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Heart Transplant

May 16, 2013 | by Ilana Mathias

A young girl's struggles and triumphs unite a community with meaning, love and growth.

Three years ago life was very different. November 2009, the kids were all sick with Swine flu. Everyone seemed to have it, and a week later they started to recover. Everyone but my sweet niece, Ruchama Sara, then 7. She was still sick. After numerous visits to the doctor’s office, Tamar, my twin sister, brought little Ruchama Sara, weak and pale, to the emergency room. When frightening things began to happen, Tamar called me.

Ruchama Sara“Lan, Sara just passed out, this is serious…” her voice, starting in a harsh whisper, grew stronger with each word. “We need to pray….Make some calls, send out a text, Lani, Sara is really sick….I don't know what's going to happen…Lani do it now.”

Tamar, the strongest person I know, was giving orders, getting the army ready. It was the first time we had to call in the spiritual troops for our Ruchama Sara, and they came running, like one being with one heart, overflowing the heavens with our tears, crying out to God.

We prayed nonstop through the night, our prayers coursing through Ruchama Sara like an I.V. Two treacherous ambulance rides and many complicated procedures later, the doctors finally stabilized her using an ECMO machine to pump her heart, circulate her blood and breathe for her while we waited for the deadly Swine flu to retreat and leave our Ruchama Sara alone.

The spiritual troops continued to advance, taking on new mitzvot in honor of Ruchama Sara's recovery. After six days, Ruchama Sara's heart was able to beat without the ECMO machine; she had survived the assault, thank God.

In the months following her stay in the PcICU (pediatric cardiac intensive care unit), a diverse group of friends and family, ranging from religious to non-observant, bound by love, compassion and the sense of responsibility to care for one another, never let up.As she recovered in a rehabilitation center, we thanked God every day for giving our Ruchama Sara back to us and for filling her with a persistent spirit. She never gave up on anything - ever. She soon returned home, re-learned to walk, caught up on school work with a tutor and returned to school the following year alongside her friends.

Ruchama Sara's struggles and triumphs inspired a number of transformations in our lives.

Ruchama Sara was now eight years old. Over the seven months that she was hospitalized she went from quirky seven year old “noodle” to a mature, grounded and determined young lady. With the help of her empowering parents, accepting family and friends, and our ever present spiritual troops, Ruchama Sara was a strong, confident kid. Despite sustaining irreparable damage to her left foot as a result of ECMO, she became an unbelievable choreographer and loved teaching her pieces to everyone.

Ruchama SaraRuchama Sara's struggles and triumphs inspired a number of transformations in our lives. With Tamar's amazing ability to strengthen people, coupled with her understanding of human nature and her rolodex filled with young singles who volunteered during the months of Ruchama Sara's hospital stay, Tamar and her husband Oren began a very successful Shidduch/dating office. They successfully helped six couples get married last year and helped countless others get closer to finding their bashert. We started two schools, one for boys (Kol Yaakov) and one for girls (Bnot Yaakov) to ensure that our children could be educated within the community, saving them the daily two-hour bus rides that Ruchama Sara had to endure on a regular basis. And I opened a women's accessory shop in Great Neck to outfit all of the community members who had decided to cover their hair in the merit of my niece’s recovery. We were busy supporting growth within our community, who came through in our time of great need with emotional and spiritual support.With the danger seemingly in our past, we turned our attention mostly to other community projects.

The following year, hand sanitizer sold very well in Great Neck as we all prepared for flu season again. It came and went and we all sighed with relief as the first anniversary of Ruchama Sara's treacherous journey passed without incident. We were returning to normal, trying not to panic each time a child came down with fever, reminding ourselves that Ruchama Sara's illness was a fluke, as uncommon as seeing a zebra walking down the street.

As we lived our daily lives, our close friends and family continued to feel a sense of gratitude for Ruchama Sara's flourishing, without feeling a sense of emergency. Her struggles had receded to a distant part of their thoughts. Although life was moving on, Ruchama Sara had become a part of our collective consciousness, helping us to understand the real meaning of unity.

This year, my two daughters caught the flu and as a result, we didn't see Tamar's family for weeks. We quarantined ourselves and took Tami Flu. We were patient with ourselves for panicking…it was our first flu diagnosis since Ruchama Sara was sick.

Weeks passed and all was well. Tamar's family managed to make it through with no flu…we began to prepare for Purim.

Everyone in the neighborhood was sick. This time, Tamar's family was not immune.

And then... Everyone in the neighborhood was sick. This time, Tamar's family was not immune. Every member of their family was sick, including Ruchama Sara. For days on end, Tamar had different combinations of her children home from school. The common denominator was Ruchama Sara. One day she had a fever, then a headache… I thought Tamar was acting cautiously but not out of fear. It seemed to be in control…Tamar always had things under control…

The spiritual troops started rumbling. As the amount of sick children grew, text messages, wishing entire classrooms of children well, were circulating. A virus, Flu B, was alive and well in Great Neck.

It was Purim. During the Megillah reading, I noticed that Tamar seemed worried. I am sure no one else saw it, but there was something about her smile when she looked at Ruchama Sara. She kept squeezing her hand. I sat with an arm around her through the reading and she was distracted.I kept checking her temperature with my hand.

The following day, I spoke briefly to Tamar. Ruchama Sara had a headache and stayed home from school. Early the next morning I woke up to a phone call.

“Lani…Sara was sick all night…..”

Followed an hour later by a text: Tamar: Spoke to cardiologist, they don't think this is cardiovascular

Me: Thank GD… But what are you going to DO?

Tamar: I'm taking her in

Me: Keep me posted.

No one knew this was happening. I was not ready to push "the red button" and rally the troops, not yet.

A few hours later - I heard a knock at my door, fast and quiet. As I opened the door, my brother-law was slouched in front of me, pale and vacant. I hesitated, “Have you spoken to Tamar?”

He looked up at me in pain, “I wish I hadn't,” he said, looking away. “They found water around Sara's heart again…” He was holding tightly to the banister.

Even then, I didn't feel panicked. I was concerned but thought at least they got to the hospital in time. I made a few phone calls to was time to say a few prayers.

Unfortunately, it wasn't about getting to the hospital in time. Ruchama Sara's condition was worsening by the second. My husband, who works in the city, went to the hospital to bring Tamar lunch. He was there when the doctors’ faces went pale and they stopped making eye contact. Ruchama Sara's life was again in grave danger. Her heart was too strained to beat. They performed CPR, doctors brought out the ECMO machine. It was Ruchama Sara's only hope.

Sara's is really sick... This doesn't look good.

I was at home. I had just gotten the kids to sleep and was relatively unaware of the steep downhill course Ruchama Sara was on when the phone rang. It was my husband.

"Lan....Sara's is really sick... They're trying to get her on ECMO now... It's not a sure thing Lan... This doesn't look good."

I crumpled into a ball, sirens going off in my head. I knew how dangerous this all was. As the world around me began to swirl and go dim, I knew what I had to do. As I reached for "the red button" to mobilize the spiritual troops, my phone started to ring, buzz, and ding....they already knew. As one being with one heart, we flooded the heavens. Rounds of Psalms were being recited, shuls were opening to host emergency community prayer rallies. Together with one voice, we wailed, cried out, banging on the gates of Mercy "Let us in! Let Sara in!"

And, thank God, the Gates of Mercy opened, literally and figuratively. It was extraordinary. While she was not out of the woods yet, Ruchama Sara was stabilized on the ECMO machine. Over the next couple of weeks, the troops prayed, bettered themselves and gave tzedaka all in the merit of Ruchama Sara's recovery. Community members and leaders got together and actually raised enough money to re-open our shul and mikveh in her merit. The Shul's name? Sha'are Rachamim - The Gates of Mercy.

The weeks that followed have been filled with immensely heartfelt and emotional prayer, countless mitzvot and acts of kindness on behalf of Ruchama Sara's recovery. This time her progress out of danger was much different. She remained on ECMO for 14 days. Despite the doctors best efforts, Ruchama Sara's heart was too damaged and was never able to recover. For two months, a pump beat Ruchama Sara's heart as we waited for the next step. As the spiritual troops begged the Almighty for what Ruchama Sara needed most, a new healthy heart, we witnessed miracles as two hearts became available within the same day, in the same hour. It was unprecedented. We feel tremendous gratitude towards these families who decided to make their difficult tragedy into a miracle.

We experienced again the power of prayer and unity. As we prayed for Ruchama Sara's heart, we strengthened our own hearts. Now, as we pray that her body accepts its new heart and forms a strong working bond, we strengthen our own bonds, connections between family, friends and our creator. We won't let up until God grants her a refuah shlema, a complete recovery when she can embrace her renewed life with friends and family once again as a beautiful, deep and grateful Ruchama Sara.

Our spiritual troops have worked very hard to come together as one, despite cultural, religious and any other differences. This Shavuot, we understood more deeply why it's necessary to be connected in order to receive the Torah. As a unified nation, we are at our purest and most powerful, standing together as one being with one heart.

We invite you to join Ruchama Sara's troops. Please visit our official page on Facebook called: We love Sara Miryam bat Tamar updates. You’ll hopefully be inspired by our journey of healing through extraordinary unity.

You can send your good wishes and stories of growth and learning on Ruchama Sara's behalf in the comment section below.

Please continue to pray for the complete, permanent recovery and enriched beautiful life of Ruchama Sara Miryam bat Tamar.

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