One evening in 2014, while teaching my once-weekly four-hour Wednesday law school lectures—two classes, two hours each, with one ten-minute break to eat a Cliff Bar—I noticed curiously that I could not take deep breaths without triggering coughing. It was strange because I felt fully OK. I learned for the first time that lung doctors are called “pulmonologists,” and I saw one at a prominent Los Angeles hospital. He was Jewish, looked at my CT scan, and made light: “Oh, it’s just some schmutz in your lungs.” Just some schmutz.
Over the next six years my lung condition steadily worsened. The disease is called “interstitial lung disease,” and mine is idiopathic, meaning its cause cannot be determined. I still was a full-time rav at Young Israel of Orange County and continued lecturing at law school four hours each Wednesday and teaching three different hour-long Zoom classes weekly on subjects ranging from Bible Study to Talmud and Rambam to my weekly Sunday late-morning class on Advanced Judaic Topics and Advanced Jewish Texts. But I needed to start using a portable oxygen concentrator during waking hours. It comes with settings 1-5; I was at “1” and graduated a few months later to “2.”
By mid-2020, my lungs began deteriorating more rapidly. I now was at “3.” I took a hiatus from teaching law school but continued my three weekly shul Zoom classes, removing the cannulae from my nostrils just before each class—and then back on the moment class ended, with several minutes restorative deep breaths at “5.” By January 2021, my lungs had degraded to oxygen concentrator level “4.” By the end of 2021, I was at “5.” Soon thereafter, I needed level “6”—beyond the machine’s capacity. There are large metal tanks that go to “10” but, as I soon would learn, I was regressing to “11.”
If not for my wife, Denise, who came into my life after I lost my dear love, Ellen of blessed memory, I now would be dead. Denise discerned better than I that I was approaching the finish line. She devoted several days to gathering my every medical record, chart, and report. She then made appointments for me to be evaluated by lung transplant teams at several hospitals. The first was for Monday, March 21, 2022. The other two later in the week; I then would select the one that impressed me most.
After a battery of diagnostic tests during the first evaluation, that hospital’s lung-transplant department head told me: “I cannot restrain you here against your will, but I recommend strongly that you check into our E.R. immediately because, if you go home now, you very possibly won’t wake up tomorrow.” Very persuasive marketing strategy. I skipped the other appointments and “selected” that first hospital—that minute. I was in a hospital bed that night, with high-velocity oxygen being pumped into me at the equivalent of setting “40.” Next, they ran batteries of tests to determine whether I even would qualify to receive a new lung. For example, no facility will transplant into a person with a terminal or even an active serious disease. Through G-d’s kindness, I passed all diagnostics—with a few scares. One test suggested half my diaphragm was paralyzed; that would have disqualified me—meaning death. They ran the test again, and my diaphragm got the memo. Next, critically, I had to pass a challenging physical-activity test. After two years of receding respiration, I could not come close. The hospital’s Physical Therapists were unable to strengthen me. I, who had vigorously worked out five days weekly at a fitness facility for thirty years, now was listed as “frail.” Frail! I began realizing, not out of bleak despair but stark reality, that I indeed was going to die there because I could not pass the physical test.
Again, my wife to the rescue. She contacted a Personal Trainer who had trained her daughter years earlier, and we hired him quasi-surreptitiously to train me at the hospital three times weekly. A hospital official resisted allowing an outside trainer to engage one of their lung patients in vigorous exercise, so we explained he simply was visiting as a family member because he is my older brother. (He is Black.) He worked me hard, and thanks to G-d’s kindness, I passed that final hurdle four weeks later. I was approved for transplant, and we now waited for a donor’s lung that would be healthy (e.g., non-smoker), delivered promptly and securely, compatible, and the right fit. Miraculously, five days later the lungs arrived. The transplant took place May 20. I remained institutionalized two more months, released home July 20. Thus, I had been hospitalized non-stop for four months, missing the entire spring season. During surgery, one of my vocal cords was paralyzed by a medical device, so I could not talk, perhaps never more. I remained wheelchair-bound yet another next two months.
And I am writing this 12 months later, after a long day of teaching classes, writing op-ed articles, clearing out part of the garage, and running errands. Through a miraculous medical intervention blessed by G-d, even my voice is back.
Illness can be G-d’s loving inspiration to fulfill life purposes you were meant to attain. Have you ever really contemplated what if you unexpectedly had only one day left? Would you be consumed with despair that you have no time left for all the things you were “planning to do”? Me, too. Have you reached the religious attainments to which you have aspired? (“One day I will kosher my kitchen. One day I will start going to services. One day I will start donning tefillin. One day I will start lighting Shabbat candles. One day I will attend Rabbi Fischer’s Bible Study Zoom class.”) Are there unopened books in your home library—Team of Rivals, Huckleberry Finn, Atlas Shrugged, Perfidy? Does your spouse know all your computer passwords? Have you forgiven grudges, asked forgivenesses, and made peace with all whom you know? Have you made certain your spouse, children, and parents know you truly feel their love deep in your soul, and you love them just as deeply?
Have you ever thought about your voice—what if it suddenly died? You would not want your voice’s legacy to be words spoken improperly. You would guard your tongue as never before. As part of my treatment, I was compelled to take a severe antibiotic that left me half deaf. Have you ever thought what if your hearing went dead? You would not be able to hear the voices of your children and giggles of your grandchildren. Nor to hear favorite songs. No more Ishay Ribo or Taylor Swift or Garth. It would all be isolated silence.
I have emerged viewing every day differently, undertaking projects I always was “going to start one of these days.” Maybe most of all—I waste less time. When facing your last day, time assumes new urgency.
Why wait for interstitial lung disease and organ transplants to reach a higher spiritual plateau? Embrace a new life of focused purpose. Hug the ones you love. Even sign up for a Bible Study Zoom class.
Rabbi Dov Fischer is rav of Young Israel of Orange County, Vice President of Coalition for Jewish Values, and senior contributing editor at The American Spectator. To join any of his online classes, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.