December 13, 2018

Power of Prayer?

In the wee small hours of Dec. 7, 2003, my husband and I got the phone call that every parent dreads. A matter-of-fact voice said, "This is UCLA Medical Center. Your son, Jeffrey, has been hit by a car. He’s got at least a couple of broken bones, but he’s alert and he’s asking for you."

As I gasped, unable to take it all in, the voice added, "Your son was very lucky."

Five minutes later, Bernie and I rushed to the emergency room. I consciously held my fears at arm’s length. There was so much I didn’t know. What was our 21-year-old son, a senior at Occidental College in Eagle Rock, doing in Santa Monica the weekend before his final exams? Who hit him? And, above all, how was this accident going to change his life?

When, after an hour of waiting, we finally saw Jeffrey, we felt a certain relief. Yes, he was bruised and bloody — doctors had literally stapled together a nasty gash in his scalp. His left shoulder, broken and dislocated, was in a sling and he wore a precautionary collar keeping his neck immobilized. But although he’d bounced off the hood of an oncoming car, flown through the air and landed face down in a pool of his own blood, his legs were remarkably unscathed. Equally important, his spirit remained unbroken. As we waited endlessly for test results, he sang us all the verses of the old Groucho Marx ditty, "Lydia, the Tattooed Lady."

The really tough time came the following day, when we learned that a faint shadow on an X-ray signaled a broken neck. Suddenly, a major operation loomed. A surgeon we had never met would hold our son’s life in his hands. It was then that we placed the first of many calls to our rabbi, Michael Gotlieb of Kehillat Ma’arav. I’m grateful that Rabbi Gotlieb views hospitals as holy places, where healing takes many forms. His visits were invaluable, as we all grappled with questions about luck, fate, and the will of God.

Hospitals house people of every race, creed and condition. Jeffrey’s roommate, with whom he shared confidences late into the night, was a young Mexican with a brand-new kidney. Our son’s doctors and nurses came from all corners of the globe: the spine surgeon from Iran, his assistant from India, the shoulder expert from Brooklyn, a favorite nurse from Romania. Still, it is the Jewish moments at the hospital that I most vividly remember.

First, there were the calls and visits from members of our congregation. They gave us not only their good wishes but also their expertise. Several with professional ties to UCLA helped us cut through the red tape so endemic to large institutions. Others who had survived medical trauma shared the lessons they had learned. We also gained strength from the hospital’s Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Kalman Winnick, who years before had suffered a grave neck injury too. He was uniquely able to understand our son’s hopes and fears.

Friday, Dec. 12, was the day set for Jeffrey’s 1 p.m. surgery, when the spine team would remove his crushed sixth vertebra, replace it with a cadaver bone, and insert a strip of space-age titanium anchoring it to the intact vertebrae above and below. The goal was to stabilize his neck, protecting the spinal column from a future jolt that could cause paralysis. Of course we were both impatient and terrified. The day dragged on. Jeffrey was finally wheeled off at 4 p.m., for what was billed as a three- or four-hour operation.

While waiting, we attended a short but very sweet Shabbat service, led by a rabbinic intern named Micah Hyman in the hospital’s tiny chapel. Choosing passages that focused on healing, he gave our spirits a lift. But as the operation entered its fifth hour, I could no longer fight off my fears. I walked out into the darkness of the medical plaza, envying my Orthodox friends who always have the Psalms at their fingertips. Praying was all I could do for my son, but I lacked the words I needed. At last I dredged up Psalm 121: "I will lift up mine eyes to the hills, from whence cometh my help."

When I re-entered the waiting area at 9 p.m., I spotted Jeffrey’s surgeon talking to my husband. Both were smiling.

Today, Jeffrey is back to his old routine. He’s driving, attending classes and making up those finals he missed in December. The neck brace he wore night and day for six weeks is now a thing of the past. I don’t credit my prayers with bringing him to this point. I know that medical skill and extraordinary luck were also involved. But I’m convinced that these were words I needed to say, at a moment when words were all I had. To the end of my days, I’ll be thankful. Hallelujah.

Beverly Gray is The Journal’s former education editor and author of “Ron Howard: From Mayberry to the Moon…and Beyond” (Rutledge Hill Press, 2003) and a biography of Roger Corman.