My New Hero
Just an ordinary guy…with an extraordinary story.
Friendships are funny.
You can spend years with someone and never really know him. But sometimes you can spend just a few days or even hours with someone and become closer than brothers. Jeff Katz proved that.
We shared just one phenomenal, emotional, action-packed experience together but the bond that was formed was far stronger than either one of us could have ever imagined. Despite my many travels, I had never before met someone who was suffering from a terminal illness while simultaneously making everyone else around him so very comfortable, and yes, even inspired.
In the article that you are about to read, which I wrote after the remarkable journey that we shared, I called Jeff, "My new hero." Terminology like that is reserved for a select few. But Jeff Katz earned that moniker. He earned it with every shortened breath he took and with every soul he touched. He earned it by never ever losing hope and by meriting the unremitting love, dedication, and emotional strength of his valiant life partner, Maureen.
And until the day he died, just a few weeks ago, he valued every second of life and kept teaching lessons to anyone fortunate enough to grace his angelic presence.
We miss Jeff already, but his smile, his courage, and his unique contributions will be with us forever.
“So let’s go around the room and speak about why we came on this trip to Israel.”
My words seemed innocent enough. As host of this first-ever Mission to Israel for readers of aish.com, I thought the opening dinner of our seven day journey would be the perfect place for the forty some participants to describe their motivation for signing up. So, I asked. They answered.
“We wanted more than just a tour. We wanted to learn the meaning behind everything we were seeing,” said one couple from Illinois.
“We’ve been avid fans of aish.com for years. We wanted to meet the faces behind the words,” declared another couple from California.
The responses were gratifying. It was the next answer that floored me and everyone else in the room.
“Well, Maureen and I have been to Israel many times before,” said Jeff, rising from his chair slowly.
Then he paused for just a moment. I didn’t know why. I thought I detected some discomfort, but I wasn’t sure. He cleared his throat and continued.
"I didn’t want to miss this trip. It might be my last.”
“But I have stage 4 kidney cancer. I am currently undergoing aggressive treatment. I have no idea if I will ever be able to come back again. I just didn’t want to miss this trip. It might be my last.”
The silence was palpable. The candor was astounding. I floundered for words.
“Well…er…I…er…very much appreciate…er…recognize how..er…”
I have no idea what I said at that point. But I do remember being somewhat stunned. To be so open, in a group of strangers, was truly remarkable. He looked pretty healthy. He sounded fine. But Maureen was visibly tearful.
Decision to Fight
Jeff Katz, the youngest of four, was born in Ottawa – 67 years ago. His parents emigrated there from Mezritch, Poland in 1923. For nearly thirty years, working for the Canadian government as an executive human resources manager, he recruited, interviewed, scrutinized and hired top management personnel, senior executives, and assistant deputy ministers.
“It was stressful. It was demanding. I had to perfect the art of being diplomatic without ever compromising my principles and beliefs,” he said.
It was in 1964 when Jeff first met Maureen.
“On a windy day, lots of folks went to the reservoir to fly kites. She was just sixteen at the time, but I was smitten.”
But life, with all its bends and twirls, creases and crinkles, decided that the union would have to wait. They were married eight years later. Jodie came in 1975 and Eli in ‘80. The cancer came in 1998.
“That’s when I had the radical nephrectomy. They removed my left kidney, the ureter, and surrounding tissues and lymph nodes. For five years I was symptom free. I thought my troubles were over. I was wrong.”
The years 2003 – 2006 were dominated by on-again off-again vigorous coughing. The source was unclear, but the worry was constant. On February 5, 2007 the diagnosis was confirmed. He had just returned from the funeral of Maureen’s father in Toronto.
“They told me that I had renal cell carcinoma which had metastasized to my lungs and that my lungs and lymph nodes were contaminated with cancer. I had about six months left. They advised me to get my affairs in order. But I decided to fight.”
And fight he did. Always a fitness fanatic, Jeff, despite his small frame, ramped up his exercise regimen. He began jogging 2 – 3 hours a day, lifting weights, and incorporating the Pilates repertoire into his daily routine. Maureen manned the nutrition portion of this exacting, full-scale war on this brutal invader, by pumping Jeff up with healthy fish dishes and Omega 3’s.
Jeff’s resolve only increased. He entered a protocol to get approved to take the highly experimental Interleukin-2. Less than 5% of candidates are deemed fit enough to withstand the ravages that accompany this treatment. Jeff was approved. Hopes rose. But the side effects were virulent. After three cycles, he was back at square one…with the clock ticking.
Then Jeff began a new trial, taking sunitinib malate to try to manage his cancer. It was new. It was promising. It was effective for 15 months. But it was disappointing.
When it failed, Jeff’s resolve only increased.
Something called nexavar was the next line of artillery, but after only one three months cycle the tumors were still growing. Those of lesser fortitude would have folded their tent, but Jeff – with Maureen cheering him on – would not hear of it.
“The FDA and Health Canada had just approved Afinitor, a new drug from Novartis, which could stabilize the cancer, albeit not reduce the tumors. Dr. Francois Patenaude, a world class oncologist and a first class mentsch, advised me to go for it. I did.”
Before long Jeff could be seen and heard on Canadian TV and radio as a spokesman for Novartis, pitching Afinitor and singing its praises. Meanwhile he is holding his own, and holding his breath.
Most of these details were unbeknownst to me until after the trip was completed. During the mission, all I knew was that he was a lot sicker than he looked. What I didn’t know was that he was also a lot stronger than he looked. I found that out on Day 4.
The sun rose at 5:52 A.M. that brilliant Thursday morning. Our goal, Masada - the historical landmark that stood tall as a 2000 year legacy of Jewish devotion and sacrifice.
The group boarded the bus in Jerusalem and heard the stirring history of Masada, as told by our exceptional guide, historian Ken Spiro. Jeff and Maureen sat near the center. Somehow, they were always in the middle of everything the group did. No matter where we went, no one had to search far for Maureen’s infectious smile or for a snappy, offbeat one-liner from Jeff.
By the time we arrived and got our tickets it was closer to 11:00 A.M. than ten. The scorching Israeli heat was already beating down with ferocious intensity. It seems someone forgot to inform the sun that it was October, not July.
Ken commanded all of us to purchase at least one giant size water bottle and strongly advised use of the cable car to reach the mountain summit.
“You can walk up the snake path, if you like, but most hikers do that at dawn, before the temperature becomes unbearable.”
Most of the group nodded in agreement and began assembling near the trolley line. But several would-be trailblazers, my wife and I among them, milled about and contemplated the one hour trek up the 1,400-foot cliff at a 75-degree angle. It sounded like a legitimate and formidable challenge; one that would have made perfect sense about 25 years ago. And that’s probably why we bought in.
In a few short minutes we gathered at the path’s starting point and immediately noted the searing rays that pointed their influence in our immediate orbit. We hadn’t even begun, but the sweat was already streaming down our backs. It was then that I first noticed Jeff. He was wearing shorts, a huge-brimmed hat and was applying what must have been 500+spf sun block.
What is he doing here? I wondered. Is he really walking up this mountain? Is he serious?
But before I could say, “Not so fast, kimosabi,” he was in the lead. Like a man on a mission (he was), he bounded up those ancient steps in full and proud stride. It didn’t take long for the few of us to split. Jeff remained near the front-runners. He was out of our sight range in a flash. Temmy and I, and one or two others, brought up the rear.
About half way up, one of our fellow stragglers became seriously faint. The heat was nearly unendurable. She experienced shortness of breath and had to stop frequently. Water, rest, reassurance, and shade were proving less than effective and we telephoned to Ken on the peak that we clearly needed a medic – fast.
Seconds later, on the hilltop, the news began to circulate. One of the climbers was in trouble. A medic was being dispatched. Maureen, already nervous about Jeff’s choice, asked someone if the victim might, perchance, be Jeff. Mistakenly, she was told it was. She knew that patients on cancer drugs and powerful sunrays are not a good partnership. Quietly, she wondered if she would ever see him again.
Meanwhile, the first of the climbers reached the top. Jeff was not among them. Maureen waited…and prayed. Jeff was getting very close, but the last 10-15 minutes were really grueling for him.
The medic did finally reach us and cared for the younger woman. In good hands, she pleaded with us to wait with her no longer. We continued our ascent. When we finally huffed and puffed our way onto the Masada pinnacle, we saw Jeff and Maureen – relieved and reunited. He had made it. He climbed that mountain.
Love of Life
Jeff Katz is a simple man. But Jeff Katz is a remarkable man.
When I asked what compelled him to climb Masada, he told me, “I had to feel that I was ABLE to do something like that. I just HAD to do it. With every step I took, I said another prayer.”
How does he do it? How does Jeff Katz garner the strength, the clarity, the tenacity to push life to its limits? Why do so many of us roll over and surrender when faced with adversity, while the Jeff Katz’s of the world seem to thrive?
The answer is as simple as you imagine it not to be.
Jeff loved life a long time before he got sick.
He didn’t become a hero when terminal illness broke down his front door. He was ready for it. He loved life a long time before he got sick. He embraced every single day as a personal invitation to a royal banquet. He experienced every interaction as an opportunity to learn, to perfect – to grow, to reflect. Simply put, when Jeff was faced with a windy day, he grabbed his kite and went to the reservoir.
Jeff Katz is like the king who was known to get very little sleep. One day someone asked him why. The monarch answered, “When I sleep I’m really not a king. That’s why I sleep so little.” The more you love something, the less willing you are to do without it.
Jeff didn’t need to try every single experimental medication available to him. He didn’t need to walk 2-3 hours every day. He didn’t need to come to Israel again and he didn’t need to climb Masada. And he certainly didn’t need to tell 40 strangers about his very personal struggle with terminal illness. But when you love life the way he does, then you live life with a certain enthusiasm that supersedes any and every obstacle that comes your way.
The trip ended and we said our tearful goodbyes. We went back to Brooklyn. Jeff and Maureen are back in Ottawa.
Jeff spends his days doing ten sets of 100 pushups a day, tread-milling, volunteering for the Hebrew Free Loan Society and the synagogue library, calling in his pro-Israel opinions to the local talk radio station, eating his Omega 3’s, swallowing his afinitor, taking his CAT scans, studying Torah, and loving Maureen and the kids.
He asks us to pray for him – Yosef Chaim ben Liba Gittel.
I think we should ask him to pray for us.