When my oldest sister, Deena, was born, the beds of her fingernails and her lips were blue. This is not uncommon in newborn babies, but in her case, it didn’t go away. In medical terms, the blood in her body wasn’t circulating properly and getting fully oxygenated. Something was very wrong.
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My parents lived in Boston, so they took Deena to the Boston Children’s Hospital, where she was diagnosed as having a major congenital heart defect called Tetralogy of Fallot. It was 1943, and the hospital had been studying this syndrome for several years. My folks were told that their baby was not likely to survive a year without treatment, but by using some surgical techniques that had recently been developed in the hospital, her life might be prolonged somewhat.
By this time, my family had a close connection with the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak. They reached out to him, and he advised them not to do the surgery.
I can’t imagine what it would have been like for my parents to hear that – and what it takes for a human being to be able to say those words. But that’s what he said and so no surgery was done.
But then, she made it to her first birthday party; years later, I would grow up hearing stories about what a tremendous celebration it was. Then she made it to her second, and her third. I came along when she was six, and although she was somewhat limited in her physical activity and needed to be homeschooled much of the time, my parents could not have been happier – at least she was alive!
Once some new diagnostic techniques became available, it turned out that she didn’t have Tetralogy of Fallot, but a completely different condition, of which they had little knowledge in 1943. Had they opened up that tiny, frail, blue infant, only to find that there was nothing they could do to help her, she likely wouldn’t have survived the surgery.
A few years later, the doctors, who had been closely following her case, finally thought they understood her condition well enough to operate. When she turned twenty-one – she was the oldest patient in the Children’s hospital – she went into surgery and, amazingly, when she came out her lips were pink!
Shortly after, I remember walking down a supermarket aisle beside my mother, with Deena just behind us. A frail, small girl, she had never been able to keep up with anybody, and so my mother whispered to me: “Is she keeping up with us?”
“Yes,” I said, glancing back. “Yes, she is.”
Deena went on to get married, and she and her husband eventually adopted a daughter. I remember that after she passed away and we were sitting shiva for her, somebody remarked that it was “a shame that she only lived to fifty.” “No,” my brother said, “it’s a blessing that she lived to fifty.” And, if not for the words of the Previous Rebbe, she most probably wouldn’t have.
In the late 1970s, long after the Rebbe had succeeded his father-in-law, my mother had a surgical dilemma of her own. My mother, Ruth, was diagnosed with liver disease. But her diagnosis came very late in the game.
To understand the question she brought to the Rebbe, we have to first understand the medicine. When a person eats, the digestive system breaks the food into tiny chemicals. Some of these chemicals are needed by the body, while others can be harmful. But all of them are absorbed into the blood vessels in the gut and transported to the liver for filtering. The liver processes it all, keeping the good and eliminating the bad. If the harmful toxins are not eliminated, the effects can be severe.
If the liver is damaged, it cannot do this critical job. As it falls behind, the toxins get too concentrated in the body, which can cause problems. Worse, since the remaining healthy liver tissue can no longer handle the volume of blood coming into it, the blood backs up into those small vessels, which get stretched to the bursting point and begin bleeding into the gut. If this bleeding gets bad enough, a person can die.
By the time she was diagnosed, there was little the doctors could offer my mother, except for a surgical procedure to permanently bypass the liver and prevent the terrifying bleeding she had begun to experience. But, there was a hitch: Removing the liver from the picture meant that it would no longer be performing its critical task, which could yield toxic effects. So what do you do?
We brought all the information to the Rebbe – my mother’s disease, its current status, the doctors’ suggestion, and the concerning side-effects that even a successful surgery carried.
Thus the answer he gave us amazes me to this day: “Yes,” he said, she should “absolutely have the surgery, and there is no risk of the side effects.”
Over a lifetime, one might communicate with the Rebbe many times. Some of it might involve routine questions and answers, simple things that don’t leave much of a mark on your memory. But the strange, the remarkable, the incomprehensible – they do leave a mark. And this answer from the Rebbe was one that we simply could not comprehend. After all, as we knew, the Rebbe understood the medicine well: The difficulties, the disease, and the side-effects. I did not have to tell him that if you stop filtering toxins from the blood, they will stay in the body and there will be consequences! That’s how the body is built. We expected serious side effects, but were unsure whether they would be worth the benefits of the surgery.
I don’t consider myself to be a Lubavitcher, as I don’t follow the customs of Lubavitch, but the Rebbe was our Rebbe. I had to remember that the Rebbe doesn’t misspeak or make mistakes. If I don’t understand his words, it is because of my limitations.
So, we arranged the surgery. My mother went into the operating theater, and we waited a terribly long time for the doctor to come out and tell us what had transpired.
It turned out that instead of one, large, easily manipulated blood vessel, her body was using an array of smaller vessels leading from the intestine into the liver. This made the planned procedure technically impossible, as this “plexus,” as it is called, couldn’t all be rerouted.
But, during the surgery, the doctors found a very large, unexpected aneurysm near the liver. It looked ready to burst, which would have had life-threatening consequences. Because of the surgery, they discovered this imminent menace and were able to repair it on the spot. They also removed her badly-enlarged spleen, which probably improved the bleeding problem somewhat.
My mother still had trouble with her liver, but she managed to recuperate from the surgery, and went on to survive several more years.
In the end, the Rebbe’s words were true to the letter: She absolutely needed surgery – because of the aneurysm, and there were no side-effects – because the doctors never ended up bypassing her liver.
Dr. Dovid Krinsky, a retired dentist – who also taught dentistry for twenty years – lives in Woodmere, New York. He was interviewed in April 2023.