A health scare and a teaching moment

Rabbi Bruce Aft. Photo by David Stuck.

By Rabbi Bruce Aft

I’m a sports- and fitness-minded 66 year old and this was going to be the day I broke my record for how fast I could ride on my recumbent bike.

So when, 20 minutes into my ride, I noticed I didn’t feel well, I shrugged it off and kept pedaling.

Look, ever since I retired as rabbi of Congregation Adat Reyim in Springfield last summer, my schedule has been packed. If anyone asked, I told them that I’ve never felt better.


But there I was on my bike. I know how it feels when your legs are sore from running. Or when you’re winded. Or when your muscles remind you at the end of a baseball game or three games of handball that you’re no longer 20 years old.

What I was feeling wasn’t anything like those. I felt “different.” And it wasn’t going away.
I hesitated to call 911. But eventually I went to the hospital. If I had done nothing, they told me, the 80 percent blocked artery that was causing my heart attack would very possibly have killed me. I had a stent put in.

The whole event surprised me, since I exercise regularly. My wife is a vegetarian, and she’s nearly made me a convert. Even though the doctor told me that cumulative stress is a factor for heart attacks and, well, I am a rabbi, I just didn’t see this coming.

And it was scary. I remember lying in the hospital bed, alone, being visited by strangers who were so very devoted, but not my family, who could not be present because of the pandemic. As an extrovert who thrives on human relationships, being alone was novel and unsettling.

There were profoundly inspirational moments, too. I was in the care of three health professionals. One was from Ethiopia, one from Ramallah in the West Bank and the third from Southeast Asia. What they shared in common was their care for my wellbeing and their faith that God would keep an eye on me and, through them, would nurse me back to health. Their faith in God awed me and put me — a rabbi suffering from doubt — to shame.

It’s been about a month since my heart attack. I recently saw my cardiologist and things are going well. I am at home, recovering. With medication and a good diet, I should never have any more heart issues.

I am writing this because I believe this is a teaching moment. Here are the lessons: Listen to your body. Thank a healthcare professional. Have faith in God’s healing powers. And remember what is precious in our lives.

The love and support I have received from friends and family have been overwhelming and a reminder that it takes a community to support us in times of need.

And if this hadn’t ended well, my memories of my wife’s love, our children and grandchildren’s texts, Facetime calls and friends’ concern would be my companions on my journey. I am blessed to be able to continue to travel with them in this world.

Rabbi Bruce Aft is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Adat Reyim in Springfield, and interim rabbi of Congregation Shaare Shalom in Leesburg. He is a visiting scholar at the Carter School of Peace and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University.

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