Never Give Up
When Rabbi Yitzchak Weingott was told he had a month to live, he knew he had two choices: descend into hopeless gloom, or believe that a miracle could happen. 20 years and a clean bill of health later, he’s made a mission of spreading hope and comfort to patients facing the dreaded disease.
Nothing could have prepared Rabbi Yitzchak Weingott for the news that had just shaken up the world as he knew it. As he made his way out of the clinic, he was surprised that the neighborhood looked just like it did an hour ago. The streetlights were still shining, two cars were vying for a parking space, and someone was talking into a cell phone. Why, for everyone else, were things still so regular?
An hour earlier, he too had been just another yungerman, husband, father of three small children, his mind preoccupied with a 1,000 everyday trivialities. Today he was getting a third opinion to check out the constant fevers and unexplained weakness that had taken over his system over the past two months.
He replayed the last hour over again, as if it would somehow change the verdict. He thought about how the doctor glanced at him cautiously and opened with some words of apology. Reb Yitzchak no longer remembers them; they were overshadowed by the most horrifying words he’d heard in his young life. In polished, professional terms, the doctor described the growth that had taken up residence in Reb Yitzchak’s body. “What does that mean for me?” he asked, trying to simplify, quantify the news. “I want to know the truth.”
“If you want to know the truth — there’s not much that can be done for you,” the doctor admitted. “Considering the test results, I’d give you a month. Do whatever you always dreamed of doing and never had time for.” Then, trying to inject some hope, he added, “Meanwhile, we’ll still make every effort to treat you ...”
“You’re Still Alive?”
I heard about Yitzchak Weingott from a close friend of his who told me, “Two years after his diagnosis, that same doctor saw him walking down the hospital corridor, where he had become an advocate for people presented with the worst diagnosis imaginable. The doctor froze. ‘Yitzchak Weingott? Is that you? What are you doing here?’ He couldn’t believe that the same man who he had been sure already had a foot in the Next World was there in front of him, looking the picture of health. Reb Yitzchak just laughed.”
It was that same laugh that carried him through the illness that threatened to finish him off 20 years ago. Two decades later, Rabbi Weingott is still the address for cancer patients who are thrust into an unknown world of treatments, side-effects, hoped-for recovery and the looming dread of death.
Rabbi Weingott knew something was wrong with his own health on Succos 1993, when he stood up to make Kiddush for his family and guests. “I remember holding the becher in one hand and gripping the table with my other hand. Everyone waited, but I just couldn’t manage to get the words out.
“My family was stumped. ‘What in the world is going on with Abba? How long could the flu possibly last?’
At first he thought all the stress of the holidays had left him under the weather, but when Tishrei was over and he was even weaker, he finally consulted his physician. The prescription: get more rest.
But he only felt worse.
A second opinion also turned up nothing alarming.
Soon, he had lost almost 80 pounds.
It was the third doctor who diagnosed a malignant tumor and predicted he wouldn’t live out the month.
Reb Yitzchak was catapulted into the “treatment” universe; first there was a complex operation, and then ongoing chemotherapy that robbed him of his hair and any remaining strength. Yet there were two things that neither the illness, nor the treatment could weaken — Reb Yitzchak’s determination to live, and his positive outlook.
Rabbi Weingott says he’ll never forget that first harrowing night of treatment. “The nurse connected me to the chemo drip and advised me to sleep through it. But of course I was so frightened I couldn’t sleep at all. The entire night I followed the drip-drip of the liquid, imagining those drops entering my bloodstream and destroying the harmful cells.”
During such days, thoughts can either do you in or elevate you, says Rabbi Weingott — either throw you into despair or connect you to hope. “There isn’t a person whose life doesn’t pass before his eyes,” he admits. “Everyone makes his inventory, which sometimes leads to good, constructive decisions, and sometimes breaks and depresses a person. There’s no one who doesn’t think about the worst case scenario.
“Then there are the medical reports. Is the treatment working?” A person who doesn’t have faith finds it hard to survive not only the disease but also these moments of paralyzing tension. What helped me most was encouraging other patients who were with me in the ward. When your energy is directed to other patients, there’s no time for self-pity.” And he’s been doing it since being declared clean 18 years ago, sort of a payback to G-d for bringing him back to health.
Preparing for the Worst
Rabbi Weingott remembers his first homecoming after a week of intensive treatment, which serves as his emotional base when he prepares other patients for their reunion with their families and life as it used to be. “That’s when the difficult side effects set in. The worst is the hair loss, which can cause social isolation. For a frum man, the loss of his beard, even temporarily, isn’t just a problem of aesthetics; it’s the loss of his Jewish image. He might opt to stay away from shul, from work, and from every place where he might meet people. Even meeting himself in the mirror is shocking. Combined with his chronic weakness and pervasive fear, he might just seclude himself at home and wallow in his catastrophic thoughts.
“But homecoming can also show the most beautiful face of frum society,” Rabbi Weingott continues. “A veritable pilgrimage descended on my home. People tried to give encouragement, tried to volunteer information — sometimes very successfully and sometimes less so. Even when I didn’t have strength for everyone and some had to be turned away, just knowing of their good intention practically took away one-sixtieth of my illness.”
In order to keep his mind focused on a healthy image, Rabbi Weingott put a smiling picture of himself with a full head of hair next to his bed. “I would look at this picture many times a day, reminding myself that I would soon be there again. This became my motto, and I use it to this day: stay happy and never lose hope.
“Until then I had been teaching in a baalei teshuvah yeshivah. After the initial shock, once I got my bearings I decided that I’d use my illness as an opportunity to continue connecting with other Jews, just against a different backdrop.
“Still, the doctors had told me that I wouldn’t live out the month. I can’t say there weren’t times when I was frightened, but with a wife and children and so much to live for, I wasn’t about to give up. Chazal teach us that even if a sharp sword is hanging over your neck, you shouldn’t give up and stop asking for rachamim. That sword was my constant companion for months. I saw it on the doctor’s faces when they would read my test results, and I could feel the pain and weakness in every inch of my body. But I held out for rachamim.”
It’s About the Whole Family
When the final CT scan arrived clean, Rabbi Weingott was overjoyed, but he knew he wasn’t ready to leave the hospital yet. He was familiar with the staff, with procedures, medications, and the pitfalls. He’d learned the ropes the hard way, and knew the next step was to pass it all on to others.
“I knew I had to share my story of recovery, to bring others hope,” he explains. “Occasionally when doctors have to ‘drop the bomb,’ they bring me along. I am a living, breathing example that people can return from the edge and live a full life. I remember the months of pain and confusion — if only I had had someone who knew the ropes, could connect me with the right doctors, get through the red tape, and offer reassurance and guidance. I strive to be that someone for as many others as I can.”
The news of this new hospital “angel” spread, and Yad Eliezer founder Rabbi Ya’akov Weisel — a friend and neighbor of Reb Yitzchak — asked Rabbi Weingott to join his operation. Yad Eliezer — a massive Jerusalem-based chesed organization — provided him with a stipend and helped him build a large network of volunteers. Today Rabbi Weingott oversees Yad Eliezer’s Medical Support Services and his volunteer staff provides meals, counseling, and transportation on a daily basis — in addition to food parcels for eligible families. When a parent is out of commission, Reb Yitzchak might arrange mentors for the children through Yad Eliezer’s Big Brother and Big Sister programs.
“People sometimes forget that when a parent is suffering from an illness, the whole family suffers. Often the breadwinner can’t work, or is busy caring for a sick spouse. There is also a lot of emotional turmoil for the kids.”
Still, Rabbi Weingott says those parents often display something amazing — it’s when the soul becomes stronger than the body. “It’s hard to explain, but with all the trauma, there is something encouraging in this struggle for life. You can’t spend time in a place like Hadassah Ein Kerem and take what you have for granted. Coming here every day insures that I’ll never take for granted my own clean bill of health. That gratitude fuels my work.”
Awards and approbations notwithstanding (including Hadassah’s Volunteer of the Year), there’s nothing like seeing Reb Yitzchak in action to understand how important an advocate is when navigating the complicated world of cancer treatment. I follow Rabbi Weingott into the catacombs to the MRI wing. “A woman was recently diagnosed, and the family is understandably hysterical, especially since her sister had the disease and didn’t make it. She scheduled an MRI through the system, but the date that they gave her is a month from now. They can’t start treating her without the MRI, and every day is critical. My job now is to get her in sooner.”
Reb Yitzchak excuses himself for a few private words with a woman with short spiked bleached-blond hair, big jewelry and horn-rimmed glasses. She promises him she’ll do what she can, and that she’ll call if she can arrange an earlier appointment.
Tracking Down the Meds
We move on to the office of Professor Reuven Or, Director of Bone Marrow Transplantation. The professor’s secretary Nurit fills in some details of Rabbi Weingott’s efforts. “Everyone cooperates with him, even the busiest people, because they know he can be relied upon to get things done,” she says. “In a place like Hadassah, that means a lot.”
Nurit explains that Rabbi Weingott helps families find donors for bone marrow transplants when necessary, and remains involved if, G-d forbid, the treatment fails. “Then there’s nothing more that we can do,” she says, “but Rabbi Weingot steps in and guides the family through the funeral and the shivah.”
Rabbi Weingott has a nose for tracking down obscure medications which aren’t readily available, and the oncologists too appreciate the effort. “There are a few gemachim in Israel that sometimes have the expensive medications that health insurance providers don’t want to pay for, but it’s hard to track down the right people to get what you need. Rabbi Weingott always finds the meds,” Nurit explained.
This was news. With public medical insurance for every citizen, isn’t all medication available to everyone? Yes and no, Rabbi Weingott explains. “Many new or experimental drugs are not yet covered. And even if the medications can be petitioned, when a person’s life is on the line, he doesn’t have time to wait for the bureaucracy in processing the request. I was once in touch with a medical professor whose daughter was sick and I was able to get her an experimental drug that cost 10,000 per pill.
“Some people have the money or supplementary medical insurance that allows for any medication prescribed,” Rabbi Weingott continues. “But sometimes these medications don’t always have the desired results, and sometimes the side effects are unbearable. Being in the right place at the right time, I can make sure that the surplus pills get where they need to go. It’s all about siyata d’Shmaya.
“I’ll tell you one story. A patient was undergoing treatment that made him endlessly nauseous. There is a medication that can quell the nausea, but it is very expensive. I had just been visiting that patient, and saw how urgently he needed the pills. I walked into the hall and said a little prayer: ‘Hashem, these pills cost a fortune. What am I going to do? You must help!’ Just then I saw a woman approaching who distributes medication samples. We schmoozed a bit, I told her a few jokes, and she gave me enough of the medicine to get him through the next two months.”
Reb Yitzchak moves to the side to take a phone call and returns a few moments later with good news: the MRI has been rescheduled for later that week.
Attending to technical details — accessing rare medications, streamlining appointments, matching donors — is his first-stop priority, but Rabbi Weingott says that if a cancer patient is depressed, it worries him more than any other technicality. “How can a person’s body pull through and survive when his soul is sick? Staying happy is the key to recovery, but it isn’t easy. There is nothing lonelier or scarier than knowing your life is on the line.”
How does Rabbi Weingott go about gladdening the hearts of others in the ward he remembers only too well from his own ordeal 20 years ago?
Mrs. L. remembers the confusion of those first days, yet Rabbi Weingott, whom she had never met before, became a lifeline. “When I was diagnosed my world turned upside down, but I was too sick to even notice,” she admits. “At first I was in such a haze that I wasn’t even scared, but then the treatments started and terror set in. I was so sick and nauseous, and as hard as I struggled, I simply couldn’t eat the hospital food. One day Rabbi Weingott showed up with a thermos of hot soup — it became a daily thing. Those thermoses nourished my body and soul through the hardest time in my life.
“This illness wreaks havoc in the body, and even after getting through the treatments the whole body is affected. The pain can be paralyzing. I was taking a pain medication that made it bearable, but when it ran out, the medical insurance wouldn’t pay for more. Rabbi Weingott saw how much pain I was in, and somehow within hours he got me the medicine.”
Mrs. L. underwent a bone marrow transplant that took its toll on her whole body, and particularly the balance of fluids in her organs. Since then she suffered corneal damage from the dryness, and it seemed like the only solution was a special contact lens that costs $1,000 each, $2,000 for the pair.
“With all of our savings depleted and in debt, I had nowhere to pull the money from, even to save my eyesight. Rabbi Weingott heard about the situation, and the next day I had the lenses.”
Rabbi Weingott’s efforts don’t end with the patient, and his purview extends way beyond the walls of the hospital. His wife is still in contact with the young woman the Weingotts took in when her father was undergoing treatment. During that time she got engaged, but the family was so busy with the father’s illness that they couldn’t help her prepare for the wedding.
“The wedding was in Hadera, a two-hour drive from the hospital, and doctors were adamant that the father not travel,” Rabbi Weingott remembers. “But when I arranged for an ambulance and private physician they couldn’t object, and so he was taken to his daughter’s wedding on a stretcher. Yet seeing his daughter under the chuppah so energized him that he actually stood up and danced! He danced! A man who hadn’t been out of a wheelchair in weeks!”
Rabbi Weingott was once in touch with a patient whose wife had just given birth, but the father couldn’t even get out of bed for the bris. “This time we brought the simchah to the hospital. My wife and I coordinated every detail: the mohel, the food, a white outfit for the baby. The whole ward was in tears.” But the best part was when that same father recently called to invite Reb Yitzchak to the boy’s bar mitzvah.