At Death’s Door in a Foreign Land
On vacation, a woman suddenly experiences organ failure with her life hanging by a thread.
Motty and Tzurty Reisman were a young couple, both 20 years old, married just eight months, who decided to go on a belated honeymoon. The Reismans, who lived in Monsey, joined a Lag B’Omer tour to visit the holy sites in Israel. This was to be Motty’s first trip abroad; Tzurty had gone once before, in her teens.
They joined a group of 20 couples and it had been a perfect trip, with picture-perfect weather, wonderful accommodations, and excellent company. The days flew quickly, jam packed with beautiful and memorable tours. All too soon it was Friday, just two days before they were to leave. There was no indication of the crisis that would transform their lives, involving tens of thousands of their brothers and sisters who would storm the heavens for a young woman’s recovery.
On Friday night, the members of the tour were scheduled to go to the Kotel. Tzurty, never one to turn down a memorable opportunity, said she wasn’t feeling so well and went to sleep instead.
When Motty returned to the hotel after davening he woke his wife, and they ate a quick meal. Tzurty complained of weakness and dizziness, which was unlike her, but they chalked it up to exhaustion, as they were in a different time zone and hadn’t slept much in the past few days. They finished the meal, and went to sleep.
As Motty recalled, “That was our last normal night of sleep for the next few months. I had no idea at the time that my wife wasn’t simply under the weather, that she was suffering from a life-threatening condition, and that her liver was shutting down.
“In the morning, however, I was alarmed to see that her face had a yellowish tinge. Since I was a Hatzoloh member, I immediately knew that something was very wrong. Still, I didn’t think it was a true emergency. We quickly got dressed and went outside to look for an urgent care facility that was open. We found one close to the hotel and entered. The urgent care staff took one look at my wife, ordered blood work, and told us to go to the hospital immediately.”
Motty and Tzurty decided to go to Shaarei Tzedek hospital, which was close by. When they arrived, the emergency room was overflowing with patients. By that point Tzurty was already very weak and was drifting in and out of consciousness. They admitted her immediately, and gave her a bed, taking several vials of blood.
Somehow, Tzurty had contracted a serious infection and was suffering from acute liver failure.
Before long a team of doctors broke the news to the couple. Somehow, Tzurty had contracted a serious infection and was suffering from acute liver failure.
The liver's main job is to filter the blood coming from the digestive tract, before passing it to the rest of the body. The liver also detoxifies chemicals, secreting bile that ends up back in the intestines. If the liver should fail, the bloodstream quickly becomes toxic, poisoning the entire body.
With every passing hour, her liver was wasting away, creating a buildup of toxins that was causing her extreme weakness and yellowish pallor. The hospital staff pumped her with antibiotics, but her liver was not responding. The doctors informed Motty that his wife was in serious danger, and may not survive the next few days.
Motty wandered about, in a daze, not knowing what to do or where to go. His wife was semi-conscious, attached to machinery, her life in danger. Whom should he call? Where should he go? It was clear that the current hospital wasn’t the right place for her, but was there another option?
As soon as Shabbos was over he informed the tour guide about Tzurty’s condition. Several of the young couples, with whom they’d become very close, hurried to the hospital to give them moral support. And then a friend suggested contacting Motty Glustein, a humble tzaddik who leads an incredible organization, Medical Service General, helping Americans navigate the maze of medical care, and obtain medical insurance in Israel.
When Motty heard about the crisis he came over immediately. As soon as he grasped the severity of the young woman’s illness, he took over the case, not leaving their side throughout the next two weeks. Fortunately, the Reismans had purchased medical insurance through their travel agent, enabling their hospital expenses to be covered.
Using his extensive network of connections, Motty confirmed that Beilinson Hospital in Petach Tikvah was the best choice for the young patient because they have a separate unit dedicated to liver disease. She was transferred late on Motzoei Shabbos, and quickly examined by a team of 16 doctors, all of them liver specialists.
Their verdict was unanimous: Tzurty’s liver was nearly dead, working only at five percent capacity, pumping toxic blood to the rest of her body. Unfortunately, too much time had passed, and her liver could not be regenerated.
Her only option of survival was a liver transplant, but the chances of finding a donor in Israel were slim.
Her only option of survival was a liver transplant, but the chances of finding a donor in Israel were slim. There were very few donors available, and the waiting list was long.
Consequently, her chances of survival were miniscule. The doctors were very kind and sympathetic, but they warned the young husband to prepare for the worst. Within a few hours, Tzurty’s liver would shut down completely, and then it was only a matter of time.
As Motty recalled, “My wife was 20 years old, and we’d barely been married a few months. Was our life together to end just as it had begun?
“Tzurty was only semi-aware, drifting in and out of consciousness, her face becoming yellow and more bloated with every passing hour. In the meantime, the doctors kept giving her blood transfusions, sending fresh, non-toxic blood to her body to keep her alive. In addition, they put her existing blood through dialysis treatments to purify it. Later that night, as her condition deteriorated, she was placed on life support.
“I spent the night at her side, updating members of our family about her condition. I was too numb and shaken to comprehend what was happening, but I knew the situation didn’t look good. Motty Glustein and his team were working the phones, trying to figure out the best way to save my wife’s life.”
After exhaustive consultations with the top medical professionals, it was unanimously decided that Tzurty’s only chance of survival was to send her to Paris, where there was a famous transplant center with a high success rate. Why Paris? As the doctors explained, transporting the deathly ill patient across the Atlantic on a 12-hour flight would most definitely be fatal. On the other hand, staying locally meant a long waiting list for a liver, and time was not on their side.
Paris was only five hours away by plane, plus it had a well-known liver transplant center. Most importantly, in France, the law states that every citizen becomes an automatic donor, unless he or she specifies otherwise. Since there are many motorcycle drivers and a high roadside mortality rate, the waiting list for a liver is shorter than in other countries.
Once the decision was confirmed on Sunday morning, Motty and his team began the process of transferring Tzurty, arranging for a private plane. In the meantime, the Reisman and Goldberger families back home were notified that Tzurty was seriously ill,and that her survival was uncertain. Almost immediately, her extended family, friends, and almost the entire klal Yisrael began storming the Heavens, davening for Tzurtel bas Esther Chana.
In the midst of the frantic preparations to move the patient, Motty Glustein learned that transferring Tzurty wouldn’t be possible, after all. President Trump was scheduled to visit Israel that Sunday and the entire airport was on lockdown for security reasons, to accommodate Air Force One.
Motty refused to give up. He quickly drafted a letter, signed by the liver specialists in Beilinson, who testified that the patient was in critical condition and that it was urgent that she be transferred right away. Within 20 minutes of sending this letter, he received permission from the control tower. A private medical plane, bound for Paris, was cleared for takeoff.
Tzurty was hooked up to machines and rushed to the airport via ambulance. The plane, outfitted as a mobile ambulance, was already waiting near the runway.
I was frightened when I saw her – her face was nearly black, her entire body was bloated, and she looked like a dead person.
As Motty recalled, “I was frightened when I saw her – her face was nearly black, her entire body was bloated, and she looked like a dead person. As soon as we were airborne, I collapsed in my seat and fell asleep from sheer exhaustion. I’d been awake for nearly 36 hours at that point. I woke up a few hours later to hear an excited shout: it was a miracle! Tzurty awoke from her stupor and asked for something to drink. The paramedics gave her a cup of orange juice and some cookies. As soon as she finished her snack she laid back down and collapsed once again. I felt that it was a sign from Above, not to give up hope, that there was still a small spark of life in her. I can’t explain that that little sign did for me. Up until that point, as her condition worsened, there was a part of me that kept hoping, but realistically, I knew the chances of her survival were slim. She was basically full of toxic blood, her life hanging by a hair.”
The plane landed a few hours later, and the patient, accompanied by a medical team, her husband, and Motty Glustein, was carefully transferred to an ambulance on the ground. As she entered the ambulance her vital signs dropped. The ambulance crew frantically called for a police escort. They were terrified they would lose her before they got to the hospital.
The entourage arrived at the hospital, a large transplant center in a suburb of Paris, early on a sunny Monday morning. The vast hospital had several wings, one dedicated to heart transplants, another for liver transplants, and yet a third for kidney transplants.
As soon as they arrived, the patient was rushed to the ICU, where a team of doctors were waiting for their critically ill patient. They immediately gave her massive blood transfusions and tried to stabilize her. In the meantime, Tzurty’s mother, Esther Chana Goldberger, who had taken an emergency flight to Paris, arrived. She had left the hospital in New York, where her own mother was on her deathbed, to be with her deathly ill daughter in Paris.
It was a wrenching decision, discussed with rabbis, but the halachic decision was clear. Tzurty needed her mother now and she was obligated to leave her own dying mother’s bedside to be there for her daughter.
Before she left her mother’s sickbed for the last time, Mrs. Goldberger pressed her beloved mother’s hand and whispered that she was going to be with Tzurty, whose life was in danger. The dying elderly woman, who was barely conscious, opened her eyes and showed some recognition, as if giving permission for her daughter to travel.
Tzurty’s mother was escorted into her daughter’s hospital room for a few moments and began to scream. “This is not my daughter! I want to see my daughter!”
Her body doubled in size, Tzurty was nearly unrecognizable. It took quite a while to calm her down. The hospital staff, who were not very friendly to begin with, were very upset at this show of emotion. They barely tolerated their presence, and referred to the patient as the “Yudeh,” or the Jewish woman.
The procedure at the hospital was very strict: Neither Tzurty’s husband, nor her mother, or Motty Glustein were allowed to be with the patient. She was only able to receive visitors for an hour in the morning, and an hour in the evening.
Our forced separation was one of the most agonizing parts of the ordeal.
As Motty recalled, “Our forced separation was one of the most agonizing parts of the ordeal. For much of the time I had no idea how she was doing, or if she was even alive.
The doctors informed me that Tzurty’s condition was stable and that she was number one on the list for a liver transplant. However, as I was later to discover, in France number one is actually second on the list, because the list starts with zero. They assured me that it would take a day or two to receive a liver, and they were somewhat hopeful she would survive until then.”
There was another major issue: The Reismans had no insurance for medical care in France, as their travel insurance only applied to Israel. The actual transplant would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, while every night in the ICU cost ten thousand dollars. They were racking up a huge bill, with no hope to pay it.
After the first day, the hospital staff refused to continue treating the patient until the monies were paid, up front. At that point Motty’s devoted cousin, Chaim Berkovic and a team of dedicated community workers in America began an emergency “Give Tzurty Life” campaign. They contracted through Unidy, a fundraising platform, to raise the money, with an initial goal of $500,000 dollars to cover the transplant.
The word spread quickly. There was a young woman at death’s door, alone in a foreign country. She needed an urgent transplant, but there was no way to pay for it.
It was breath-taking and awe-inspiring to see how Klal Yisrael sprang into action to help a woman most of them had never met, who was in critical condition.
At one point there were over 50 volunteers around the globe, including Canada, London, Israel and even Australia manning the phones, accepting credit card numbers and processing them. Unidy later attested that it had never seen such a large volume of donations for any campaign; they had to add an extra server to accommodate the traffic!
Within 24 hours, the full amount was raised, and the donations kept pouring in. In the meantime, a wealthy philanthropist gave the Reismans his credit card number, allowing them to charge up to $600,000, provided he would be repaid when the donations were processed.
As soon as the hospital realized that there was enough money to cover the surgery, they began making preparations for the procedure. One liver came in on Monday, but it was not a good match. In any case, there was one patient ahead of her in line. And then, on Tuesday, an incident happened that almost killed Tzurty, but ended up being the catalyst for her salvation.
As Motty related, “We were only allowed to see Tzurty for one hour by day, and one hour at night. On Tuesday morning, the doctors reluctantly allowed my mother-in-law and myself into Tzurty’s room. She was semi-conscious, covered by a blanket, and appeared weaker than ever. On instinct, I pulled down the blanket a bit, and began to scream. Her upper body was saturated with blood.
Blood was spurting from her artery, pooling on her sheets. There was only a minute or two to save her life.
“As a Hatzoloh member with medical training, I realized what had happened. The catheter threading into her brachial artery wasn’t tied well. It had come loose, and she was slowly bleeding out. Blood was spurting from her artery, pooling on her sheets. In such in instance, there was only a minute or two to save the patient’s life. I pressed the help button and began to scream, lifting her arm and pressing on it to stop the bleeding. Since the blood was toxic, and I had no gloves, I tried not to come into contact with it as I pressed.
“In response to my frantic screams, the doctors ran into the room and quickly forced us out. I didn’t want to leave, because I was afraid that if I did, Tzurty would lose consciousness and it would be all over. I continued pressing on her hand, until the doctors called for a police escort to bodily throw me out of the room. I was shaking all over, terrified that we had just lost her.
“The medical team managed to stabilize my wife in the nick of time, but that was the beginning of our deteriorating relationship. They felt guilty, knowing that their negligence had almost caused the death of their patient, and wanted to cover their tracks. After my wife was stable they informed me that I was no longer allowed to come visit her, and if I stepped into her room I would be arrested.
“I was sent back to the hotel, where I waited numbly for the phone call I was sure was coming, informing me of Tzurty’s passing. I can’t describe the mental and emotional agony I experienced during these hours as I said tehillim, pleading with Hashem to save her, sending updates to my anxious family in New York, and waiting for the doctor’s report. At some point that Tuesday night they informed me that because of the bleed, my wife was bumped up to zero on the list. She had lost so much blood that she only had a few hours to survive without a liver.
“Later that night I was called back to the hospital, under police escort, to say goodbye to my wife. I’ll spare you the details of that heart-rending scene, as I begged Tzurty forgiveness, thanked her for being such a good wife, and numbly waited for it to be all over. We had gone to Israel, a healthy young couple, filled with excitement and plans for a memorable vacation. And now I was standing at what was probably her deathbed, saying goodbye before the police whisked me away.
“That night was the longest, and most memorable, of my life. I paced back and forth in my small hotel room, waiting for it to be all over. I knew that if a liver wasn’t found before the morning, it would be too late.”
A liver had been found, and it was a perfect match!
By six a.m. on Wednesday morning I was so exhausted that I dropped off to sleep, and missed the doctor’s phone call. My brother, who had flown in to join me, took the call instead. A liver had been found, and it was a perfect match! Tzurty was being wheeled into surgery. When I woke up at ten a.m. I learned that my wife had already been in surgery for four hours. A short while later we got the phone call: the operation had been a success, and Tzurty was now in the recovery room.
“Before we could process the news, we received a phone call from New York: my mother-in-law’s mother passed away. A few moments before the death, she opened her eyes and asked if her daughter, Esther Chana, had left already. When my grandmother heard her daughter arrived in Paris, she closed her eyes and died. It was almost as if with her passing, she had bequeathed a brand new neshamah (soul) to her deathly ill granddaughter. From that moment onward, against all odds, Tzurty miraculously began to recover.
“Twelve hours after the surgery, my mother-in-law and I were finally allowed to see Tzurty, who was still asleep and intubated, but only via a window into the recovery room. I sat by the window and said tehillim as she slept.”
On Friday morning, two days after the surgery, Tzurty began moving her arms and legs. Her husband and mother quickly called for a doctor. The medical team arrived and stood near her bed, observing her strange hand motions. It took another few hours before her family could speak with Tzurty from outside the door, via a microphone.
“I asked my wife what she was trying to say, and in a weak voice she asked if her grandmother was still alive. That was another uncanny proof that her passing and my wife’s recovery were somehow related.”
It took another two weeks until Tzurty was discharged from the hospital and allowed to go back to New York. They breathed a giant sigh of relief as they boarded a regular flight home.
The powerful display of unity, our palpable closeness to our Loving Father, and the faith and trust we acquired shall remain with us.
Tzurty spent the next few days receiving care in Cornell Medical Center, and then went to her mother-in-law’s to recuperate. The recuperation process took several months, during which she needed to take numerous expensive medications. At one point she was taking 45 pills in the morning, and another 35 at night! Each medication cost between sixty and ninety dollars a bottle, which translated into tens of thousands of dollars for the follow-up care. Once again, Klal Yisrael came through, and the ongoing medical care was covered by compassionate donors around the world.
As Motty concludes, “Today my wife is mostly recovered, Boruch Hashem, and we are back home in Monsey, having mostly put the ordeal behind us. Yet the powerful display of unity among our nation, our palpable closeness to our Loving Father, and the faith and trust we acquired shall remain with us. Life is infinitely precious, we discovered. Never give up hope, even when the circumstances appear hopeless, because miracles do happen.”