It often amazes me how relevant Torah is. Not just in the sense that it’s truly extraordinary that a text thousands of years old can still speak to our lives today, but that each and every Torah portion continually and continually speaks to life. Each year, we read the Torah start to finish; each year, we find new wisdom to gain. And each year, depending on what has gone on in life since the year before, we have the opportunity to read the text anew. Sometimes, the difference in our reading of a given portion from one year to the next is profound. So it is for me as I read Tazria (the first of 2 portions to talk about tzara’at, a skin disease often mistranslated as leprosy) this week.
As some of you know, I spent 4 days in the hospital this past December with MRSA. MRSA is, essentially, a staph infection that is resistant to antibiotics. It can cause serious harm and it’s highly contagious. It doesn’t always go away. Mine, luckily, was not as bad as it could have been. I can’t help but think about that experience when I read this week’s portion; I can’t help but consider having been quarantined when I read about how people with tzara’at were sent out of the community for a period of time. I can’t help but consider what it was like for me to reenter my own community, not all at once, but little by little–amazing how true to life Torah can be.
This piece has been percolating in the back of my mind for a couple of months. So I’m using the opportunity of this week’s portion to write this piece. While I did not enjoy being in the hospital, I learned from the experience. Here is some of what I learned–information that has helped me understand illness. And has helped to inform how I approach life, and those who are ill, since then.
- Being in the hospital is like being in an alternate universe. I had managed to avoid hospital stays for 41 years, 1 month, 3 weeks, and 2 days. Having now been through the experience, it’s like you exit reality for a time. Time is measured not by clocks, but by someone coming by to take your vitals. You learn you have more veins in your arms and hands than you possibly imagined (this was especially fun, as someone who has challenging veins to being with). Your time isn’t really yours. And you don’t really have a sense of what’s going on in the outside world. You get taken where you need to go (from the ER to the room; from the room to surgery; from surgery back to the room) when it needs to happen and you don’t really question it. I didn’t actually know that I had MRSA until the last day of my hospital stay, by the way. The day I was admitted, they gave me treatment. The second day, I had surgery. The third day, the doctor told me it was Staph, and he didn’t think it looked like MRSA (oh, yeah, don’t forget, doctors aren’t necessarily correct). The fourth day, he said the culture came back positive for MRSA, but then they let me go home. But to do so, I had to wait for a ton of paperwork. And, yes, they really do have to wheel you out of the hospital when they let you go home.
- When you are sick, you have no choice but to listen to the experts. Before I went into the hospital, I knew that I was going to have to be admitted and have surgery. I actually had been to an emergency room already a few days before, but I had plans that I refused to avoid, and so I put off being admitted for 2 days (I suppose it’s now on my permanent record that I left the emergency room against medical advice). But I only put off the inevitable. The amount of antibiotics and pain killers they gave me to get through only did just that–they got me through. Until I was finally admitted. I don’t think the problem got worse during that period, but it certainly didn’t get better.
- Sometimes, while ill, you don’t really feel fully human. Once you’re admitted, you’re a patient, not a person. I received excellent care, but that doesn’t mean I always felt fully like a person. I was a bunch of statistics that had to be taken every few hours. A bar code on a bracelet that had to be swiped. Meds that had to be given–meds that I could ask for (assuming the nurse responded). A surgery that was done. A bunch of symptoms, before, during, and after, that needed to be resolved. I didn’t always feel like a person.
- Sick people don’t always want visitors. I certainly didn’t. I told as few people as I could and refused visits from nearly everyone who offered (there were 1 or 2 exceptions that may have made me cave, but I was let out before they were able to convince me). I had absolutely no desire to have anyone see me like that, or to deal with anyone while I was feeling like that. It would have been more harmful to my healing to have someone visit than not. Since I was sick, I’ve become much more attuned to the subtle signals of those with whom I do pastoral visits. I try to assess if my visit is welcome or not, and respond as such. I realize that some people welcome visitors and couldn’t have too many; but others want no visitors–much less from their rabbi. I try to remember that some people like to heal in private and others welcome the presence of another. It’s a tough balance.
- We never really know what’s going on with someone else. While I was in the hospital, fewer than 10 people really knew what was going on. And nearly all of them because of necessity. When I responded to emails during that time, I said I was sick–everyone assumed flu. The folks at the temple gave the same explanation when canceling my appointments or to explain my absence. I missed a few events that week, and everyone assumed I had the flu or something of that sort. It was only after my hospital stay that I told people what was going on. And they were understanding for the most part. This helped me to realize that we never really know a person’s full truth–only what they share with us.
- During that ethereal period of back but still maybe contagious, it’s rough. It took me weeks before I got clearance to visit people in hospitals or to even touch people. Which was, to say the least, awkward. And it made me hyper-aware of the fact that just because someone is out of the hospital and back in the community, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re all better. Sometimes, the return needs to happen in stages.
- The world can go on without me. I am a person that tends to do it all. I take care of my own things and don’t always remember to delegate. I often volunteer to help others with projects. I am not good at stepping back and letting things be. It is challenging for me to let go of things–to trust others to take care of tasks. Being unable to do much of anything for about a week helped me to realize that life goes on even when I can’t control it. This was, perhaps, the most important lesson for me.
- We need to learn to deal with illness. As a society, we tend to put a lot of shame with illness. I chose to be fairly open about the bacteria I had acquired–partly by necessity (when not shaking hands at the oneg, people tend to want to know why) and partly because I was sick and there was really nothing to be ashamed of. I got a germ. No, I don’t know how. Yes, it’s really easy to get. No, I have no idea of knowing where I picked it up. But, staph lives on our skin–most of us have it on our skin–I just got unlucky and had an ingrown hair or something in which the bacteria was able to manifest. And yet illness tends to be something we don’t talk about. I don’t think this is a good thing.
- Hand washing is important. Some things we learn are entirely practical. I went through a phase during which my hands were chapped and raw, because I was washing them so much. I’ve tempered down to normal now, but I still am more careful than ever to wash my hands often. And I always have hand sanitizer on hand. Seriously. Wash your hands.
- Prayer helps. I don’t believe this in a literal way–not my theology. But knowing that people were praying for me really did help me feel better.
- Don’t do too much research on the internet. We have this vast resource of information, which is amazing. And I’m so thankful to have it, and to have found people around the world to learn from and talk to. And so many sources from which to learn more about MRSA. But there’s also a lot of scary stuff out there. And a lot of crazy people. And a lot of things that are presented as fact that aren’t. Learning all you can is so important–but it’s even more important to learn how to sift through what’s there in order to gain some sense of the truth.
- Healing takes time. A lot of time. Other than the time in the hospital and the few days after that at home, I had about a month of the wound healing and waiting to get word from the infectious disease doctor (because I have one of those now) that I was good to go. But the healing process has been longer. It’s not even really done now. There’s still part of me that feels unclean because I had a skin disease. There’s still a part of me that, much more reasonably, worries that it will come back (and it may–I’m thankful that it hasn’t and hopeful that it won’t). I’ve learned to keep an eye out for signs. And I still have a scar–a fairly significant scar. I’ve only recently thought about doing anything to make it less apparent, and I’m not sure how successful that will be. In some ways, it’s an ugly reminder of what I went through–in others, it’s a badge of courage, and a reminder of what I’ve learned.
Yes, illness is not something anyone wants to go through. But illness can be instructive. I hope I’ve learned from my experience. I hope the lessons stick. And it’s amazing how the process that we read about in the Torah makes so much sense in the context of how we experience illness.
For those of you that are ill, I pray that you come to a r’fuah shleimah, a healing of wholeness. And for those of you that are healthy, I pray that you remain so. And for all of us, I hope that we learn from whatever life brings us, and accept the inevitable moments of illness. They’re part of the human experience.