A couple of weeks back, I taught a class at my synagogue about prayer without God. We discussed the Mi Sheberach, the healing prayer. How can it be meaningful to ask an entity you consider imaginary to take care of a real person with an all-too-real illness? The question sparked some lively discussion. And it really hit home with me.
At the beginning of April, I was diagnosed with polycythemia vera — a congenital condition in which the body produces too many red blood cells. I began my treatments right away, giving up a pint of blood once a week. Some of these blood-lettings have gone perfectly smoothly—a gentle poke of the needle, twenty minutes in the chair, and I’m done. Other sessions have been more problematic—hardened veins, thick blood, operator error. Between procedures, I felt washed out for a few days, and have watched sores and bruises develop and disappear on my arms. I have also seen my hemoglobin count inch down, from its high starting point of just over 19, towards its target, somewhere between 14 and 15.
I didn’t talk about my condition in class. But it sure was on my mind. And both the class and my condition were on my mind the next time I was in synagogue and the rabbi invited congregants to come forward for the Mi Sheberach and mention the names of friends and loved ones who were ill.
I’m pretty sure my name wasn’t mentioned. I’m pretty sure I didn’t want it to be. But standing at my pew, I decided to pray for myself, following the advice I had offered in class.
I started by bringing to mind the people I have shared waiting rooms and elevators and treatment rooms with at the different cancer centers where I have seen various hematologists. I always feel a bit sheepish, accepting the extra kindness I’m offered at these places, even though I’m dealing with so much less than so many other people there.
I pictured the woman in the wheelchair, weeping in the arms of her grown son. The young man with skeletal limbs. The kid as pale as parchment leaning on his walker as he chatted with his mother, his breath shallow and labored, his voice muffled by his surgical mask. The dazed expressions of patients new to their conditions. The turbans and hats and wigs. I don’t know any of these people’s names, or very much at all about what they’re going through. But I pictured them in turn, and wished them well.
Next, I thought about the doctors who diagnosed me and prescribed my treatment, who monitor my progress and answer my questions. The nurses who carry out the actual blood-letting. The woman in the blood labs. The one who checks my weight and blood pressure. The one who brings around juice and snacks. The receptionists who check me in and snap the ID around my wrist. The valets who park my car.
By the time the Mi Sheberach had ended, I felt myself surrounded by a network of people whose days are devoted to caring for those who are ill, providing cures or health when it’s possible, and when it’s not, offering comfort. I felt profoundly comforted, and more spiritually uplifted than I had in a long time.
On Wednesday I drove back to the hospital for what would be my last treatment before our long-planned trip to Slovenia and Austria. My doctor would be stopping by the treatment room to give me the final go-ahead.
I left my car with the valet. Checked in with the receptionist. Went to the blood lab for my weekly test. Had my weight and blood pressure measured. At each step in the now familiar routine, I remembered my Mi Sheberach.
I settled into my treatment room to wait for the lab results. Kate, the same compassionate, highly competent nurse who has been drawing my blood for the last six weeks, topped off my water bottle .
Fifteen minutes later, my doctor arrived. He perched on the window sill, and Kate pulled up a chair. My labs had come back and my hemoglobin was 14. “We’re not going to take any blood today,” my doctor said. “The treatment worked. I told you Kate could do it!”
This is hardly the end of it. I’ll go back in two weeks. I expect that my numbers will have inched back up, and I’ll need to have my blood drawn. After that I’ll be getting regular blood tests, and phlebotomies as needed.
But this respite feels like a gift. This time tomorrow, I’ll be on my way to the airport.