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Survival of Heart Attack a “Medical Miracle”

Survival of Heart Attack a “Medical Miracle”

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For five weeks in 1977, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and people the world over anxiously prayed for the recovery of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, after he suffered a sudden massive heart attack that left the doctors wondering whether he would pull through.

Dr. Ira Weiss, a Chicago-based cardiologist, flew to New York shortly after the Rebbe's attack to serve as one of the lead physicians.

He frequently tells people that the Rebbe's return to public life just 38 days later was extraordinary, to say the least.

Several hours before he had a massive heart attack, the Rebbe was standing for hours distributing honey cake and wishing people a sweet new year (Photos: Levi Freidin/JEM)
Several hours before he had a massive heart attack, the Rebbe was standing for hours distributing honey cake and wishing people a sweet new year (Photos: Levi Freidin/JEM)

"The Rebbe had a heart attack that involved such extensive damage that in anyone's normal medical experience, one would worry about the possibility of survival," he relayed in an interview with Jewish Educational Media (JEM). "One would almost discount any possibility of functionality at the level of the Rebbe's." He views the Rebbe's relatively quick recovery as nothing short of a miracle.

The Rebbe fell ill during the Shemini Atzeret celebrations at the central Lubavitch synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y. The holiday, marked by festive dancing, comes at the conclusion of the week-long festival of Sukkot and leads into Simchat Torah.

"It all started at 10:30 p.m.," reported the Israeli Hebrew daily Yediot Achronot on Oct. 9, 1977. "The celebrations were stopped in the middle of the dancing, when the Rebbe had an attack of severe pain in the chest area."

The jam-packed synagogue quickly emptied, and some congregants broke windows to let in fresh air.

"When the synagogue was half empty, the Rebbe requested that they bring him a Torah," continues the Yediot report. "To the shock of all those in attendance, the Rebbe began to dance with the Torah."

Such behavior was in itself miraculous, explains Weiss.

Through it all, and even after the Rebbe went to his office to rest, he refused to be taken to a hospital.

Speaking in Yiddish, Rabbi Benyamin Klein, a aide to the Rebbe, says that the Rebbe was adamant that he remain in Crown Heights.

"The Rebbe said that he did not want go to the hospital," says Klein. "We did not know much at the time, [but] what we did know was that half of the Rebbe's heart was not functioning."

A Police Escort

In those first few hours, Weiss – who had been notified of the attack by Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, another of the Rebbe's aides – communicated with the Rebbe's New York medical team by telephone. But after hearing of the Rebbe's refusal to be transported, he offered to make the journey to New York to lead the team.

Cardiologists Ira Weiss (right) and Louis Teichholz confer in the office of the Rebbe's secretariat.
Cardiologists Ira Weiss (right) and Louis Teichholz confer in the office of the Rebbe's secretariat.

"I said… we could set up an equivalent coronary care unit right at 770," says Weiss. "[We would] provide immediate care [for him, with] all the trappings of a full coronary care unit in a regular hospital like the New York Hospital or Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City."

After landing in New York the next morning, Weiss, who had written a textbook on heart rhythm analysis, was escorted by police to Lubavitch World Headquarters.

He was greeted by the Rebbe's wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, of righteous memory, who insisted that he not go in to see the Rebbe with out first making Kiddush – the traditional blessing on wine that sanctifies a Jewish holiday – and having something to eat.

"She was very protective of me, immediately, from the start," says Weiss, who later became the Rebbetzin's personal physician. "I told the Rebbetzin, 'I really came to make sure that things are okay for your husband.'"

When he went in to see the Rebbe, Weiss planned not to tell him the worst.

"It's really unusual to have someone either survive this type of heart attack or become functional again because… so much of the contractile force of the heart has been lost," says the doctor. "So I decided not to tell the Rebbe all this, but I wanted to let him know that he had had a heart attack."

The Rebbe, however, wanted more information.

"He wanted to know what had happened," recalls Weiss, "and I explained that one of his major arteries had occluded and that the EKG showed a significant abnormality."

Individuals closed off the sidewalk in front of the Rebbe’s office, which was quickly transformed into a fully-equipped miniature hospital room. When the Rebbe heard this, he instructed that the barriers be removed so that people could freely pass through.
Individuals closed off the sidewalk in front of the Rebbe’s office, which was quickly transformed into a fully-equipped miniature hospital room. When the Rebbe heard this, he instructed that the barriers be removed so that people could freely pass through.

Two days later, after the conclusion of the Simchat Torah holiday, the Rebbe gave a talk by microphone from his office-become-hospital room. The address to those gathered in the synagogue next door was heard via telephone hookup across the globe.

Over the following few weeks, the Rebbe used this same medium to deliver a series of Saturday night talks.

Back to Work

Though it would be weeks before the doctors would authorize him to go home, the Rebbe immediately resumed editing his scholarly dissertations, The scholar Rabbi Yoel Kahn, head transcriber of the Rebbe's talks, says that at first his team sought to ease the burden on the Rebbe.

"Our first step following the Rebbe's heart attack," says Kahn, speaking in Yiddish, "was to make [the transcriptions] less complex and with less footnotes, to avoid causing unnecessary strain for the Rebbe."

However, Kahn relates, once his staff realized that the complexity and depth of the Rebbe's Saturday night talks and discourses did not diminish, they continued their compilations unabated. From his makeshift hospital room, the Rebbe would edit the drafts and add scholarly notes.

The Rebbe also insisted on continuing to respond to people's personal letters.

Thousands gather to hear the Rebbe speak only two days after he had a heart attack. The Rebbe addressed the gathering via microphone hook-up.
Thousands gather to hear the Rebbe speak only two days after he had a heart attack. The Rebbe addressed the gathering via microphone hook-up.

"When we approached the doctors to ask whether we made the correct decision about continuing to submit the scholarly compilations for editing," says Kahn, "they responded that when the Rebbe edits the compilations, they see no difference in his heartbeat. [But] when the Rebbe reads personal letters, that is when the heartbeat is abnormal."

Still, relates Klein: "The Rebbe wanted to continue to respond to the letters personally. The Rebbe said that if they would not bring them in, he would go take in the mail himself."

In that first year after he fell ill, the Rebbe wrote many letters. Rabbi Chaim Shaul Brook, a member of the editorial team presently working on releasing the Rebbe's previously unpublished talks, says that those letters, which vary from responses concerning the writers' personal lives to scholarly and innovative thoughts on Torah topics, will soon be published by the Kehot Publication Society.

"The heart attack marks the starting point of a renewed vigor in the Rebbe's activities which continued for the following 15 years," Brook adds.

Weiss says that the Rebbe did not let up until a stroke in 1992 left him incapacitated. In many ways, he says, the Rebbe seemed to be more energetic following the heart attack.

"He really was medically like a giant, like a very strong person, as if the heart attack had not occurred," says Weiss. "It was beyond my wildest expectation."

Dovid Zaklikowski is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. Dovid and his wife Chana Raizel are the proud parents of four: Motti, Meir, Shaina & Moshe Binyomin.
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Anonymous NY May 13, 2014

The Rebbe suffered a heart attack a few months after Avrohom Eliezer Goldman, HYD, was murdered in Crown Heights. The Rebbe had his first stroke in march 1992, a few weeks after Pessa Leah La Pine, HY"D, was murdered in Crown Heights. The second stroke the Rebbe was suffered was soon after Ari Halberstam HY"D died from gunshot wounds. Reply

Laura Ellen Truelove Sewanee, TN, USA October 8, 2009

Dancing With the Torah 'The Rebbe dancing with the Torah immediately after a heart attack is an image that speaks volumes about his faith and trust in G-d. May his soul rest in peace and rise in glory and may we cherish this image of a great man of G-d who left a legacy of faith and trust. Reply

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