By Harold Witkov ( Downers Grove, IL)
In 2018 I suffered a heart attack and ended up having quintuple bypass open-heart surgery. When I left the hospital five days later, I had the expectancy of recovery, but rather than getting better, things got worse.
Not long after I got home from the hospital, my health began to decline and I was diagnosed to have “heart failure,” and told that I was a “candidate for sudden death.” The problem was my heart function, or “ejection fraction.” It was dangerously low. I could drop dead.
What I needed most then was a surgically implanted defibrillator to zap and kick-start my heart should it stop beating, but that could not happen until three months after my surgery. In the meantime, all I could do was continue on with cardiac rehab, take my medications, and count the days.
During those months, I prayed a lot, shed tears, and suffered a series of complications. I became very sensitive to the word heart, and the heart symbol ❤️ (wherever they might appear during the course of a day).
Once, for instance, when I lost Internet service for a few days, my laptop mercilessly put a heart symbol with a crack in it on my computer screen with the message: “You’re not connected.” How true it seemed.
In response to my overwhelming sense of vulnerability, I created my own special little prayer:
Please don’t let me die.
Have a new start.
I clearly recall my somber Yom Kippur that year. During the service, I softly read aloud, along with the other congregants, the Ashamnu — the “We Have Sinned” prayer. In correspondence with my many transgressions, I gently tapped my heart with my right fist. For someone recovering from heart surgery and living with heart failure, it was a sobering experience.
The day of my defibrillator implant finally arrived. Not yet sedated, I was on the operating table when I became aware that things were not what they should be. They brought my wife in and explained to us that they had just discovered my body had an anomaly: I had a “persistent left superior vena cava.” It was a benign condition, but a condition that nonetheless canceled the implantation procedure. There was another defibrillator company that made an alternative defibrillator for people like me, I was told, but that would be another day.
My body anomaly and last-minute canceled surgery experience gave me a lot to think about. Despite the grave risk, I decided to at least temporarily forgo a defibrillator and just try to work at raising my heart function on my own. This I would do through exercise, medication, healthy eating, and prayer.
Then, in July of 2019, I had my 4th echocardiogram. This time my heart function was significantly higher. It was still below normal, but I was no longer a candidate for a defibrillator. There was also no scar tissue to be found. My heart had physically gotten slightly smaller too and, according to my cardiologist, that was a positive. The results were “all good.”
I am inclined to say that while my heart has been getting physically smaller, it has also been growing a lot on a spiritual level. This whole experience has made me a better person, although I’m still a work-in-progress.
Recently, I celebrated another Jewish New Year. Once again, in synagogue, I recited aloud the Ashamnu. This time my right fist gently tapped upon a much healthier and happier heart. And on Yom Kippur a new prayer touched my soul.
The Rabbi announced, “Please turn to page 261 in our prayerbooks. This year we are adding a new prayer, the Birkat HaGomeil — Sharing Thankfulness.” The Rabbi continued, “For those among us who have experienced a near-death experience over the past 12 months, and are comfortable in doing so, please rise as the congregation recites the Birkat HaGomeil.” In a sea of seated congregants, a dispersed handful, myself included, stood:
Baruch atah Adonai,
Eloheinu melech haolam
HaGomeil l’chayavim tovot,
Sheg’malani kol tov.
Blessed are You, our God Eternal; Your majesty fills the universe – through Your generosity I have experienced Your goodness.
Harold Witkov is a freelance writer in the Chicago area who previously worked in textbook publishing and sales for more than 30 years.