By Harold Witkov, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Tears come from the heart and not from the brain – Leonardo da Vinci
When I was twenty-one years of age, I had a very personal spiritual experience. While contemplating a greatest power and imagining it above, I felt a divine presence deep inside of me; that is, inside of my heart. Since then, my belief in G-d has never wavered.
Some forty-five years later, I had another experience of the heart. This time I had a heart attack and open-heart bypass surgery.
After the surgery, when I left the hospital, I had an unsightly zipper-like scar running down the center of my chest, but the hopeful expectancy of a full recovery. I also took with me a parting gift; a heart shaped pillow with the diagram of a cross section human heart stamped upon it.
Weeks later, I was diagnosed to have “heart failure,” and told that I was a “candidate for sudden death.” The problem was my heart function, or “ejection fraction.” It was dangerously low.
Fortunately, I had not been given a definitive death sentence. I was in a 90-day life and death holding pattern in which I might literally drop dead. I needed three months to pass after my heart surgery to medically qualify for a defibrillator, and safety. In the meantime, all I could do was continue on with cardiac rehab, take my medications, and count the days.
During those months, I prayed a lot. I shed some tears too. I also suffered a litany of complications. Often, I felt just like the prophet Job, only I complained a lot.
I became very sensitive to the word heart, and the heart symbol (♥). Songs about the heart seemed to be constantly seeking me out. My Smartphone health app, complete with a heart symbol, appeared before my eyes 50 times a day. This was nothing new, only now it got my full attention. Once, when I lost Internet service for several days, my laptop mercilessly put on my computer screen a heart symbol with a crack in it, and the message: “You’re not connected.” How true.
The Jewish New Year also fell during this time. During the Yom Kippur service, I softly read aloud, along with the other congregants, the “We have sinned” prayer (the Ashamnu). In correspondence with my many transgressions, I gently tapped my heart with my right fist. For someone recovering from heart surgery and living with heart failure, it was a powerful experience.
And then there was the heart pillow I took home from the hospital. One day I was examining the cross section anatomical heart upon it, and I noticed something that had previously been camouflaged from my sight. Embedded (in white) was the Hebrew letter shin (ש). As is well known to those who have made a study of the Hebrew letters, the ש represents Shaddai (G-d Almighty). Recognizing it, gave me great comfort.
The day of my defibrillator implant finally arrived. There I was on the operating table, shaved chest, an IV needle in each arm, and a large surgical monitor screen above me. Not yet sedated, I became aware that things were not what they should be. There was a problem. They brought my wife in and explained to us that my body had an anomaly: I had a “persistent left superior vena cava” (PLSVC); a benign condition, but a condition that nonetheless complicated the implantation surgery. There would be no surgery.
The good news was there was a defibrillator company that makes an alternative defibrillator for people like myself. But that would be another day.
G-d bless my medical team. If it were not for their expertise of the heart, I would not be alive today. Medical science and doctors, of course, do have limitations. They will never totally understand that wondrous and mysterious pump in the center of the chest. Only the poets come close. As for myself, I think I am beginning to scratch the surface.
“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart,” says Helen Keller. Regarding the heart, Deuteronomy tells us to love G-d with all of it.
When it comes to my medical heart condition, I am optimistic. Still, there is so much beyond my control. But the success of my recently awakened spiritual heart is another story. Its success, or failure, is entirely up to me.