By Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs
“Rabbi Fuchs to Have Open Heart Surgery,” read a late-June 1996 headline on the first page of the local news section of The Nashville Banner.
While I had neither hoped for nor wanted such publicity, the headline symbolizes the difference between the surgery I underwent at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville back then and the more complex procedure I underwent at the Cleveland Clinic on Nov. 29, 2012.
In Nashville, where I was serving at the time, my surgery to replace a congenitally defective aortic valve attracted more attention, advice, visits and support than I could ever imagine.
My more recent surgery was entirely different. My Connecticut cardiologist encouraged me not only to have my ascending aortic aneurysm repaired, but to have the mechanical aortic valve from 1996 replaced with a tissue valve. “And,” he continued, “I recommend going to a major heart center where they do lots of these procedures.”
With his enthusiastic encouragement, we settled on the Cleveland Clinic (CC).
It was a great choice for a number of reasons: The CC does this procedure much more often than anywhere in Connecticut; my surgeon, Dr. Lars Svensson, is word-renowned; and the medical, nursing and technical care were all superb!
The problem was that except for one incredibly wonderful and supportive family with whom we are very close and a couple of very gracious and concerned rabbis, we knew no one in Cleveland.
The love and care I continue to receive from my wife Vickie is priceless, and my three adult children all interrupted their very busy lives to fly in for the surgery from both coasts. But after a few precious days, my children – as they should have – flew back to their spouses, children and professional responsibilities.
Into the breach entered FACEBOOK.
While Vickie and I visited 65 communities on five continents during my tenure as president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ), I checked FB only occasionally and posted infrequently.
Since my surgery I have become a regular contributor. My post from Cleveland two days before my surgery explains why: “FB friends, if ever you wonder whether the short messages of encouragement and support you are thinking about writing to people facing difficult challenges in their lives (illness, surgery, loss of a loved one or a job are a few examples) will do any good, trust me they do. My FB contacts have made the surgery I face and the events leading up to it much easier to deal with, and I am very grateful to each one of you who has reached out …”
When I returned from the intensive care unit, one of the first things I did was to post the following: “It is still difficult for me to type, but I have read with deep gratitude (and will surely read again and again) each and every one of your messages to me. I cannot express how much they have meant. Although I feel as weak as a kitten, your prayers, thoughts and good wishes have given me strength…”
It was strength I needed and continue to need. People I knew in elementary and high school, college and grad school, in the three communities I served as rabbi and in my travels for the WUPJ have lifted me up.
I have tried to pay it forward because I have learned that lifting the spirits of another is a huge return on an investment as small as typing a few short words or even simply clicking “Like.”
Rabbi Stephen Fuchs is former rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford and former president of the World Union of Progressive Judaism. He and his wife Vicki live in West Hartford.