airlifted him to a trauma center in Syracuse and initially, things were not looking very good. They came in and told me that my husband had suffered a spinal cord injury. My first question was, ‘Will he be able to walk?’ They just looked at me.”
Yehuda was diagnosed with a level C4/C5 injury, which refers to where the vertebrae were pushed into the spinal cord, causing a lesion. The higher the lesion, the less function doctors expect a person to recover. One millimeter higher and Yehuda wouldn’t have made it. One millimeter lower, and he would have had a better prognosis. Initially, doctors didn’t even know if he’d ever be able to breathe on his own.
The accident shocked and saddened Jewish communities the world over. Yehuda was a beloved alumnus of Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim, whose graduates are charged with the task of spreading Torah all across the globe. Tefillos poured forth, telephone calls streamed in, and Yehuda Pinchas ben Asna was on everyone’s minds. Back home in Ottawa, the city reeled from the tragedy. Their esteemed Rabbi Yehuda Simes, a pillar of the community, whose ready smile, open house, and vast knowledge had transformed hundreds, now lay in a hospital bed, paralyzed from the neck down.
The immediate medical attention Yehuda had received was a big boon to his survival, which he and his wife discovered after they began researching other quadriplegics to glean hope, support, and inspiration.
“We can’t seem to find any other quads who are Category Four, like my husband,” Shaindel remarked to the physiotherapist.
She looked at them somberly. “That’s because the Fours don’t usually make it.”
The Simes sought out the best medical facilities for Yehuda, regardless of location, which meant that he went back to Ottawa with his wife while the rest of the family stayed behind with relatives in Rochester for two weeks until they finally joined their parents. “I never want to look back and regret that if only we had sent Yehuda to a different facility, things would have been better,” Shaindel says.
“After the accident, I remember crying and crying,” Rabbi Yehuda Simes remembers those first nightmarish moments. “I was inconsolable at the time. The tekufah that preceded the accident was one of so much success, baruch Hashem; we had so much siyata d’Shmaya in Ottawa. I was very high-profile and very loved by the community and, to be honest, I felt on top of the world. Then, in an instant, it seemed to have all been taken away from me.”
His voice, weakened by the accident, becomes more intense.
“I cried about never being able to do anything again. I was paralyzed, without any control over my body. How could I possibly reach out to others again? At the time, I was on a respirator. I could only nod when people pointed to letters on a board in order to string together words. I didn’t know my identity any more. Before the accident, I was very clear about what I was — a husband, father, teacher — but each of those things had been suddenly ripped out from under me. In the first stage after the injury, I didn’t know how I could possibly be any of those things again.”
Miracle Baby, Miracle Daddy
The emotional roller coaster was just beginning — and mingled with the tears was an abundance of precious triumphs and miracles ahead. Shaindel was due Rosh HaShanah time, and she wanted her husband to attend the birth, but there was a slight technicality: Yehuda was still on life support, connected to various machines in the ICU! In a wonderful show of solidarity and compassion, the ICU team at Ottawa Hospital coordinated with the birthing unit, and elaborate plans were set.
“Some people pack a ‘mommy bag” Shaindel quips. “We packed a ‘daddy bag’!”
When the ICU got the call that Shaindel was in labor, they immediately went into motion and Yehuda was transferred, respirator and all, arriving just in time to see his son born and placed in his arms.
There was another astonishing miracle that occurred later that day. As the new Simes baby took his first breaths, his daddy followed suit. By the end of the day, Yehuda, who had been practicing easing off the respirator for some time, was finally breathing on his own.
Father and son made eerily similar progress, much to the delight and wonder of all observers. On the day of the baby’s bris, Yehuda began rehab, and his progress was amazing. Indeed, as his son, Alter Chanoch Henoch (named for the late rosh yeshivah, Rav Henoch Leibowitz ztz”l) developed and grew, Yehuda Simes learned to regain his own bodily functions and make the painful journey towards recovery. After six months in rehab, he finally got the green light to go home, just before Purim.
But the challenges were readily apparent. As a quadriplegic, Yehuda requires round-the-clock care, including regular manual lung inflation and feeding. Thanks to wonderful advances in technology, his joystick-operated wheelchair enables him to be mobile, but life as a quad is demanding, and despite intensive therapies, the paralysis will never go away completely.
Rabbi Simes explains the reality of his condition with candor and acceptance. He needs to be on a very strict regimen of eating, sleeping, and medications, and although each act is time-consuming and wearying, if he’s lax about his routine, he’s at great risk of getting sick.
“Life as a quadriplegic demands attention to what I call ‘the machine’ — my body — because otherwise I’m deathly at-risk,” he says. “It has happened a number of times that I had to be rushed to the emergency room, and I actually ended up back in rehab because I fell off of the program, so to speak. As a quad, you have to learn a lot about what’s happening with your machine; you have to understand the inner workings, because you don’t have feelings the same way you used to. If you miss something, it could lead to very dangerous consequences.”
In an age of quick fixes and miracle segulos, does he not sometimes fantasize about his condition reversing?
Rabbi Simes is emphatic.
“No, I don’t feel I’ll be the first person ever to be cured of a spinal cord injury. Yes, I’m an extremely positive person. I have a lot of bitachon. But we’re not allowed to expect miracles — ein somchin al haneis. You have to expect things that are expectable; you have to be normal. It would not be normal for a quadriplegic to say, ‘Someday, I know I’m just going to get better and I’m going to start moving all my limbs again.
His voice becomes stronger.
“Chovos HaLevavos has become my lifeline during this tekufah; not a day goes by that I don’t read from Shaar HaBitachon, where he talks about how everything we get — every breath we take — is a chesed from Hashem that we are completely undeserving of. Even if we toiled our whole lives to serve Hashem perfectly, we still wouldn’t deserve even the smallest good He bestows upon us.”
As a Family
Still, awakening to a brand new reality is jolting — and immensely painful. Rabbi Simes acknowledges the depths of these feelings, framed in a context of faith.
“I was never angry about my condition. I was sad, yes. Immediately after the accident, like I said, I wondered who I was and who I would be, and I’ve shed many tears of sadness, but never tears of anger. I compare my process to aveilus, the mourning process. Aveilus is the mitzvah of mourning what was lost. Those are the same tears I shed, and it’s therapeutic for me. It gives me strength to cry these tears, and they are always still very close to the surface. Until now, my kids have very rarely seen me cry, but now, it’s almost a common occurrence. In rehab, when I said Kiddush, I cried through it. The first time I got my hand to my eyes, with assistance, to say Kriyas Shema, I was drowning in tears. I cry out of — well, just out of life, which is part of our existence.”
These tears have been cleansing, not only for Yehuda, but for his whole family, who have adjusted to their new reality with remarkable aplomb, mostly due to the attitudes of their courageous, positive parents.
“Every part of the process was coached and planned in advance,” Shaindel explains. “When it came time for the kids to visit Yehuda, we made an ice-cream party in the hospital. We had done a lot of groundwork first, speaking to the ICU staff, showing the kids pictures of Yehuda beforehand so they’d know what to expect, and we even moved Yehuda out of the ICU during the visit so the children wouldn’t have to see so many sick people in their beds.”
Yehuda adds, “When I came home, I was scared that my kids would be afraid or awkward around me because of the way I look and the fact that I can’t move very much. But actually, I think they’re a lot more affectionate toward me than they were before. I know I feel more affectionate toward them. It’s not just that they overlook the fact that my body’s not the same. It’s that they don’t even see it! They haven’t been through any extensive counseling; it’s just a natural thing to them.”
The seeds for this “natural” acceptance were carefully planted by both Shaindel and Yehuda.
“When I first got news of the extent of my husband’s injuries, the first thing I asked was, ‘Can he walk?’ And the doctor took a deep breath and said, ‘No, he can’t walk.’ And really, at that point, I had a choice: I could just melt down and check out and collapse — yes, I could have. But the reality was that waiting for me on the other side of the curtain were my kids, and I needed to stay strong for them. They needed to know they could count on me and that we were going to go through this together.
“From the start we decided this was a family experience. Yehuda and I had worked hard to create this sense of family and unity over 18 years and we didn’t want to lose sight of that goal, despite everything that was happening. So I immediately established my job as holding down the fort until Abba was ready to take back the helm. It was never a question that Abba is the head of the family. From the time Yehuda could talk, I would tell the kids ‘ask Abba’ when they had a question, even though he wasn’t home for nine months.”
Shaindel shares generously about her new life and the challenges it entails.
“In a certain sense, you lose your identity a bit. You become ‘the Simes from the accident.’ Also, your life can become so absorbed with therapy, appointments, schedules, etc., that you forget you even had a different kind of life before.”
Although she has had to curtail her teaching to a bare minimum, Shaindel still tries to make sure that her own needs are met.
“I still want to have an identity. Teaching, being out there, being social, was a big part of me, and now I just have to figure out what and who I am now also. What I find for myself is that I appreciate the people who still see us for the people we are and not just for the help we need. A friend recently asked for help picking out accessories for an event, and I felt so good that she asked — I’m still me!”
How does the onset of a medical condition like paralysis impact a marriage? Shaindel is candid and real, especially in discussing the issue of caretaking.
“You really have to have open discussion and dialogue as to what you feel you can do and what you feel you can’t do. There are time constraints. In the morning, for example, I have to get my kids off to school — I can’t help my husband! And in the care that is needed, there are certain tasks that we will always pay people to do. This is still a marriage, and certain things are not negotiable.”
Shaindel and Yehuda have had to have very frank conversations together, carefully stitching together the new fabric of their lives with the immutable precepts upon which they have always lived. Shaindel sums it up succinctly. “Our goal through this whole journey has been: Things have changed, but as much as things have changed, we want them to stay the same, whatever that means. Yes, there are certain things the accident has changed forever. Yehuda can’t walk. I can’t bring that back. But what was important to us then is important to us now, if not more so.”
The here and now has taken on new meaning and urgency for Shaindel. “Now, more than ever, it is important to nurture our marriage, to take time for ourselves with each other as people, not in a ‘medical’ context,” she shares. “Doctors’ appointments and therapy don’t count! We also actively work to create bonding time for ourselves with our kids and as a family. In the long run, our family is what counts.”
A Person First
High on Shaindel’s priority list has been fighting for her husband’s dignity, insisting that he be treated as a person, not as a quadriplegic.
“He is my husband, he is my children’s father, he is in his own home, you have to respect that,” she asserts. “And not everybody gets that. To some people, he’s just a patient. But to us, he’s not. Things have been chipped away from him, but we will not let his dignity be taken away. We’ve included our kids as much as is possible and is healthy, and we are honest with them. They know to give my husband the privacy that he needs when he needs it, and we also include them in his milestones. They help with the medication, with feeding, with taking Yehuda to shul, but they enjoy it. It’s not a burden to them.”
For his part, Yehuda has worked to carve out a new identity for himself, and a new raison d’être in daily living.
“My physical reality today is that I’m not able to do what I did before. Before, I had a full-time job in the elementary school, a part-time job at Torah High, a high school program for public school kids, and my whole life was nonstop kiruv activities. Right now, the most I’m able to go in to school is once a week for one period of teaching, and even that is really pushing the limit. I’ll have to see where my future lies, as things unfold.”
From his vantage point as a close friend accompanying Rabbi Simes along his journey, Rabbi Michah Shotkin, a rebbi at Yeshivas Zichron Yaakov in Monsey, New York, shares his admiration for Yehuda.
“Yehuda constantly says, ‘I don’t ask why; I ask what. What does Hashem want from me now?’ The great level of his bitachon and emunah is so inspiring to everyone. It’s just like Avraham Avinu with the Akeidah. Hashem knew Avraham was a baal emunah, but the purpose of the Akeidah was to show everyone around him this exalted level. In Yehuda’s case, too, we see that the accident has served to reveal Yehuda’s great level of emunah and bitachon; it has made him an inspiration to the rest of the world.”
Rabbi Shotkin remembers the joy and enthusiasm that Yehuda displayed as he reflected on how grateful he is for the gift of … swallowing! It was an ability he had lost for several months after the accident.
“You don’t really appreciate what you have until it’s gone. It’s a good lesson for us — whoever thinks to be grateful for swallowing? Yet Yehuda constantly speaks about the chasdei Hashem in his situation.” He smiles. “I often tell Yehuda that if I were in his situation, I don’t think I’d be doing as well!”
Rabbi Simes is clearly unwilling to throw himself a pity-party on any level, and even though he is dependent upon various people to meet many of his physical needs, he is determined to harness all his abilities to push himself further.
“Baruch Hashem, I’ve made a lot of progress: I’m in a powered chair that I can move with a handheld joystick, I have a voice so people can hear me, my mind is still sane. I have to stay out of the trap of feeling so dependent on other people, and use my own kochos to push and work with courage, every day, in spite of my thoughts, especially in my physical and occupational therapy. The harder I work, the more function I gain.”
He highlights an important angle in the bitachon-hishtadlus balance, from his unique post-accident perspective. “People sometimes ask me, ‘How do you get better?’ I don’t ‘get better.’ How am I supposed to make myself better? There’s no medicine I can take that can make me completely better. But I can do hishtadlus, even as I keep in mind all the while that the actual cure comes only from Hashem.
“In order to harvest, a farmer has to plant the seeds, but that’s the only process within his power to control. He can’t make the seed grow, he can’t make it rain or make the sun shine by his own exertion, and ultimately the fruit comes only through things that are beyond him. But if he doesn’t put down those seeds, then nothing will happen at all. It’s the same thing with me. I need to work to my utmost potential, which often takes a huge amount of physical effort and mental exertion, and at times it’s painful — actually it’s almost always painful, but that’s planting the seeds, that’s the hishtadlus. Then Hashem will hopefully send me the results.”
The outpouring of love and help has been tremendous, both from Ottawa and beyond, with every kind of assistance provided, from carpool to grocery shopping and meals. In a city like Ottawa, an Orthodox patient is a bit of an anomaly, but Yehuda’s religious needs have been met with equanimity — to the extent that hospital plans to renovate the balconies were delayed, so that Rabbi Yehuda Simes could have a large succah to accommodate the entire family plus extended family, built outside his room! Shaindel sums it up gratefully: “The support of our family and friends is what has carried us,” she says.
Still, obviously, it’s not easy. “It’s not simple, and those closest to me know it,” she reflects. “But I still think of myself as a regular person. Both my husband and I want to be ordinary people.” Her sunny voice dips into a laugh. “Believe me, I never signed up for this! It wasn’t like I said to Hashem, ‘Please! Please! Pick me! Pick me!’ But this is my situation and I have to go with it. Some days I feel like collapsing, but I remember that I have a husband and children who need me.” She pauses. “And I still have dreams and aspirations and I have to — somehow, despite our challenges — I have to make those things happen.”
She emphasizes the power of tefillah, especially the informal, straight-from-the-heart variety, citing this constant dialogue with Hashem as the source of her strength in getting through the nisyonos.
“Some days are easier, some are more challenging. Sometimes we’re going minute to minute. But I have Hashem at my side and I keep saying personal tefillos. ‘Please, Hashem, let my husband have a good day, let him get to shul on time, give him the strength for therapy.’ It works!”
“We are not our bodies,” Rabbi Simes muses. “We are our neshamos. We’re not bodies that have a neshamah; we are a soul clothed in a body. I spent my adult years, before the accident, trying to internalize this concept. I knew and understood it quite deeply, but there’s an infinite number of levels of understanding. I think I’ve gotten a whole new level of knowing that I am not my body. Before my accident, hopefully I was doing ratzon Hashem, and now, after my accident, when my body is functioning differently, hopefully I’m still doing ratzon Hashem. So I, at my essence, didn’t change. The state of the body doesn’t define a person at all.
“For me, for you, for any of us.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 387)
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