Tue, Sep 14 2021, 4:43 pm
OH. Dystopia? No thanks, it's bad enough I'm living through one!
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Thu, Oct 07 2021, 5:01 pm
Damsel in Distress, Saved by Knight in Shining... Tzitzis?
Building Three is a bland concrete rectangle, just a few stories high. It stands with several identical buildings gracelessly in an otherwise empty dirt lot surrounded by a tall electric fence. The windows are small, thick, and carefully oriented away from the other buildings. There are no porches.
A guard shack near the front gate bears a small logo indicating that this is government property.
Once a week, trucks deliver boxes of food and supplies, and the large dumpsters are emptied. Other than that, nobody comes or leaves.
This setup, in a quiet rural town, is one of 24 similar sites scattered across the country, all under the SII bill - Study on Impact of Isolation.
Lockdowns as a government safety measure are nothing new. From curfews during war, to stay home orders during a storm, they have long been considered a reasonable precaution when faced with unusual circumstances.
Covid19 opened the door for a broader application of the measure.
As expected, public response was mixed. Some upheld it as a responsible method of ensuring public health; others felt that absent a short-term and immediate threat to life, it was draconian and psychologically unsafe.
It was a bipartisan effort that first called for the study to guide future government policy.
A committee was formed and a proposal written to fund a two-year study. The public was happy, and both sides of the issue felt that they would be vindicated by the results.
Few were aware that the committee fully intended on using this opportunity to create new precedents.
Most people expected that the study would be retrospective, based on actual impacts to the previous lockdowns. Any other study would be ethically or legally impossible, right?
But the committee had other plans.
The draft law could be extended slightly, safeguards put in place to avoid ethical concerns, and the targets made broad enough to avoid accusations of racism.
The final proposal called for male and female participants in three different age groups, and across most minority group and cultures. Each subgroup would contain 34 individuals. Half of the group would begin with total isolation, and then after a six month period they would be assigned a roommate for a joint isolation phase. The last six months of the study would include gradual reintegration into their cultural groups.
The proposal was written vaguely, and only released immediately after an inflammatory bill affecting rights to privacy was brought up in the senate. Few bothered to read the full proposal, as the privacy act seemed much more urgent. The few who read it and were concerned were encouraged to immediately bring the matter to court, where without too much pressure, the plan was ruled constitutional.
By the time the Privacy riots died down and the bill roundly defeated, the SII proposal had been quietly signed into law.
The buildings were constructed and staff hired before any letters were sent out.
The frum community remained blissfully oblivious, until the first people began receiving draft notices. Chava was one of them.
Communal outrage was fast and furious, but lawyers consulted felt that it was too late to overturn the SII. They advised focusing any efforts on ensuring that religious needs were met.
Gender segregation and kosher food were arranged, and the community was forced to resign itself to the inevitable.
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Thu, Oct 07 2021, 5:05 pm
PART ONE - DAMSEL IN DISTRESS
It's been six months in isolation. Six months of loneliness, growth, boredom and creativity. Chava's heart beats faster with anticipation. Today she will finally not be alone anymore.
At the designated moment, the bolts on the doors are drawn back, the doors open… and utter pandemonium erupts.
Instead of the promised girls, a group of bochurim are standing slack-jawed in the hallway.
A brief round of questioning reveals that this group was originally slated to go a different building, but a delay plus a miscommunication had sent them here. However, the guards are completely unwilling to relocate the mistaken roommates. They are adamant that this is where they will stay.
None of the girls or the bochurim are prepared to relent. This breach of tznius is more than any of them are willing to handle.
"So they'll sleep on the floor in the hallways!" a guard yells nastily.
One of the bochurim tries for a compromise. "Can we put at least three of us in one room?"
The guard hesitates. "Is there anyone even willing to take a group?"
"I can take seven," Chava says, hesitantly. None of the guards seem to hear her, but a nearby bochur does. "TEN!" he hisses.
Swiftly comprehending, she announces in a louder voice, "I can take ten."
"Ten? Do you have room for them all?" a guard addresses her.
"I have beds, trundles, a sofabed, inflatable mattresses..." her voice trails off, and she hopes they won't actually come in to confirm. She does have the beds and the trundles, but only two inflatable mattresses, and she can't really expect anyone to share the sofabed. Thankfully, they aren't that interested.
The guard looks around at the other guards, they shrug at each other, and perhaps worried that she might change her mind, shove the ten nearest bochurim into her apartment and bolt the door behind them. The bochurim are all dragging large suitcases, and one is carrying a Sefer Torah.
The apartment suddenly seems very small. Overwhelmed, hoping she won't regret her quick decision, Chava quietly navigates her way through the edges of the crowd to the broom closet. She starts pulling out folding chairs from behind the other items stored there, so at least she can offer her surprise guests a place to sit. One of the bochurim offers to take her over, and she retreats to the safe haven of her kitchen.
She pulls bags of cookies out of the freezer and dumps them onto platters. She removes the frozen pans of lasagna she had stored away for a rainy day and puts them into the oven. She cuts up all the vegetables in the fridge for a salad. The boys meanwhile have arranged themselves around the table and are having a quiet, but heated discussion. She is not invited.
When the food is ready, she pushes it to the end of the counter with a stack of plates, cups, and cutlery.
A few scattered thank yous, and the boys sit down to eat, first demolishing her cookie platter, and then devouring two loaves of bread, a loaf of garlic bread, all four lasagnas, and her meager salad.
Chava gulps down a bowl of cereal and milk in the kitchen, mentally planning breakfast, if her next food order doesn't arrive in time.
While the boys are still eating, Chava slips into her bedroom and looks around. It is neat, clean, comfortable, and hers. She sighs, and begins gathering up her items and haphazardly throwing them into a box. When the box is full, she carries it into the next room over, her studio, and dumps it on the floor. Then she returns to the bedroom, refilling her box until the room is completely empty of any personal items.
The linens on the beds are fresh, changed in anticipation of her roommate's arrival. She scribbles a quick note to that effect and leaves it on one of the beds. She gives the room a last parting look and goes into the studio, now piled high with all of her belongings.
The studio was once her creative escape, but now she knows it will be her isolation chamber in an apartment full of people. Still, she knows it is the only logical place to be. It has a daybed, a window, and most importantly, its own bathroom.
She tries to shut off her racing thoughts, and methodically arranges her items so that the room feels habitable again.
Then, taking a deep breath, she goes out to prepare the next meal.
Chava is the self-appointed chef and cleaning lady, a role that keeps her blessedly busy and able to drown out the rising sense of aloneness in a crowded apartment.
She deliberately tries not to learn their names, not to engage. She knows how desperately she wants it, and total control will be far easier than quantifying how much is appropriate.
She carries her MP3 player with her wherever she goes, trying to still her feelings with music and shiurim.
Her voice is smothered except for in her room when the minyan is going strong, confident that they will drown her out. A prisoner in her own mind, she spends part of each day journaling, trying to keep things upbeat despite the crushing loneliness dragging her down.
This is not forever, Chava reminds herself. It will end. It has to.
One afternoon, Chava is overtaken by an uncharacteristic exhaustion. She succumbs to sleep, but when awoken by her alarm, some hours later, she is not feeling refreshed in the slightest. She is feeling significantly worse - slightly nauseous, her mind somewhat foggy, and indeterminate pains in her stomach. She feels dizzy when she tries to stand, and decides to just stay in bed.
A few hours later, she hears a knock at the door. "Are you okay?" someone calls.
Right, she reminds herself. I didn't make lunch today. At least it means I'm needed.
"I'm fine," Chava calls back through the locked door. "I think I'm coming down with something, I'll stay in my room for a day or two so I don't give it to anyone else."
She tries to rest, and finally falls into a fitful sleep. She keeps waking up with stabbing pain that is getting stronger and stronger. She is freezing cold and boiling hot, trembling and scared. She vomits into the negel vasser shissel at her bedside, horrified to see what looks like coffee grounds streaked with bright red blood. She tries to call for help, but her cry is weak even to her own ears, and nobody hears her.
Drained and afraid, she falls back into a tortured sleep. Her chest has now joined the cacophony of pain, and it hurts to breathe.
When Chava wakes again, with awful pains ripping through her chest and stomach, she has but one panicked thought: Get help! She calls out, but her voice is not any stronger and the bochurim are having a noisy discussion. The short distance from her bed to the door is interminable, and she collapses after a few steps. She tries to crawl or drag herself forward but can barely move.
Hours later, she wakes up disoriented, finding herself laying in a heap on the floor, ten endless feet from the door. She realizes that the pain has subsided somewhat. She stands gingerly, still slightly dizzy.
In the shower, she glances in the mirror. She is shocked when she sees her chest, a lurid palette of black and blue. Looking down, her stomach is similarly decorated. She hastily puts on her shirt, blocking it out, because she has no idea what to do.
The next day, she slips quietly back into her role as chef.
It is a few days later when it first happens. Chava is sitting on her bed, writing in her journal, when a sharp pain shoots through her still-sore chest, reverberating through the bruises. Her mouth tries to sharply take in a breath, but she realizes in sudden fear that she can't.
Trying to stay calm, she methodically tries to breathe. She leans forward, stands up, presses on her painful chest, swallows to check her throat. But nothing makes a difference.
It feels much longer than it is. Less than 20 seconds later, the invisible hand is released, and she gasps for a few minutes until her breathing evens.
She sits disbelieving, not sure that it really occurred.
It is late the next evening when it happens again. This time Chava is not as shocked. She sits, trying to stay calm, as she isolates the source of her inability to breathe. Struggling and contorting, she manages to get in a drop of air, but gives up quickly as the effort seems to cost more oxygen than it gains.
She finally works it out, just as the episode ends: She cannot control the muscles connected to breathing, any more than she can wiggle her ears. The muscles seem completely disconnected.
Still feeling guilty about keeping her illness quiet, Chava makes an appointment to see the building's doctor promptly.
Unfortunately, he is feeling grumpy from dealing with three cases of panic attacks.
She barely manages to tell him that she is having episodes where she can't breathe, when he is already muttering under his breath.
He impatiently goes through the motions, doing an EKG and a chest x-ray. In his clipped Indian accent, he points out that both are fine. He tells her that she is just having panic attacks and needs to stay calm, she is in no danger.
Chava tries to protest, but he is unwilling to listen.
As the days wear on, the episodes become somewhat routine for her. Twenty or so seconds of breathlessness. "I can handle this," Chava tells herself, but her conscience won't let her rest.
She makes another appointment to see the doctor, but he has already made up his mind.
"What you are experiencing is a panic attack. You are safe, but your body is afraid. I can give you anti-anxiety medication if they are still bothering you. But I cannot keep giving you x-rays for no reason. I am going to ask you to stop coming to me for the same issue."
Chava bursts out crying, trying to convince him to take her seriously, but he is immovable.
"No, your drama does not make this more serious than it is. A panic attack can feel scary, but it is not dangerous. Please do not keep bothering me about it."
In desperation, she accepts his pills. But all she gets for her effort is near-constant dizziness, a slight headache, and unusual clumsiness. She throws the rest of the pills away, knowing that it was a fool's errand — these cannot possibly be panic attacks.
But what can she do?
She tries her own interventions, adjusting her diet, exercise and sleep, doing mindfulness exercises and saying extra Tehillim. The episodes keep coming no matter what she does, sometimes slightly closer together, other times further apart. Chava soon gives up and decides to just learn to manage with them.
She gets a stopwatch and keeps it clipped to her necklace. It keeps her grounded and is good for documenting the mysterious episodes, in the hopes that one day they'll be solved.
As the weeks pass, she notices that the episodes are lasting slightly longer and are getting ever-so-slightly closer together.
One Shabbos, an unusually strong burst of pain precedes an unusally long episode. As the seconds tick by, her usual calm demeanor during the episode gives way to a sense of panic. Will the episode ever end? Should she go beg one of the bochurim to help, assuming there is anything for them to help with? One eye on the clock, she gives herself a deadline of 90 seconds. She unlocks the door just in case and returns to her bed, shaking.
The world is getting fuzzy. 90 seconds. Go get help? Just 5 more seconds.
At 93 seconds, her chest goes on fire briefly, and she tries to swallow giant lungfuls of air, one on top of the other, until her breathing goes back to normal.
She collapses sideways onto her bed and cries.
She keeps setting new limits and breaking them.
90 seconds becomes 95. Then 120. Then 180.
Chava is almost impressed with her newfound ability to survive without breathing for so long. A real endurance exercise.
Her stomach only occasionally twinges, and the pain in her chest is never more than a dull ache, except at the beginning and end of each episode.
She never totally blacks out, she assures herself.
It becomes a new normal.
It is a full month before she is forced to acknowledge how abnormal it really is.
She has gotten very experienced at handling her episodes. If she's in her room, she gets into an uncomfortable position leaning forward on her bed, which seems to enable her to force in a small amount of air with a reasonable effort. In the kitchen, she shuts off any appliances and sits on the floor to wait it out.
The episodes are more frequent, coming every 6–8 hours. Nobody ever comes into the kitchen, so she stops trying to be in her room every time. It's just annoying and unnecessary.
So when Chava's chest shrieks in pain during dinner preparations, she takes it in stride. She shuts off the flame under the pots, and sits on the floor to wait it out. She holds her stopwatch, knowing that this will end before 3 minutes. The seconds tick by with agonizing slowness.
This time I will stay alert the whole time, she tells herself.
Footsteps break her concentration. Someone is coming into the kitchen! A little embarrassed at being caught awkwardly sitting on the floor, she looks up to see one of the bochurim, carrying a dish. He must not be sure where to put it, she thinks, but cannot speak. She motions for him to put it down on the counter, which he does, but he doesn't leave.
He squats down so he is eye level with her. "Are you okay?" he asks.
Flustered, and unused to anyone addressing her directly for so long, she doesn't respond instantly. Finally, she shrugs, not wanting to lie.
"Eli!" the bochur stands up and calls. "C'mere a minute!"
Another bochur ambles into the kitchen. He stops short when he sees Chava sitting there, pale, her lips visibly blue.
Eli disappears, returning seconds later with a bag emblazoned with a medical logo.
He is next to her in an instant, holding an oxygen mask. Chava waves it off, knowing that it won't help while she can't actually inhale.
He is asking her questions now, low and urgent, but she is starting to fade out, despite her resolution. She looks at her stopwatch, noting with relief that this episode should be over soon. Weakly she lifts a finger indicating them to wait.
Although she is expecting it, the lightning in her chest is surprisingly painful, and she jerks involuntarily as the muscles release and she begins gasping for breath. The world slowly comes back into focus.
The two bochurim watching her are obviously worried.
When she feels capable of speech again, she tells them she is fine, and thanks them for their concern.
But they don't look reassured.
Chava tries to go back to her cooking, as if nothing has happened. But the two bochurim are still standing in the kitchen, and she is extremely conscious of their gaze.
Finally, she turns to face them. "Is there something I can help with?"
"Yes," one of them answers. "An explanation."
"Of what?" she asks, stalling.
"Of whatever just took place," the other answers evenly.
"It's none of your business," she blurts out, then regrets her rude words immediately, blushing.
"It actually is," the second bochur, Eli, responds unfazed.
Chava looks at them skeptically.
"I'm a certified paramedic," Eli informs her.
"And I'm Dr. Middos," she responds sarcastically.
Both bochurim laugh, but Eli pulls out an ID card from his pocket with a flourish and hands it to her. It has his picture, and names him as a registered paramedic in the state of New York. She hands it back meekly, apologetically.
Eli continues as if there was no interruption. "And Berke here is an EMT. So would you like to tell us now, or in fifteen minutes?"
"Fifteen minutes," Chava says softly, grateful for the unexpected reprieve.
She doesn't get too much time to process.
Fifteen minutes later precisely, Eli and his buddy are back, complete with chairs. Chava isn't finished clearing the counters yet, but she knows she can't put them off anymore.
Resigned, she sits.
"We're not here to yell at you," the second bochur remarks. She half-smiles. "We're just worried."
I'm also worried, Chava wants to say. I'm worried about how you will respond. Instead, she just sits mutely, twisting her hands together.
"How about you start by explaining what we saw?"
She hesitates, then tries to say it as briefly as possible. "It was an episode of dyspnea."
"Thank you, Dr. Middos, but we could figure that out for ourselves. How about you start at the beginning?"
"Yes, the very beginning. Whatever might have first contributed to the dyspnea. And maybe with a little more detail?"
She can't get out of this, she realizes. Chava takes a deep breath, then begins haltingly. "I think it started... a few months ago. I got sick." It comes back to her vividly, and she shudders at the memory, the raw terror when she saw the bloody mess and her bruised chest.
Her speech feels rusty to her own ears, but reliving the whole sequence of events, she recounts them in full detail, only slightly jumbled.
When she finally reaches the end, she sighs. "And that's what you saw today."
The two bochurim sit silently for a moment, looking a little dazed. Then Eli starts firing questions at her. Where was the pain located? How severe? Can she exhale? Any other symptoms? Is it a linear progression or does it sometimes seem to get better?
Chava answers the best she can, until the flow of questions comes to an end.
But her relief is premature. They ask her the one question she has been dreading. "Why didn't you tell us about this earlier?"
Chava tries feebly to defend herself. "I didn't think anyone would be able to help... there's not much to do... and also I wasn't sure... maybe the doctor was right."
She is treated to a short but strongly worded lecture on Chossid Shoteh and Hishtadlus and Sofek and their credentials as she hangs her head silently.
Finally in a small voice she asks if she can go to her room, feeling like a misbehaving toddler.
They acquiesce, not looking too happy about it. Back in the privacy of her own space, she sags onto her bed, totally spent, and lets the tears flow unchecked.
Chava wakes up disoriented. It is dark outside, and the clock reads 2:09. She is still in her clothes, there is no negel vasser by her bed, and she is parched with thirst.
She slips out of her room to fill her negel vasser and her empty water bottle. She hears a heated conversation from a corner of the living room, muted as not to wake anyone else up.
With a sinking feeling, she realizes immediately: It is about her.
The next episode wakes her a few minutes after she falls back asleep. But she has a hard time staying calm throughout. The worried faces and oxygen tank dance in her mind, distracting her.
But it finally ends, and she falls back into a sleep of nightmares.
In the morning, Chava feels refreshed despite all that's happened. She gets dressed as usual, davens as usual, and goes into the kitchen to prepare breakfast as usual.
Then she sees the honor guard there to greet her.
So it won't be a usual day after all.
"We discussed your case last night," Eli begins with no preamble. "As you may have realized, we're pretty concerned about it."
"I'm FINE," Chava protests.
"Fair enough," the other bochur, Berke, answers. "We decided to let you prove that."
She looks up, startled. Eli explains.
"With your permission, we want to check your vitals. Now, as a baseline, and then during an episode, to see how well you really handle that long without oxygen. We'd like to compare one episode with treatment, and one without, to see if it's responsible for us to not do anything."
Before she can respond, he continues. "Either way, though, we are not comfortable letting you have any more episodes without someone keeping an eye on you. Three minutes is really an upper limit before serious damage takes place, and there's no guarantee that the episodes won't start to get longer."
On that frightening note, he looks at her squarely. "We just need your consent."
There are tears in her eyes, she feels rushing sounds in her ears, and she looks down, shaking her head, not trusting her voice.
Berke adds, more gently, "Don't answer what you are thinking. Answer what you would tell your sister to say if she was in this situation."
Chava is silent for a moment, trying to assimilate it all. But that Berke guy has a good point. If Dini was asking her advice about a similar issue, the answer was obvious.
"Yes," she says, almost inaudibly. Then, in a stronger voice, "I consent."
The two don't waste any time. In short order, Chava is sitting with a blood pressure cuff on her arm, a pulse ox on her finger, and a stethoscope on her chest. Eli checks her pulse, pupils, and capillary refill, with Berke recording all of the data.
"When do you expect the next episode?" he asks.
She swallows, looks at the clock, and answers. "Probably within 2-4 hours."
"Will you be in the kitchen this whole time?"
"Stick around here," he says firmly. "Me and Berke will be keeping an eye on you."
So much fun, she doesn't say.
Her tension spurs her to work faster, and she makes cake after cake, wrapping them and placing them into the freezer. She prepares a big pot of soup for lunch, and has rolls rising on trays. She makes a potato salad with carrots and fried onions, and runs the dishwasher twice.
As she is dressing the salad, she suddenly jerks as the familiar pain slices into her chest.
Chava turns off all the burners on the stove, and the oven, before sitting on the floor. She hopes uneasily that she isn't expected to notify them somehow, afraid of their displeasure.
Berke and Eli have apparently been serious about keeping an eye on her, and are at her side almost immediately.
There is no way for her to enter the calm mental state that usually helps her get through those long three minutes. All of the apparatus is replaced and terse commands are penetrating her consciousness although she tries hard to block them out. Eli keeps the stethoscope on throughout, listening for any heart or lung sounds that might explain what is going on.
"Got an error. Rebooting."
"How high'd you take it?"
"Last time she was 70. I did 100."
"Take it to 200," Eli says grimly.
"Sats are dipping into the 80s. Should I take out the tank?"
"She's still awake and alert. Just monitoring for now. Blood pressure rising or falling?"
"Up to 171, was 163 before."
"Low 80s. Some dips into 70s."
"2:48. Hopefully over soon. This is is watching a train wreck."
At long last Chava feels the pain snake through her chest again, and gulps air until she can breathe normally.
They keep the machines on, monitoring to see how long it would take to return to baseline.
When they are finally satisfied some ten minutes later, they disconnect her and let her return to the poor abandoned rolls and salad.
"Next time we're going to measure how it goes with intervention, okay?"
Berke notices her grimace. "It may not be pleasant, but we're really just trying to help," he says kindly.
"Thank you," she manages insincerely.
Chava is piling food onto serving platters for supper when the next episode hits.
She slowly sinks down, dreading what would happen next.
Berke and Eli look a lot perkier this time.
"Lay down on the floor," Eli instructs.
She complies, feeling exceedingly vulnerable.
A mask is placed over her mouth and nose, and Eli gives an experimental rescue breath. "Air goes in normally," he notes. "Doesn't seem to be any obstruction."
Berke connects the pulse ox and blood pressure cuff again.
"Get readings as frequently as you can," Eli instructs, and goes back to slow and steady rescue breathing.
"Why not bag?" Berke asks, his eyes on the monitors.
"Too risky," Eli responds between breaths. "Not worth it."
"If we need to, I'll use a mask with an inlet. But manual either way. Way more controlled."
"Sats still steady in upper 80s and 90s."
"Blood pressure 133."
"Wow, much better. Time?"
"Sats still in high 80s. Blood pressure creeping up a bit, 137."
At 2:59, Chava's body visibly arcs as her chest protests. She sits up, pushing away the mask. It is nice not having to gasp for breath with crying lungs, she has to admit.
Seeing their satisfied expressions, she knows that going forward they won't have it any other way.
Chava fingers the panic button now given a permanent place of honor on her necklace. It had been firmly impressed on her that she must have it with her at all times, and must press it immediately if she so much as thought an episode might be starting. If not... the threat is left open-ended, ominous.
It is the middle of the night. Chava awakens suddenly, sitting bolt upright.
It is another episode, she realizes that right away. The stopwatch is turned on almost automatically. So what is nagging her?
With a rush, it all comes back. She stands to unlock the door and goes back to her bed. She hesitates over the button for a long moment in the quiet apartment full of sleeping bochurim. Finally she presses it quickly, wincing at the loud noise, and immediately releases the button.
Would they hear it? She isn't kept long in suspense.
The door bursts open, and Eli and Berke are standing there, Eli holding a mask.
"Can you lay down on the floor?" Berke asks.
Shakily, she complies, and Eli gets to work. Berke picks up the stopwatch to see what it reads. "0:42." he announces.
Eli mutters something, but continues breathing steadily.
When the episode is over, Eli confronts her. "You didn't press the panic button right away."
Chava is quiet.
"We were in here within 5 seconds of the alarm going off. Next time I want to hear it within 10 seconds of the episode starting."
She hangs her head.
On that note, they leave her alone in the room. She gets back into bed, shivering, and huddles under the blanket.
During Shacharis the next morning, Chava feels another episode start.
Unhappily, she presses the alarm. A few bochurim look up, puzzled, and Berke and Eli run over to her, still in Tefillin, to resuscitate. A few minutes later they go back to rejoin the minyan, all without saying a word.
It is Erev Shabbos. Chava is near tears at the thought of using the alarm on Shabbos itself.
Eli and Berke come into the kitchen to make sure she still has it on.
"Pikuach Nefesh Docheh Es Hashabbos."
"But I would survive without it! I did so many times already!"
"I've been Mechallel Shabbos for less. First of all, it's very hard on your body to go with inadequate oxygen for so long. The blood pressure without respirations is bad enough I'd transport for that alone. Secondly, you know as well as I do that at any point, the episodes could start to get longer. We need you to hit the alarm EVERY time."
"But... Shabbos..." she whispers.
"The alternative is 24-hour surveillance, or wearing a monitor full-time."
"How about surveillance during the day, and only rely on the alarm at night?" Berke proposes.
"You know what? How about you'll only use the alarm when you're in your room or if everyone is asleep."
Seeing the logic and appreciating the compromise, she agrees.
"But wear the alarm the whole time either way," Eli warns.
She nods unhappily.
A person can get used to anything, Chava thinks to herself.
The episodes are now more frequent, with six hours the upper limit. They are usually well over three minutes, sometimes pushing four.
At the first burst of chest pain, she would instinctively press both the stopwatch and the alarm. Then she would lie down on the floor. Someone would come, put a mask on her face, and breathe for her until she pushed off the mask and sat up. She'd thank them, then go back to whatever she was interrupted in the middle of.
An annoying interaction, but then back to business, she thinks.
She is totally unprepared for the next spike.
Chava is standing at the dishwasher, unloading the clean dishes and putting them away.
As she lifts a plate out, she is suddenly blindsided by an unprecedented pain ripping through her chest.
The plate falls on the floor, smashing into smithereens, but she barely even registers. She grabs frantically for the counter so she won't collapse. Half standing, half leaning on the counter, her chest in screaming pain, she is afraid to move.
Berke hears the smash and decides to just make sure everything is okay. "Need a hand?" he asks as he wanders into the kitchen.
Then he realizes that she is standing bent over and not moving. Approaching quickly, he sees that her face is pale and her hands are shaking. "Are you okay?" She can't answer.
"Eli!" he yells. "Get over here!"
Eli runs in, and quickly assessing the situation, takes Chava's arm. He is unprepared for her entire weight sagging onto him, but Berke reacts quickly and together they lower her to the floor, careful to keep her clear of the broken glass.
Eli gets the mask on and starts breaths.
"Berke, is the stopwatch on?"
"No." He starts it rolling.
"Get the monitors." As an afterthought, "And oxygen."
Sats are pretty low, and blood pressure is over 150. Eli winces, but continues breathing steadily.
"I thought it felt like a long time."
"Need me to take over?"
At 8:12, Chava's body convulses with the same intense pain. She curls up instinctively, grabbing her chest as if to still the pain which has subsided somewhat.
Berke switches the mask to an oxygen mask, and the two bochurim wait for her sats to return to normal.
"Pain was worse this time?"
"How bad, on a scale of 1-10?"
"Off the chart," she groans.
Not even attempting to finish the dishwasher or clean up the broken dish, Chava walks painfully to her room as soon as the oxygen mask is removed.
She lays facedown on her bed and lets herself sob into her pillow. It's a lot to process, and her chest is still hurting to boot.
The episodes are no longer just annoying. They could easily kill her.
Her life is now fully dependent on others.
After sobbing out her emotions, Chava sits up, still painfully, and lets herself express it all in words in her rapidly filling journal.
Feeling somewhat better, she finishes her daily learning, straightens up her room and goes to the bathroom to wash her face and brush her hair.
Her chest is still hurting. She lifts her shirt, fully expecting to see healthy skin as usual, masking the pain underneath. She is stunned to see a clearly visible bruise, spotted with red.
Chava returns to her bed in a state of shock.
She has to tell them, right? So awkward, and they'll definitely want to see.
But maybe, a far shot, they need to know, they can do something about it...
Just then, she hears a knock at the door.
She goes to the door, and sees none other than Berke and Eli. She starts guiltily.
"We want to get new baselines," Eli tells her. "Can we come in?"
Wordlessly, she leaves the door open and steps aside.
She cooperates listlessly as they check and recheck her pulse, blood pressure, breathing rate, sats, and capillary refill. Eli looks unhappily at the pulse ox, which keeps reading in the mid to low 90s no matter how many times he repositions it.
"Baselines are not good," Eli says bluntly. "I want you to rest for an hour and we'll recheck to see if it looks any better."
Chava still can't bring herself to say anything, and just nods.
After they leave, she lays down on her bed and tries to ignore her racing thoughts.
An hour later, they are back.
She bites her lip as they repeat all of the checks, twice to be sure.
Finally they are done. Chava wills them to leave so she doesn't have to feel guilty about not saying anything, but Eli decides it's a good idea to tell her about the results.
"You've had a pretty significant drop in oxygen since this last episode. Your sats are often down in the low 90s, when they were in the high 90s before. Your blood pressure was 83/50, when it was always in the 70s. Capillary refill is a little delayed and you're breathing faster. We're concerned, although not sure about next steps yet."
She blanches, nods, looks away.
Berke is apparently pretty good at reading people. "It looks like you have something to add."
She looks up, startled. "It's... it's not important."
"Out with it."
"It's just..." Chava hesitates. "It... I saw... it's probably nothing, but... my chest is bruised again." She gets out the last words quickly, then wraps her arms around her chest, flushing.
The two bochurim look at each other.
"Like when you were sick?" Eli asks carefully.
"Not as bad."
Eli sighs. "I'm sorry, I want to check."
Strongly regretting having spoken up, she meekly lays down on the bed and allows Eli to lift her shirt and palpate the bruise. She squeezes her eyes shut, feeling hot tears trying to escape.
After what feels much longer than the actual 30 seconds, he lowers her shirt and allows her to sit back up again.
"We need to discuss this and get back to you."
Before they are able to do that, though, the next episode starts, barely 5 hours after the last.
She cries the entire 8:22.
The promised discussion turns out to be a brainstorming of ways to get their patient to a hospital, stat!
They try calling the doctor, who hangs up on them when they tell him who they are talking about.
They try going to the doctor for an imaginary ailment, and discussing the girl in their apartment at the same time. He angrily insists that it is just panic attacks and refuses to listen to another word.
They end up having a group discussion with all of the bochurim in the apartment, held out of her earshot.
The consensus is that they need to use any means at their disposal, legal or illegal, honest or dishonest, to get an ambulance out to their apartment.
One bochur tries to use his congenital heart murmur as an excuse for an emergency, but the good doctor is apparently not adept enough at stethoscope usage to hear it.
Another bochur fakes appendicitis, but the doctor tells him it is just indigestion.
The doctor, fed up, refuses to treat anyone from their apartment anymore.
The suggestions start to peter out.
With time, Chava starts to accept the new routine.
She gets plenty of opportunity to practice, with 4 or more episodes happening every 24 hours. Another two bochurim are roped in for backup, and she perfects the skill, of doubtful utility, to differentiate people based solely on their breathing patterns.
The little panic button she wears constantly now has miles of emotion tagged onto it — fear, resentment, and gratitude.
It will only be many nights later that the latter emotion entirely eclipses the others.
Chava wakes up suddenly, tired and disoriented. It takes a few seconds to realize that the pain she is experiencing is from her chest, another few seconds to realize that it is Shabbos, and then she deliberately presses both the stopwatch and the panic button, still too tired to get to the floor. She tells herself she will get off the bed when they come, but she just doesn't have the energy to move. She closes her eyes again to wait.
With a start, she suddenly becomes aware that it has been far too long. Why isn't anyone coming? She is instantly fully awake, and fighting a rising fear.
She presses the panic button again, but it barely chirps.
She shakes it, bangs it, but nothing changes.
Go get help! Now! her body screams. Chava drags herself out of bed and tries to run to the door, feeling like she is wading through waist-high mud. The world is starting to get black, and she forces herself to wrench open the door, finally collapsing halfway through the doorway.
Two bochurim are learning quietly in a corner, as part of the new 24-hour learning project they have undertaken for Elul. They notice the door opening and see her fall. One of them leaps to his feet and yells for Eli and Berke to "get over here, now!"
They wake up at his urgent call and run over to the figure on the floor.
Chava is on her back and getting breaths within seconds. Berke lifts the stopwatch and reads the number disbelievingly: 3:47.
Eli mutters something and continues breathing. Berke brings over the bag of equipment, and sets up the pulse ox and oxygen tank.
At 9:14 on the stopwatch, her body suddenly curls up and she is breathing on her own again, albeit weakly. They put her on max oxygen and watch her sats slowly, slowly recovering.
Her eyes open, and Eli can't contain himself anymore. "What on earth were you thinking?" His fear and anxiety come through clearly. "Is this some kind of pathetic Elul hachlata? To put yourself in so much danger? Do you realize what kind of close call that was? We're Mechallel Shabbos for you every week, and now you're getting frum?"
She is too weak to respond, to defend herself.
Finally she feels strong enough to sit up. She takes off the mask and thanks them in a low voice. Then, with effort, she removes the panic button from her necklace, saying, "I couldn't get it to work, I'm sorry." She hands it to them.
Berke presses the button hard, but can't get a sound out either. Eli takes it from him, contrite.
Chava spends the rest of Shabbos with leads attached to her chest and full-time surveillance too. They're not taking any chances.
When she gets a new panic button on Sunday, she doesn't feel ambivalent about it anymore. She feels fully, intensely grateful.
Days bleed into weeks.
She feels weaker, needing to rest a lot. The pain in her chest is thankfully transient, only to reappear during the actual episodes.
One morning, Chava wakes up with a sense of foreboding. It persists through davening and through eating, leaving her unsettled.
She even mentions it to Eli after an 8-minute episode during breakfast. He looks at her quizzically, but she can't explain. He humors her, checking all of her vitals, but nothing seems unusal.
She returns to her cooking, not really reassured.
She decides to prepare lunch and supper early, and then try taking a nap.
Chava is walking back to her room when her chest suddenly explodes with such a blinding pain she simply crumples to the floor.
Berke, standing nearby, sees her fall. He has a mask over her mouth and nose before the others can even register what just happened.
Many of the bochurim stare openmouthed, never having actually seen an episode up close.
Eli brings over the bag of equipment and gets oxygen set up. He decides to attach chest leads, bp cuff, and the pulse ox, in deference to her previous concern.
Then he takes over the breathing from Berke, who is just starting to get winded.
A minute later her prone body jerks, and they switch to the oxygen mask. Berke notes the stopwatch, at just 6:19, uncharacteristically short. But she is lying too still, and suddenly the monitor is beeping madly. Both Berke and Eli reach for the carotid pulse at the same moment. Eli stops, yanks up her shirt, and finds the correct location on the sternum.
Before Berke is finished uttering the terrible words, "No pulse. Begin CPR," he is already pumping.
The gaggle of bochurim, realizing that something is very wrong, start saying Tehillim.
Chava scrabbles around frantically for something to grip, to keep her grounded. There is nothing, and she makes a fist, tighter, and tighter, and tighter. Berke notices. "She's still conscious," he hisses to Eli. Addressing her, he says, "Hang in there, we're doing our best."
The darkness beckons to her, to escape the pain, but it keeps slipping beyond her reach.
It takes 12 minutes of CPR before she regains a pulse.
It is another long 14 minutes before she opens her eyes.
"How are you feeling?" Berke asks her.
"Like I was hit by a truck," Chava answers honestly.
They move her to her room after that, and won't let her out. She begs bathroom privileges, and is granted them, reluctantly, but only with the door unlocked. She shuffles there a few times a day, with someone dogging her steps lest she collapse suddenly.
She is not allowed to cook, or clean.
From feeling like a taker that is also giving, she is now completely a taker. A patient. Useless. A drain on everyone's time and energy.
Chava feels herself sinking into depression, and journals in desperation, hoping to find herself a lifeline.
From somewhere, a story seeps into her memory. A tzadik trying to give to a chassid. The chassid refusing. "Don't take away my mitzvah," the tzadik remonstrates.
"Let them have a mitzvah," she tells herself. "This is their tzedakah. One day I will also be a giver. For now, take graciously.
"The fact that you are here means that Hashem chose to create you, Yeish Me'ayin, this very second, in this very matzav. It means you have a purpose, even if you don't know it, don't know what it is yet.
"In the meantime, Al Kol Neshima Uneshima. Keep praising Hashem."
"I need to speak to the apartment host," the guard repeats.
Reluctantly, Eli allows Chava to go to the front door. She walks, slowly, holding on to the wall for support.
The tough black guard standing there addresses her.
"You took ten of the boys, right?"
"Well, we didn't find a place for the other seven. They're all sleeping in the stairwell for the past few weeks..."
She doesn't need to think. "Why didn't you tell me before? I would have happily taken them all!"
"Very serious. We have room for all of them."
The guard smiles, thanks her, and a few minutes later, escorts in a group of wan bochurim, some of whom seem too weak to stand.
Eli and Berke send her back to bed while they get to work tending their new group of patients.
Every episode is now a whole drama, with Eli and Berke on full alert.
For now they thankfully seem to all be fairly straightforward, although few are less than ten minutes long.
Chava spends most of her day resting, barely able to recognize herself as the one who cooked the whole Shabbos singlehandedly for ten so recently.
Her baselines are creeping up, Eli notes worriedly.
The chest pain never seems to go away completely anymore. It is always there, a shadow of itself, but reminding her constantly.
When one day Chava finds herself vomiting in the bathroom, Eli is nearly frantic. He spends an hour grilling her, trying to figure out why. She has no idea.
The next day, she is running a high fever, again inexplicably. Eli probes her stomach and ribs over and over, hoping to figure out the source. Wearily, she reassures him that the pain is constant and not worse in any one quadrant.
Chava knows it will be another cardiac episode before it even starts.
She presses the panic button for longer than necessary, even before the pain starts and reduces her to tears and she can't move anymore.
The unusually long sound alerts them that something might be up. They find her curled into a ball on her bed, tears flowing soundlessly.
They gently lower her to the floor. Berke starts the breaths, and Eli decides to switch to oxygen preemptively. He puts on cardiac leads, and marks her sternum with a black line - just in case.
Her fists are tightly clenched, and she appears to be in significant pain.
Then she jerks, instinctively putting her hand on her mouth to stifle an impossible cry, knocking loose the mask, then her hand goes limp.
The leads trace an almost flat line.
Eli is already in position.
Chava can't move anymore, but feels waves of pain slamming her down, over and over. She feels like she is drowning in pain, that she keeps getting thrust underwater, with no reprieve. The pain has its own cadence, HASHEM PLEASE HELP. KEIL REFA NA LA.
She finally, blessedly, blacks out.
Unfortunately, she regains consciousness while the CPR is still going on.
She tries to ride the waves of pain, to concentrate on something else, but cannot do anything but silently scream "Hashem please stop this I can't I can't!"
She almost regrets her prayer when her chest explodes into a horrible paroxysm of unrelenting pain.
Her lungs find their own power and she gasps, tears flowing unrestrained, trying not to scream. Eli covers her chest with ice packs, hoping to prevent too much bruising. She realizes it's best to modulate her breathing, and she manages to get it to a nearly normal pace. The pain finally begins to fade somewhat.
Eli moves aside the ice packs and gently probes her ribs again, checking for broken bones.
At long last Chava is returned to her bed, completely drained, still dealing with the pain, chilled from the ice packs, and desperately praying that it not happen again.
The episodes are completely erratic at this point. There is no safe time anymore. Sometimes they come back to back, with barely a pause in between. Other times she has a few hours of reprieve.
Eli marks the base of her sternum with black permanent marker, to save a marginal amount of time and painful probing.
Chava tries to accept these small gifts gratefully.
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Thu, Oct 07 2021, 5:07 pm
PART TWO - SALVATION
Levi is sitting at the table with a sefer and a cup of coffee, late at night. Moishy comes in and sits down next to him. Levi looks up, surprised.
"Moishy! You're feeling better?"
Moishy grins. "Yup, Baruch Hashem. I'm finally getting to see this place."
"Can I get you a cup of coffee?"
"Nah, I slept enough today. I wouldn't mind some of those muffins, though."
"They're on the counter. Didn't get that kind of thing out there, right?"
"Course not! They had us on stale matzah and water. Eli blames the food for getting us all sick. That and sleeping on a concrete floor."
Eli chooses that moment to walk over to the table. He sits down heavily.
"We should have talked about Moshiach... Nu, Eli, coffee?"
Levi puts together a quick coffee and pushes it over to Eli.
Eli looks up and sees Moishy at the table too. "Moishy, how are you feeling?"
"Much better, Baruch Hashem. Not dizzy anymore, and I even have my appetite back!"
Eli's haggard face breaks into a smile. "Great to hear."
"And what's up with you, Eli?" Levi asks. "You look pretty wiped out. Something up with the Maidel?"
Eli sighs deeply. "You have no idea. The last two days were punishing."
Eli takes a gulp of his coffee. "Nobody knows this probably, but we've needed to resuscitate her every day. Multiple times a day."
"Sometimes just breathing, but yeah, lots of times CPR too."
"So that one time in the living room wasn't it."
"No, not by far."
Levi leans forward. "So you had to do it more often the last two days?"
"I wish that was all." Eli shakes his head. "It's been completely insane. Two nights ago she says she's not feeling well and asks to go on the monitor. She's been resisting the monitor from the beginning, so my antenna is already up.
"So I set her up with the monitor. A few hours later, it goes off. She can't breathe. No major deal, that happens all the time. About 10 minutes later she's breathing again and I go back to sleep.
"But then a few hours later I hear the alarm go off again. This time though it's full arrest, right away. No pulse. It's my shift and I start CPR within seconds.
"The whole time though I'm shaking inside at the thought of what could have happened. Because this never happened to her before, to go straight into cardiac arrest. She wouldn't have had time to hit the button...
"Obviously I can't sleep very well after that.
"Then yesterday morning she has another episode during Shacharis. Eight minutes of respirations, then ten minutes of CPR. We put her on oxygen, but she doesn't regain consciousness properly the whole day, through a few more episodes. I'm going nuts but there's nothing I can do.
"Later last night, she has a really long episode. It's just breathing but the longest she ever had before was less than 15 minutes, and this time it's been over a half hour and still going on. It occurs to me that maybe she's dehydrated.
"I broke my own policy and gave her an IV." Eli sounds defeated.
"Why is that so bad?"
"Infection risk. I held off until now, but..." he spreads his arms in resignation. "I give her a bolus through the IV. Five minutes later the episode finally ends. I'm mentally congratulating myself, but then she has another two episodes practically back to back.
"This morning, Baruch Hashem, she wakes up feeling great. She's alert, able to eat and drink, and I'm able to breathe again.
"But then this afternoon, she starts running a fever. I can't figure out why, and all her vitals are tanking. I put her on oxygen, giving her some maintenance fluids, but nothing is helping.
"You know, when we first found out about these episodes, I promised that we'd just observe one to see how she handles them. I remember sitting there, watching all the numbers go haywire. Blood pressure through the roof, oxygen dropping, and we didn't have her consent to treat. I had to hold myself back not to intervene.
"I feel like that now, but this time it's not about consent. There's nothing I can do for her. She's had four cardiac episodes in the last eight hours. Berke's in with her now. I'm sure I'll get paged for another one any minute."
Eli drains his coffee cup and rests his head in his hands.
Levi is sitting there shaking his head. "Eli, you've had neis after neis. Hashem didn't get you this far for nothing."
"You're right... it's just so hard to watch this."
"Yeshuas Hashem Keheref Ayin. We're all davening, Eli."
"Yasher koach." Eli manages a small smile and clasps Levi's outstretched hand.
"ELI!" a voice yells from the back room.
Eli leaps to his feet and runs to deal with the latest crisis. Levi murmurs a kapitel of Tehillim.
"That's crazy," Moishy says, wide eyed. "Why don't they get her to a hospital? This doesn't sound like something to be taking care of in-house."
"Oh right, you don't know about any of this. We're on the doctor's black list. He won't take calls for or about any of us. We have no way to call for help."
Moishy turns serious. "So this is just a matter of calling an ambulance?"
"Yes, but that's not much of a 'just' when you're a prisoner."
Moishy stands up deliberately. "It's Tuesday, right?"
Moishy looks at the clock. "After 10:00 pm. Mark's shift."
Moishy strides briskly over to the front door, and begins pounding on it with all of his might. "MARK! MARK!" he bellows in a powerful voice.
The other bochurim look up in bewilderment, and Levi runs over to make sure that Moishy is okay. "I'm fine," he says impatiently, still banging.
He pauses for a few minutes and begins hammering on the door and yelling again.
Footsteps are heard from the hallway, and the door bursts open. "What do you think you're–" a deep voice splutters, then stops short. "MOISHY! How are you?"
Levi looks in astonishment as the burly black guard claps Moishy on the back.
"Mark, so good to see you! I'm doing much better as you can see."
"Oh boy, you look alive again! When I got you in here two weeks ago I was really worried about you."
"Mark, you saved my life. And you promised me that you'd be willing to help me again if you could."
"Moishy, you know I will."
"Mark, I need you to call an ambulance."
"Ooh, that's past my pay grade. Why don't you ask the doctor?"
"We're on his black list. But we have a girl here in really bad shape. We have a paramedic on top of things, but she needs to be in the hospital."
"Moishy, you for real man?"
"Mark, I'm ready to swear on a Torah scroll."
Mark looks at Moishy searchingly. His face is serious.
"You're not trying a trick, are you? This could cost me my job."
Levi walks over to their makeshift Aron Kodesh, takes out the Torah, and carries it to Moishy who is still standing at the door.
There are tears in Moishy's eyes as he takes the Torah lovingly in his arms.
"I swear by the holy Torah that if you call an ambulance here you will be saving a girl's life."
Mark is quiet for a moment. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a cell phone. In the sudden stillness, the four beeps are clearly audible.
"I need an ambulance to transport a female patient to the hospital. We have a paramedic on the scene, just need urgent transport."
There is a pause.
"Yes, building three. I'll meet you at the gate and take you up to the apartment."
Mark returns his cell phone to his pocket. "They're on their way. ETA is 7 minutes. I'll bring them right up."
Levi runs to the back room to update Eli.
With his free left hand, Moishy grabs Mark in a hug. "Mark, you are an angel in disguise. G-d bless you with more good than you can ever imagine."
Mark is smiling. He mumbles something, waves, and runs to the elevator, accidentally leaving the door wide open.
Moishy closes the door gently, and goes to return the Torah to the Aron Kodesh. But Simchas Torah has come early this year, and he is drawn into a circle of exuberant singing and dancing.
Fifteen minutes later they are still celebrating, as paramedics, rolling a stretcher, run into the apartment. Berke escorts them to the back room, where Eli is standing next to his semi-conscious patient, packed bags at his side.
They quickly move Chava to the stretcher, and set her up with their own oxygen mask and monitors. A few minutes later, they are ready to go.
"We can only take a relative along," one of them says uncertainly.
"I'm her brother," Eli states firmly.
In the ambulance, Eli starts to give a capsule history of her mysterious episodes.
He is interrupted by an alarm.
Eli pulls out his pocket mask and begins giving rescue breaths, as the paramedics pull out a resus kit. He refuses to use the bag, and continues breathing. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees one of the paramedics ready a syringe.
"NO!" he yells.
"It's just epinephrine."
"No, nothing! Don't give her anything!"
The paramedic looks at his colleague, not sure if he should listen.
"This guy has been taking care of her the past few weeks. We'd better trust his judgment," the other advises.
Chava's body jerks, despite the restraints, and Eli removes his mask, replacing the oxygen. He then calmly resumes the history where he left off.
The stunned paramedic directs the driver to a further, but better hospital, that has a better chance of handling a complex case.
As they arrive at the hospital, there are two orderlies waiting for them. She is whisked immediately upstairs for a full torso MRI. "Joe called in and told us about your sister, we're giving this case top priority." Eli is surprised but very relieved. "Joe is one of our best," the nurse tells him confidentially. "If he has no idea what's going on, we take it pretty seriously."
Eli asks the nurse to PLEASE call him right away if she stops breathing, and not to let anyone give her any medication, aside for oxygen. She agrees and rushes off to pass on the orders.
Eli is then called in to the attending doctor to explain the history.
The doctor furrows his brow. "Off the top of my head, all I can think of is to check for bilateral diaphragmatic paralysis, which would explain the degree of dyspnea at least. But absent a previous medical intervention, that's usually caused by pressure from another organ or growth. I'll be checking for that on the MRI, as soon as the results come in.
"I agree with you that this doesn't seem systemic. It looks like an acute physiological problem. I'll talk to you again after we see the MRI."
Chava is brought to a room, dressed in a hospital gown and hooked up to monitors and a low-flow cannula. Samples are taken, weight and vitals obtained. Eli arranges a long-sleeved gown, which she is thankful for.
Eli is watching the monitors when he sees a sudden jump in pulse rate and sees the respirations flatten out. He immediately drops the bed, rips out the cannula, and starts giving breaths through the mask he has with him.
The nurse runs in a few seconds later. "Looks like you have this under control," she comments, bemused. She stays in the room for another moment, watching. "Do you want a bag?" He shakes his head and continues, but the nurse calls in the attending anyhow.
The doctor looks in some astonishment at the numbers on the screen. "I see you weren't exaggerating. Do you think she is any immediate danger?"
"No, this is pretty common," Eli responds between breaths. "I'm afraid it's just a symptom."
The doctor listens with his stethoscope. "Air seems to be flowing normally in both lungs. Pulse seems even but fast, and blood pressure has skyrocketed.
"May I ask why you are manually giving breaths, and not bagging her?"
"Too easy to overinflate the lungs or give her too much oxygen," Eli answers.
The doctor does not disagree. "More work for you, though."
"What we wouldn't do for a sister," Eli says softly.
The doctor comes back a few hours later for a consultation with Eli. Chava is sleeping, still unmedicated, as per Eli's determined stance. He allows for a saline drip, but nothing else.
The doctor brings the printouts and shows them to Eli. "I'm still stunned myself," he says. "Look over here." He indicates a small mass. "See how it's in the bloodstream heading towards the heart? Now look at this print. It's over here, away from the heart. There is a small tear here, with some scar tissue developed around it. It's like a shortcut between both blood vessels. And incredibly, there's another connecting pathway down here! This growth seems to be circulating.
"Our guess is that when it hits over here, it presses on the nerves and paralyzes the diaphragm. Because of its size and shape, it gets stuck there, and finally passes through the trapdoor and recirculates.
"The flaps close, but not perfectly. That explains the low sats.
"I couldn't find records of anything similar to this case. The chances of it happening are completely nonexistent. If a circulating growth or clot like this forms, it will enter the heart and stop it immediately.
"If not for this slightly unusual narrowing, it would have entered the heart and been fatal. It's a miracle nobody ever gave her epinephrine or any other vasodilator, that would have opened things up and been a death sentence.
"We think the growth must have formed down here, in this lower passageway, then somehow broken free and floated in the bloodstream. The scar tissue is perfectly formed to allow it to happen. It's uncanny.
"We sent it to a number of radiologists, and all of them were convinced that the MRI was edited."
Eli whispers his gratitude to Hashem, relieved that his instincts were right about medication.
Finally, he responds. "What can be done about it?"
The doctor frowns slightly. "That's a little bit more complicated. It looks like this growth moves at irregular speeds, and we can't predict where it will be at any given moment. But an episode on the operating table could necessitate full open heart surgery, with all of those risks. Doing it right after an episode is risky too, because she isn't very stable immediately following.
"We also can't leave her open for too long, it's very hard on the body.
"So here's what I think. First we'll make a tiny incision here and get a biopsy of the lower passage, so pathology has somewhere to start.
"Then our plan is to start over here, and open the vena cava slowly, moving downwards, until we catch it. That way we can hopefully prevent it from causing an episode. If we don't find it on the way down, we'll have to move over and cut back upwards through the artery. It's a long scar on a blood vessel, but there aren't too many choices.
"Once we have it out, we'll send it to pathology stat and start closing up the detour on top. Hopefully pathology will have a preliminary answer for us by then, and we'll know how aggressive we can be about closing up the bottom passage.
"The surgery is scheduled for tomorrow 6:00 am.
Eli does have questions, and he shoots them at the doctor. What would recovery be like, in the worst case scenario? What were the risks? What if the growth broke apart on removal? How bad would it be to wait on the table for the growth to come through the bloodstream?
The doctor fields the questions nicely, and at the end Eli is forced to agree that the doctor's plan makes the most sense.
Eli signs the papers, one after another, marking himself as "brother."
Eli wakes up early, despite the three episodes she had overnight. He davens Vasikin, wanting to be fully present for the surgery.
He wakes Chava 20 minutes before the orderlies are scheduled to come for pre-op, to give her a chance to compose herself and daven as well.
He can see the fear in her eyes.
"I'll be davening for you," he says softly. "And you should daven for yourself."
He gives her a piece of paper and she writes a very brief request for bracha, not having words to express herself.
The orderlies arrive on time, and take Chava down for the pre-op procedures. Her chest is wiped, the leads relocated, and they walk her through the anesthesia procedure.
Eli gets permission to accompany her into the OR.
He slips a small siddur under her pillow and goes to the waiting room. "Her parents don't know to daven for her. Her family isn't here to pour out their hearts. Even the other guys don't know she's in surgery. It's on me."
With that thought, he dives into the Tehillim single-mindedly. "Keil Na, Refa Na La."
A hand on his shoulder interrupts his concentration. He is barely through Sefer Rishon of Tehillim, far too early for results. Nervously, he looks up.
It is the doctor, still in scrubs. He is smiling. "Sit down, let me tell you how it went."
With hope in his heart, Eli sits.
"We opened up the vein as planned, making a small incision, then prepared to cut further down. Just as we had a one-inch section open, something hit my scalpel! With that open space, we were able to get a wide pincer right in, and pulled it out in one piece.
"So we didn't have to cut any further there at all! Pathology didn't think the passageway looked malignant at first glance, so we closed it up fully with microsurgery. The upper passageway we used microsurgery for as well.
"So things turned out better than our best-case scenario. One 1-inch scar, and two tiny openings.
"We do still have to wait to hear from pathology about the growth, we're not out of the woods yet completely.
"But the surgery itself was just miraculous, I have no other words. Keep up those prayers!"
Awash with relief, Eli goes back into his Tehillim, waiting to be called to recovery. The tone has changed from desperate plea to thanksgiving and prayer that the good news continue.
Three days later, Chava is released from the hospital.
Simchas Torah is lively. All of the boys get pretty drunk and are either sprawled out on the floor or dancing wildly on the other side of the room.
Chava stands shakily by the door, holding an empty glass. She is thirsty and needs a drink. Can she get through the mass of people and reach the table or kitchen? Is that a full pitcher on the table? Water or vodka?
As she stands, uncertain, she suddenly notices that one of the bochurim in the far corner is clutching his throat. He seems to be choking. She tries to cry out, but the wild singing and dancing easily drown out her weak voice.
As she watches, frozen, he collapses on the floor, next to another few drunken bodies.
The pain in her chest doesn't let her run, but she shuffles over to where he is lying, as quickly as she can. Bending over, still clutching the glass, she sees that his lips are turning blue.
Chava tries to roll him over, but can't even budge him.
Finally, one of the dancing boys notice her, and comes over to see what is happening. "He collapsed..." she manages.
"He's probably just drunk. Don't worry about it," she is told.
"But he was choking!" Chava persists.
Eli bends over and sees the bochur's pallor. Swiftly rolling him onto his back, he does the heimlich maneuver and soon something is glistening in his mouth. He withdraws the cherry pit and the supine boy soon came around.
Meanwhile, Chava suddenly feels her head spinning. She has one thought: Get back to bed! As fast as she can, she heads for the bedroom, feeling darkness descend on her. HURRY! HURRY!
As she crosses the room threshold, her legs buckle under her, and still holding onto her empty glass, she collapses on the floor, crushing the glass beneath her.
After the choking bochur has been stabilized, a few more drinks consumed, and the dancing returns to full swing, Eli decides to check on his other patient.
His heart leaps to his throat and he feels suddenly sober when he sees Chava lying facedown on the floor in a pool of blood.
Berke runs over, and they smoothly flip her onto her back. Their relief is palpable when they find adequate breathing and a smooth, if a bit weak, pulse.
The blood is soon determined not to be coming from her scar site, but from a jagged cut on her left arm, courtesy of the shattered water glass. They carefully probe the wound to ensure there are no glass fragments left, and bandage it tightly.
Then they help Chava back into bed, asking her to save her missions of mercy for another time.
Finally Chava is able to go back to cooking, cleaning, and creative expression. She is still somewhat weak, but it is manageable.
Nothing could have prepared her for her first post-surgery episode.
Chava is relaxing in her room after supper, when a horrendous burst of pain explodes through her chest. All of her surgery scars are set afire, and her attempts to breathe are futile. She is frozen with terror, until rational thinking kicks in and she scrabbles desperately on the bedside table for the panic button she had hoped to never use again.
Eli and Berke burst in and guide her to the floor for resuscitation. The episode lasts barely five minutes, but they are interminable. Doomsday scenarios are playing out in her mind, frightening hospital scenes and tearful goodbyes, which she halfheartedly tries to quash with positive thinking.
While she is recovering, thanks to judicious use of an oxygen tank, Eli apologizes.
"The doctor warned me that in a percentage of patients there are occasional muscle spasms after recovering from paralysis. I was hoping you wouldn't be in that percentage, so I didn't want to worry you by telling you about it. We've been keeping an eye out for them. You should know that they don't mean anything long term. It shouldn't take more than a few weeks for the muscles to 'forget' about the paralysis."
Chava feels somewhat better at this explanation, but still very unsettled. She clips the panic button to her necklace again, and elects to sleep on the monitor for her own peace of mind.
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Thu, Oct 07 2021, 5:09 pm
PART THREE - THE DECISION
Unbeknownst to any of them, the hospital trip would have far-reaching impacts.
Most of the hospital staff, upon hearing that the patient and her "brother" are part of the SII, are mildly curious and respectful. They obediently do not contact any relatives or friends to potentially spoil the study. But one of the nurses on the floor is frum, and she immediately notices that there is something alarming here. Why are a frum boy and girl from the study coming TOGETHER?
She does not speak to the patient or her companion, afraid to get personally involved, but does report what she saw to a local askan that night.
At the frantic call, the official overseeing their cultural group sounds surprised. He doesn't seem to have any idea of what they are talking about, and promises to look into the matter.
The following night, a meeting with the official takes place together with several askanim.
The official looks a little embarrassed. "So, gentlemen, I looked into the issue you brought up. I discovered that yes, a young man and woman from your group did go to the hospital. Only one of them was a patient, the other just came along for support. The patient in question seems to be fine now, by the way."
He clears his throat. "As to how they ended up going together... It seems that somehow the groups for buildings Three and Four were mixed up, and there are indeed a group of young men staying with the ladies and vice versa."
A number of the askanim start shouting at once.
The official holds up a hand for quiet and continues. "Of course, the staff responsible for the mixup have been disciplined. But you probably are more concerned about how the group is doing under the circumstances.
"Apparently, in Building Four, the boys' building, they simply all refused to allow the girls in. The guards ended up letting the girls stay in the conference rooms on the ground floor.
"Building Three was a little more complicated." The official looks uncomfortable.
"The guards were more insistent about everyone going into an apartment, and gave the stairwell as an alternative. To make a long story short, all seventeen of them are staying in the same apartment with one of the ladies."
Now all of the askanim are shouting.
But the official is not finished. "I met with the committee to see what can be done to rectify things.
"The problem is that the study was begun, and must be completed. We have 17 participants from Building Three, and 17 from Building Four, who have all completed six months of the study. But the last five months of the study were obviously not done as planned.
"I asked if we can switch the groups back to the correct buildings, but apparently that violates the study guidelines.
"So they offered two choices: We can send these groups home, and begin a new 2-year study for your cultural group with a new set of participants.
"Or we can have them placed in apartments in the buildings they are in. The committee was amenable to reasonable accommodations for your religious sensitivities."
The room is in an uproar.
"I'm sorry," the official apologizes. "I don't get to make the policy, but I'm happy to work with you as much as I can."
One of the older askanim stands up and thanks the official. He tells him they will update him within a few days as to the course of action they are choosing.
The official exits, visibly relieved to leave the pandemonium behind him.
The older askan, Chezky Miller, stands patiently at the head of the room. Slowly, the men around the table stop heatedly speaking to each other and fall silent.
Finally he begins talking. "I've appointed myself the meeting chair, so we can get something done here quickly."
"Bottom line is that we have two choices:
"We can cut our losses, pull out our kids, and send in a new group.
"Or, we can get them married to each other.
"If everyone can take a minute and jot down their main svaros, then we'll hear from everyone. I'd like to make sure we are taking all angles into account.
"Can we hear first from those in favor of ending this group's time?"
Avi Bendet, a stocky man with a Chaverim cap, volunteers. "What are the chances of seventeen random marriages turning out okay? In isolation, noch? Zero and a half? Statistically, a number of them will be abused, and they'll all be on their own. It's flat out sakana!"
"Yeah," another man calls. "Let alone the fact that we probably already have damage that we need to deal with sooner rather than later. A girl and a boy go to the hospital together, who doesn't think there's already an inappropriate relationship? If we deal with it right away it's less likely to mess up their lives."
Velvel Rabinowitz concurs. "Yes it's bad that they wasted close to a year. But we'll count it as an investment in a good marriage, which they won't have if they're divorced after a year in solitary!"
"You guys are nuts!" Shimshy Wineberg interjects. "You think that if we start this all over they won't make any mistakes? Are you aware of what kind of bullet we dodged? They made a mistake with our boys instead of girls, it's a pure chesed from Hashem. What would have happened if this brilliant chevra had brought in a group of Evangelical Christian boys instead?"
The men around the table shudder.
"Yes it would be bad," Velvel argues, "but if that happened we'd end it, like we should do now."
"And how exactly do you think you'd find out about it? It's a neis we found out about this at all! It's not like anyone told us. If one of the kids hadn't been hospitalized, or if they would have insisted on going on their own, we'd still be in the dark."
"Wait, does anyone know if they're keeping their word about ANYTHING? Are they getting kosher food?"
"I'm good friends with the manager of one of the kosher supermarkets. He says he gets close to 100 orders twice a week that get trucked over to the compound. They're getting kosher."
"That's one relief. Does he know who ordered what?"
"No, he just gets order numbers, not names or room numbers."
"If they're taking so much care with the kosher, what's up with this fiasco?"
Dovid Cohen, a red-bearded teddy bear of a man, looks serious. "To be honest, I don't think they care about this study at all."
"What are you talking about?" Avi asks.
"Think about it. If you made a study with strict rules, would you totally not even bother to check that they were being followed? Here we are, five months of this madness apparently, and they don't seem to know what's up until we start asking questions! What would they have done if they found out at the end of the study? Do you think that they would have just let them go, or would they have insisted on keeping them another year and a half? I don't know what they have in mind but I don't trust them. I say we have to get this messed up study or whatever it is over with ASAP."
"Does anyone have any connections with the committee?"
"Nah, I spoke to Shemtov in Washington when it first blew up. He says the committee is full of Sonei Yisroel and told me he has nobody who they even will look at. We're on our own with this."
"Should we go public with this? Maybe getting this out would put pressure on them."
"No way, do you know what the public sentiment is for the SII? It's the most patriotic project known to mankind. Anyone who opposes it is anti-American and a conspiracy theorist. In our community, they'll believe us and we'll have mass hysteria. Outside of our community, we'll be known as the crazy Jews trying to undermine the project. It will be a massive Chillul Hashem."
"So because the SII group is so popular, we have to make these poor kids korbanos?"
"They're already korbanos. This has been going on for close to a year. You're gonna bring them home, tell them they wasted their time, and we're gonna put a new group of innocent kids through this Gehennom?"
"So they should stay and go through a new level of Gehennom on account of the future group?"
"Getting them married is lav davka Gehennom. It's unconventional yes, but I wouldn't call it major sakana."
"Have you never heard of an abusive marriage?"
Zalmy Brodowitz bangs on the table. "It's sakana either way. Possible sakana if they marry bad, definite sakana of anyone in our community being involved in these studies or experiments for any time longer than necessary!"
"Aderaba!" Avi argues. "The definite sakana is matching up random people. The committee messing us over next time is a sofeik."
"What's not a sofeik is the Hashgacha Protis that this specific group of boys and girls are there together. It's not random. There's a good chance Hashem is open to the idea of them getting married. If the question is who we can trust more, I say we can trust the Aibershter a whole lot more than we can trust whoever is behind this study."
"So making matches is as easy as pairing up boys and girls? That's been tried before."
"Look at the Medrash again. R' Yosi explains that Hashem is making the matches because they're hard. Even under crazy circumstances like this. We have to trust Hashem to match them up right and not put them into more sakana than we need to. At least this is a known danger."
"The Roman noblewoman's matches were also Hashgacha Protis."
"You know what? We know who we have there. Can we look into who they are, their personalities? Then we can know if they are takeh a sakana or not. If the boys and girls are all known as having good midos, the risk is lower. If they're not, we'll have to reevaluate."
"Even if we can make perfect matches, tachlis, is it even possible? You know we're talking a mikvah, chosson kallah classes, a Rav for maros, aside for a chuppah with Eidim and proper kesuba. Not even talking about marriage counseling."
"The official sounded like he is ready to do what it takes."
"Including a $50,000 mikvah?"
"You mean two, they're not going to let the buildings mingle. That's how we got into this mess to begin with."
"If it comes to that, I have some balebatim who I can get to underwrite the cost."
"Okay, so money is not the issue. It's still a lot to ask."
"So nu, if they won't agree we'll have to pull out. But from our side we need to try to make it work."
"And get it in writing so they can't change their minds at the end of the study."
"Okay, I was the one who called the official to begin with. I'll let him know what we're thinking. Poel, what do we need to be asking for?"
"First of all, we need to get a couple in each building, ideally a Rav and his wife. They would need to let them all know what's going on, meet them, set up shidduchim, teach them the halachos."
"Why just a couple? A team could do a better job."
"Tofasta Meruba Lo Tofasta. Think about what we have a chance of getting."
"How long am I asking them to be there? Think I can ask for long term?"
"I doubt it. But however long we can get them there for. Remember it will take up to three weeks to get them married. With their setup they can't afford a Chuppas Niddah and there's no time to play around with pills."
"We also need access to the Rav on an ongoing basis. Minimum twice a week, to address shaalos."
"Don't forget the mikvah, and some plan for a mikvah lady."
"One of the girls will have to take the job, probably."
"Still needs a plan. They're not letting the rooms communicate with each other, how will they get her?"
"Same issue with the Rav."
"Lemaaseh I'm going to talk this whole thing over with a Rav first to see if there's any issues we're overlooking."
"Anyone have any ideas of couples we could ask if the official agrees? They'd have to be discreet, they'll probably have to sign for secrecy. You also want them to be able to do everything — Mesader Kiddushin, Pasken Maros, Chosson and Kallah teachers, and experienced Shadchonim."
"I'll call you later, I have some potential candidates."
"Shimshy's the right guy to look into the boys and girls and check for any red flags."
"Avi, can you work out the logistics of building a mikvah – sorry, two?"
"I'll drink a lechaim to all of our success." Velvel's offer brings chuckles and the meeting ends on an almost optimistic note.
Building Three remains completely unaware of all of the drama. Their own drama is finally calming down, and the bochurim are enjoying a much more productive Zman.
Chava has most of her energy back, and is glad to be a contributing member of society again.
She enjoys being able to be as creative as she likes with her cooking, because after all, bochurim will eat anything!
When returning to her room after meals, though, Chava finds herself battling an odd malaise.
It takes her a few days to work out that what is bothering her is acute loneliness.
Now that her health is almost back to normal, she is back to the previous status quo of zero human interaction. With all the pain and fear of the episodes, at least there were people involved. She doesn't miss the episodes, but especially after having frequent human contact, it is terribly hard to go back to solitary confinement.
"Almost halfway done with the study," she consoles herself.
It's Tuesday morning, 10:00 am. Most of the bochurim are learning, and a few are still hanging out at the breakfast buffet. Chava is cleaning up the kitchen and waiting until everyone is done so she can clear away the rest of the food.
A sudden loud banging at the door startles everyone. The door bursts open, and a stern-faced guard is standing there.
"Get downstairs, now!"
Everyone stands for a moment, confused.
"I said NOW!" the guard repeats angrily.
Unsure of what is happening, some of the bochurim grab their Tefillin bags on their way to the door. Where are they going? When will they be back?
Chava makes sure the stove and oven are off, picks up her siddur, and trails the rest of the group as they descend the stairs.
When they reach the ground floor, another guard directs them down different hallways.
Chava nervously enters a conference room, marked as "GIRLS." She is relieved to see that she is not the first one. A number of girls are already there, sitting on rows of chairs facing a lectern. She gingerly sits down at the end of a row, next to an empty chair, not sure if it would be too forward to sit right next to another girl.
A cheerful girl soon takes the unclaimed seat, and starts chattering to Chava as if they always knew each other. They discuss the schools and camps they attended and their mutual friends. When the conversation turns to their experiences in isolation, Chava only talks about her first six months. She doesn't want to deal with the appalled reactions she'd be sure to get as the only girl in an apartment full of bochurim.
Unfortunately for her desire to keep it quiet, another girl notices her. "Hey, weren't you the one who offered to take ten of the guys into your place?"
Chava blushes. "Yes," she admits.
"Wow, what was that like? How long did they stay?"
"Really, ten guys?"
"What were they like?"
Chava's face is bright red by now. "It wasn't so bad," she says, then tries to change the subject. "Anyone know why they called us downstairs?"
"We're spending too much money on food?"
"Loud music from some of the apartments?"
"They're cancelling the rest of the study?"
At that, a chorus of sighs and "I wish"es softly run through the room.
A few minutes later, an older woman with a short blonde shaitel enters through a side door and stands next to the lectern.
"Good morning, girls," she greets them. "I know, you're all young women, but at my age you'll all be girls for another decade at least." There's some light amused laughter.
"My name is Miriam Cohen. I'd tell you to call me Miriam, but you'll probably be more comfortable with 'Rebbetzin,' and I answer to that too." She smiles warmly at her audience.
"I understand that you have no idea what you are doing here listening to me.
"I'm glad you're all sitting, because I have news to share. I don't think anything could really prepare you to hear what I have to say."
The Rebbetzin takes a deep breath and continues. "It's not bad news, but it is big news. Very big news.
"You may know that this building has a group of bochurim staying here too. In consultation with Rabbonim, it has been decided that you will all need to get married." The room fills with whispered exclamations.
"And you will all be engaged by the end of ten days." Several girls shriek.
"I'm here to help you all through the process. We have a lot to go through, and not a lot of time. We're going to have kallah classes, Shalom Bayis classes, and of course you need to date.
"It's going to be a packed schedule, and not as much time as we would like you to have for processing all of it. But this is what Hashem has given us, and that means we have what it takes.
"Here's the general schedule." The Rebbetzin indicates a large poster leaning against the wall. "We've already spoken to your parents and teachers to get a general idea of who you are, but I want to meet with you each individually today to make sure that the matches we're initially suggesting make sense.
"Tomorrow you'll all be having your first date. Yes, you will have veto power on the specific shidduch, but within obvious limits.
"I know this is a lot, and it's frighteningly close to an arranged marriage, but I promise we looked into all of you, boys and girls, very well, to make sure you're all marriageable material.
"I can't say this will be easy, but I'm sure you'll all do your best."
The Rebbetzin indicates a dessert table set up in a corner. "I'm giving you all a break for 20 minutes before we get started. You probably need it after that bombshell."
During one of the lectures, Chava feels another episode coming on. With dread, she realizes that she doesn't have the panic button with her. And even if she did, the boys are in another conference room somewhere else on the floor and probably can't hear her.
At first she sits there, hoping it will resolve itself quickly. But after 30 seconds, she is forced to admit that she needs help.
She briefly considers signaling one of the other girls, but the thought of the ensuing embarrassing ruckus is just too much.
She stands up shakily and walks to the door.
As soon as she reaches the hallway, she realizes how foolish she is being. But it is too late to turn back. She is already getting weak and dizzy.
She leans against the wall and slides into a sitting position, davening that someone finds her in time. Shomer Pesa'im Hashem.
A moment later, a bochur emerges from down another hallway, apparently in search of the restroom. He sees her sitting there, noticeably pale, and quickly grasps the situation. "I'll get help," he calls as he tears off in the direction he came from.
He is back seconds later with Eli.
She manages to lie down and Eli pulls out a mask from his pocket.
While he is breathing for her, Rabbi Cohen comes into the hallway, also for a bathroom break. It takes him a moment to realize that what he is witnessing is not as damning as it first seemed.
He waits until the 13 minute episode ends, and while she is recovering, asks Eli some pointed questions.
Once he understands the situation, he assures them that they will insist on a new doctor for the building - a blessing for all of them.
The next morning, Chava wakes up with nervous anticipation.
Who will it be? She spent the entire previous night trying not to let herself think about it, an impossible task.
So who will it be? Dovid? Levi? Menachem? Will she be one of the girls to veto her shidduch? Will this be it? Which of these bochurim will leave, and which one will stay with her?
Breakfast will be served downstairs, so there is no kitchen work to distract herself with. She agonizes about what to wear, finally picking out one of her simpler Shabbos outfits and even applying some light makeup for the first time in months. She stays in her room until it is almost time to go.
The bochurim also seem unsettled. Most of them are up early, and when the bolt clicks back everyone rushes for the door.
Chava brings up the rear, clutching her siddur for dear life.
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Thu, Oct 07 2021, 5:10 pm
PART FOUR - HAPPILY EVER AFTER?
The GIRLS conference room is full of nervous energy. Quiet chatter is punctuated by periodic shrieks and reassuring words. Other girls are sitting quietly on pins and needles, all waiting for Rebbetzin Cohen to take them to their dates.
"Chava," the Rebbetzin calls. Nervously, she stands and follows the Rebbetzin through the door. They enter a long hallway. Chava is taken aback to see what looks like prison cells on both sides, complete with barred doors. "I'm sorry about the setup," the Rebbetzin apologizes. "It was the best way to get some privacy without worrying about Yichud issues."
Some of the cell doors are open, and Chava tries not to look at who is sitting inside.
Towards the end of the hallway, the Rebbetzin directs her into an open cell door on the left. She is too flustered to look at the bochur already seated inside. The Rebbetzin tells her to sit down, and makes the introductions.
"Eli, this is Chava; Chava, this is Eli. Hatzlacha!" The Rebbetzin gives a small wave and leaves to get the next girl.
Eli and Chava stare at each other in mutual surprise.
"Um, nice to meet you," Eli manages.
Chava is far less eloquent. "Oy vey!" she groans, and drops her head into her hands.
Eli winces. "Do I look like Dr. Doomshtein?"
"No," she says, her voice muffled by her hands. "But maybe he's the one who came up with this crazy idea?"
Chava finally picks her head back up. "This is NOT going to work."
"Care to elaborate?" Eli suggests.
She takes a deep breath, then lets it out. "I understand why they THOUGHT this is a good idea. I mean, if you have a girl that's prone to dying because she can't breathe, you'd better match her up with someone experienced at CPR, right? And if that someone actually HAS saved her life about a million times, then that's perfect! He's tried and tested!
"Do you realize what that's like? It's like, she's short, he's short, it's a shidduch! He has red hair, she has red hair, it's a shidduch!"
Eli listens, his face inscrutable.
"We talk all the time about what's inside being important, about pnimius, midos, kavana. And now we're matching people up based on the most external of all external categories, how well someone does in mouth to mouth resuscitation!
"I'll happily hire them as a doctor, write a nice testimonial for them, give them an award, but MARRY them for it?
"I mean, would you marry someone based on how well they bake cookies?"
"I won't answer that," Eli murmurs.
Ignoring him, Chava continues. "So someone honestly decided that this makes SENSE? It's ludicrous! Match someone up based on REAL reasons, and worst case scenario, make him take a CPR course or teach him how to dial 911.
"But to expect someone to get MARRIED for this? Seriously?"
Chava finally runs out of steam.
Eli leans forward. "Okay, you have a good point. But aren't you making a lot of assumptions?"
She looks at him skeptically.
"First of all, you're assuming that whoever set up these matches knew your medical history. That may or may not be true. Second of all, you're assuming they matched up who they did based on external criteria. I highly doubt that is true. Thirdly, and probably most importantly, you're assuming that the presence of external factors necessarily means that internal factors don't exist.
"I agree with you that getting married based on hair color is extremely shallow. But just because they both have red hair, does that mean that they CAN'T be compatible?"
Chava considers this for a moment. "True," she admits unwillingly.
"So I have a suggestion."
"I'm all ears."
"How about we start over, but pretend we never met before?"
Chava shrugs and half smiles. "I guess it's worth a try."
"So hi, I'm Eli. What's your name?"
"I'd discuss the weather, but I haven't been outside for five months."
"Strike one. That doesn't make you sound very good on shidduchim."
"Would you prefer to discuss the ambience?"
"Definitely. This place is lovely. The bars on the door and especially the toilet in the corner are a really nice touch. I wish I had a room like this."
"You know that Shimmy spent three days in here?"
"What, really? Why?" She tries to remember which of the guys was Shimmy. Was it the tall one?
"Yeah, he tried to break down the door to get help. They give three days for a first offense, apparently."
Chava cringes. Another good deed to her credit. "Sorry."
"Oops. Strike two. Let's try this again. Hi, I'm Eli. I understand that you're Chava. How about you tell me something about where you grew up?"
"Ten more minutes, time to wrap things up," the Rebbetzin calls, walking through the passageway.
Eli finishes describing his Yeshiva. "Thanks for playing along," he says.
"Thank you," she says softly.
"But before we end this meeting, we really need to address the elephant in the room."
Chava tries to figure out which of the 42 elephants in the room he is referring to.
"All the other girls are going back to their own private apartments. We're going back to the same place. There's even a chance you might have another episode later. Let's try to stick to the previous status quo, okay? Once this date is over, you go back to pretending that you don't talk much, and I'll pretend that I still don't know where you live."
Chava nods, blushing a little. "Deal."
"Great. And now you can stop eying the chocolates and just take some. I'm more of a cookie person myself."
Chava is the first on line to speak to the Rebbetzin.
After hearing her out, the Rebbetzin looks directly at Chava.
"Your arguments are nice and reasoned, but you are leaving out a big part of the picture. It sounds like you might not be in touch with your feelings."
"I am in touch with my feelings!" Chava says defensively. "I write in a journal almost every day."
"Chava, let me ask you something. If I was to get my hands on your journal and read through it, would I find out which of the bochurim in your apartment you like most?"
"Of course not!"
"And why not?"
"Because... because I wouldn't write about those kinds of things!"
"Because you don't feel them, or because you don't think you should feel them?"
Chava doesn't answer.
"When I was young," the Rebbetzin says, "I thought the boy who lived next door to me was the most handsome and brilliant person in the world. I was sure I would marry him.
"I didn't, I married my husband instead, but that feeling was very normal and healthy. Did you ever have anything similar?"
"For a few years I thought I would marry my friend's older brother," Chava says quietly.
"Okay, so we've established that you are normal and you have feelings. So why are they absent here?"
Chava looks down.
"Chava, ordinarily if a girl came to me with a story like yours, I'd tell them to think about things for a few weeks, take a break from dating, maybe speak to someone. But we don't have that luxury here.
"So I'm going to have to be much more blunt than I usually am." She smiles to take the sting out of her words.
"Chava, tell me, exactly what are you afraid will happen if you admit to feeling any kind of attraction or desire for the bochurim in your apartment?"
"Don't worry, you can't scare me. I promise you, I've heard much worse."
Chava lowers her head and is quiet for a long moment.
"I can't trust myself," she whispers.
"None of us can," the Rebbetzin points out. "The halachos are there for a reason, because we can't trust ourselves. Do you think you'd break halacha?"
"No, not exactly..."
"Chava, I think you need to think about whether you are trying to protect yourself from sin, or from uncomfortable feelings." She waits patiently.
"It's not just uncomfortable," Chava finally blurts out, "it hurts! It really hurts!"
"Go on," the Rebbetzin says calmly.
"I can't let myself go there..." Chava mumbles. "I can't have that option.
"It would be so easy to chat or to DMC, they're right there, and I have so much to say... I HAVE to make them off limits in my mind. I know when they ask me questions... I talk way more than I need to. It's so easy to justify it, but it's wrong, I know it.
"And... I would have to face the fact that... that I need a hug so desperately, someone to hold my hand..." There are tears in her eyes. "There were so many times I needed it...
"I think... I think it hurts much less when I don't let myself think about it."
The Rebbetzin stands up and holds out her arms. Chava stands, awkward for a moment, and finally moves into the warm embrace. She cries for a long time on the Rebbetzin's shoulder, feeling some of the painful emotions draining out with her tears.
Finally Chava steps back, and gives the Rebbetzin a watery smile.
"I'll try again with Eli," she tells her.
Thankfully for Chava, all of the meals will be catered for this hectic week and a half. She is relieved not to need to cook tonight. Her thoughts are all over the place, and she just wants to go to her room and make some sense of them in writing.
She studiously avoids looking at any of the bochurim when they return to the apartment, and promptly closets herself in her room.
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Thu, Oct 07 2021, 6:01 pm
Don't leave me hanging like this!!
Your writing is fantastic, I'm hooked!
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Thu, Oct 07 2021, 6:39 pm
Wow- I loved it the first time...even better in this version. Well done!
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