| Off the Couch |

The Champion

“I’m Murray, and I’m going to crush you today"


Jonas, my chess-champion, chronically depressed and suicidal med school patient, made a weak attempt at ending it all by throwing himself in front of a car in the hospital parking lot. Dr. Curling, my sharp-tongued supervisor, encouraged me to change my strategy. Part III

It was 15 years ago and halfway across the world, and close to a month after Jonas’s last suicide attempt, that Dr. Curling warned me that I’d better “cure my patient” before I finished my rotation.

“This very well might be your last chance to do something meaningful in your life,” he laughed as he slammed his fist down on his ancient desk. “If you don’t get this one right, I’ll write you a letter of recommendation bad enough to ensure that you’ll be lucky to serve as a radiologist in Prussia.”

I actually had an extreme idea, but Jonas was going to have to be willing to open up to me, and stay with me for the next hour. Most of the time he was in a good enough mood to schmooze a bit after crushing me in our daily game of chess. And this particular day — after chasing my king into a corner and taking my queen with a move called a knight-fork — was no exception.

“You know I’m gone in a week, Jonas, and this might be your last chance to have a meaningful discussion with me.”

“I’m gone in a week too, when I find a way to finish it up once and for all,” he says.

“Okay, so you want to talk about why you’re always trying so hard to end your life?” I asked.

“Isn’t it obvious? We’re all going to die eventually. For me it’ll just be faster and less glorious than for you or anyone else, due to my condition,” he answered, in one of the first candid talks we had. “Muscular dystrophy will have me in a wheelchair in a few years and I’ll be dead from inability to breathe by the time I’m 45. Why not just get it over with now and go out with a bang? Be honest, you don’t have an answer for that one.”

“Jonas,” I said in my most holy voice, “it doesn’t have to look like that. Who knows what the future holds?”

“Now you want to try and cheer me up with some spiritual feel-good stuff? You’re not my rabbi and I’m not even Jewish! How can you tell me as a doctor that my condition won’t make me a cripple in a few years with nothing to look forward beyond getting spoon-fed in my wheelchair as I rot away!?”

That seemed like the end of the discussion, as Jonas turned toward the window and refused to engage further. But I actually had something else up my sleeve — a fellow named Murray. And he would be here any minute.

Meanwhile, I booted up my laptop and cranked up the volume on a video I found about Dr. Rachamim Melamed Cohen, a famous Israeli educator and prolific author who had been diagnosed with ALS — also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease — and had miraculously held on for years. The clip showed an older fellow confined to his bed, unable to use any of his voluntary muscles, communicating exclusively through a computer system that tracked his eye movements, through which he wrote eight additional books since his illness.

Well, even Jonas was curious as to what all that noise was, and came to look over my shoulder. After the video was over, Jonas was moved enough to re-engage me. “Interesting,” he said, “but he’s one in a million.”

“You’re right, Jonas, but most people with ALS are dead in a few years. You should have a few good decades left in you, and who knows whether some amazing medical technology will come along to cure this thing? In the meantime, you can still move fast enough to throw yourself in front of a moving car.”

Jonas laughed for a moment, but then he caught himself, remembering his long-standing pessimism.

Where was this fellow Murray already?

And then the doors to the sunroom opened, and in wheeled Murray. He was a local chess champion with muscular dystrophy who was stuck in a wheelchair, yet as competitive as could be. I couldn’t imagine greater siyata d’Shmaya than looking up “Muscular Dystrophy Chess Champion” and finding him via Google. And he lived right in the area! It was even more exciting that he was willing to come and meet Jonas.

So after vetting him to ensure he was in fact the right fellow, I was overjoyed to know that this was the person Jonas needed: a brilliant, optimistic man with muscular dystrophy who wasn’t going to let his condition keep him from a chess match or from any other facet of life that he’d so embraced despite the challenges.

Jonas didn’t look up when I came back with Murray at my side. He ignored him at first while he set up the board for our daily match and sarcastically asked me, “Who’s this idiot you brought along to waste my time?”

Murray was ahead of the game, and in fact had a hobby of mentoring young men with similar conditions.

With a big smile on his face, he wheeled himself in front of the board, stuck out his right hand to introduce himself and said, “I’m Murray, and I’m going to crush you today. And after I do, you’ll be forced to shoot the breeze with me for an hour.”

Jonas’s eyes lit up with a competitive fire as he shook Murray’s hand and accepted the challenge.

I watched as Jonas opened with his king’s pawn — and then turned to my side as I felt a hand on my shoulder. Dr. Curling had come out of his office to see the game as well.

“Maybe I’ll write you a decent letter after all,” he whispered as Murray moved his knight forward.

In a few short days I would be gone, starting a new rotation in a different field. Jonas would have a new medical student, but more importantly, he now had a mentor in Murray to guide him along and show him a different, less-fatalistic view of life.

A few weeks later, I got an email from Dr. Curling:

Dear Almost-Dr. Freedman,

Murray comes in to play chess with Jonas almost every day and Jonas is getting ready for discharge. Good work. I wrote you a solid letter saying that any place you choose to do your training will be lucky to have you. Not that you care, but your replacement is a terrible student who will most likely end up being a fifth-rate doctor in Idaho.


Dr. Curling


Identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of patients, their families, and all other parties.

Jacob L. Freedman is a psychiatrist and business consultant based in Israel. When he’s not busy with his patients, Dr. Freedman can be found learning Torah in the Old City or hiking the hills outside of Jerusalem. Dr. Freedman can be reached most easily through his website www.drjacoblfreedman.com

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 817)

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