by Alan G.
The following remarks were shared by heart transplant recipient Alan in a Yom Kippur 5780 (2019) address to his fellow worshippers at his synagogue, followed by his current reflections one year later.
To me, the days of Awe are all about life and death, guilt and remorse, confession of sins, and hopefully, forgiveness, renewal, and redemptive action. Al Cheyt is a prayer of confession and asking for forgiveness. I have never thought about these words so deeply and personally as I do now. Here’s why. In April, I went to the hospital for open heart surgery to correct a heart defect. While of course any open-heart surgery is very serious, I was extremely confident having located a renowned surgeon who had done hundreds of these procedures. I would be in on Monday, home on Friday, back to tennis, softball, woodworking, etc. in two or three months, or so I thought.
As I began to regain a level of consciousness post-surgery, I discovered things had not gone well and that after three open heart surgeries, the center wall of my heart had shredded and I was being sustained only by a machine to oxygenate and pump my blood. My recovery was not assured; there was a serious chance of death. Had I not been written and sealed in the metaphorical ‘Book of Life’ in 5779? It became clear that a heart transplant was my best, and perhaps only, chance for recovery. No one said it, but it was understood that this was no slam dunk. After all, I was weakened by many hours of surgery and general anesthesia.
Then miracles started to happen. They expected about a week to acquire a suitable heart, but incredibly identified one in just one day and my transplant surgery was the following day. When we were told I would go to the OR in an hour, my wife asked me what I wanted to do for this possibly final hour, and I asked her and my daughter, who both have beautiful voices, to sing to me. Well, they sang every uplifting song we could think of: show tunes, rock ‘n roll, holiday songs, you name it. It was like two angels had been sent to help me through the operation. And it worked. I was in a positive, optimistic frame of mind when they brought me to the OR. The operation was successful. They put the donor heart in me and it started beating, and has ever since.
So, by now you must be wondering what this has to do with Al Cheyt. Well, the cycle that leads to Al Cheyt begins with guilt and remorse. A few days after the surgery, I began to feel tremendous guilt. You see, I had never signed up to be an organ donor as the idea repulsed me. Yet, someone else, someone I’ll never know and who never knew me, had enough caring for others to give me the gift of life, while I had never been willing to do the same. How could I deserve it when there are many others who could have benefited from this heart? In fact, there is a serious donor organ shortage, especially in New York.
Every year, we chant: Al Cheyt Shechatanu L’fanekha B’imutz Haleyv. “For the wrong that we have done before you in the closing of the heart.” To me this now means for the wrong I had done in closing myself off to compassion and caring, for worrying more about my someday corpse than the possibility of saving another person’s life. And yet someone else had done that for me, saving my life.
However, Al Cheyt is not about wallowing in our sins, but rather a step toward forgiveness, renewal, and redemptive action. The fact that I’m alive and blessed with my first grandchild suggests to me I’ve been forgiven. And recovering physically and emotionally from this ordeal has been renewal in every sense of the word. My steps for redemptive actions are just beginning, which I intend to expand over time. I am now a registered organ donor. I am training to participate in the Transplant Games of America next summer at the Meadowlands, and hope that this and other activities I can engage in will help raise awareness about the life saving importance of organ donation.
Unsurprisingly, my wife has been a pillar of strength, love, and support throughout this period, and I can never adequately thank her. But the outpouring of support I have received from friends, family, and my congregation has been both astonishing and humbling. I am so very grateful. May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a sweet and healthy New Year.
One year later, I am more grateful than ever for the gift of life I received from a generous organ donor. While my recovery was not the walk in the park I initially hoped for, it has, nevertheless, been miraculous. Amazingly, I am back to tennis, softball, woodworking, and practically everything else I did prior to my illness. I’ve also had the opportunity to share my story in different ways working with LiveOnNY and my hospital. While the 2020 Transplant Games were postponed due to Covid-19, they will hopefully happen in 2021 and I plan to be there. The Book of Life is a beautiful thing.
To learn more about Jewish perspectives on organ donation visit: LiveOnNY.org/Judaism