In 1981, when Yana was 17 years old, her family immigrated to Philadelphia from the former Soviet Union. She met her future husband, Zach, in 1990 in an organic chemistry class, and they married a year later. Unlike Yana, who was raised in a Communist atheistic environment, Zach grew up in Cherry Hill, N.J. His brother was Torah observant, and Zach was eager to introduce Yana to Jewish values and traditions. Yana and Zach had an Orthodox Jewish wedding. Soon after, the newlyweds welcomed their first child, Shana, and two years later, another daughter, Dina.

In time, the family became more observant, and Zach started to frequent Congregation B’nai Abraham of Center City Philadelphia under the leadership of Rabbi Yochonon and Rebbetzin Leah Goldman. In 2004, the family moved to the suburbs and enrolled their two daughters in first and third grades at Torah Academy. They became active members of Chabad of the Main Line under the leadership of Rabbi Shraga and Rebbetzin Michal Sherman.

Zach and Yana’s wedding day.
Zach and Yana’s wedding day.

In 2018, Chabad hosted a Purim party at Lower Merion synagogue. After the event, Yana was crossing Old Lancaster Road to get to her car. Looking back, she doesn’t remember the moment of collision with an oncoming vehicle that threw her into the air. Within a split second, she landed on top of the oncoming car, shattering the windshield with her head. When one of the synagogue members came out and saw what had happened, emergency responders were immediately called to the scene. Yana was in critical condition, intubated, and taken to the Lankenau Hospital trauma unit.

Zach still cannot fathom the events of that day. “I said to Yana when she was leaving, ‘I’ll meet you at home.’ When I was pulling out of the parking lot, I saw a crumpled, strangely shaped ‘object’ on the street, and my friend, Howard, running towards it with a puzzled look on his face. Suddenly, my thoughts became very slow, logical and sequential. My first thought was, ‘I think that’s a person.’ Then, ‘Yana was crossing the street,’ and then ‘that can’t be Yana.’ And then, a shocking realization: ‘Oh my G‑d, I think that must be Yana .... that’s Yana!’ The last thought just repeated itself in my consciousness over and over, as I jumped out of the car and ran towards my unconscious wife who was lying in the street with closed eyes and a bleeding head. This was the moment our family’s nightmare began.”

Yana was brought to the hospital with a catastrophic brain injury and many additional injuries, including scalp laceration and fractures to her face, neck, pelvis and left arm.

She lay in a coma for 12 days. With each day, her prognosis became worse. People all over the world were praying for a miracle. The family understood that if a person in this condition did not come out from a coma after five days, the best prognosis would become a “permanent vegetative state.”

Yana recalls, “I don’t remember the moment I ‘woke up,’ nor do I remember the weeks that followed. Thankfully, with time I gradually began to emerge from the deep place inside of myself where the injury had sent me.”

On the Cover of the Women's Healthsource Magazine.
On the Cover of the Women's Healthsource Magazine.

Chester County Life magazine’s Trauma and Rehabilitation featured Yana’s remarkable recovery in its December 2018 issue. “Yana’s injuries were catastrophic,” says Dr. David Long, medical director of the brain-injury program at the Bryn Mawr Rehabilitation Hospital. “When she first came to us, she was minimally conscious. She was nonverbal and unable to follow simple commands. She was in a cervical collar and an immobilizer sling. She still had her tracheostomy tube.”

More than three years have passed since that life-altering event. Today, Yana is ready to talk about her experience and the lessons that it brought.

Before the accident, Shana had been dating a wonderful young man, Chaim, and one of Yana’s first memories after regaining consciousness was learning that their daughter had become engaged. The family’s first thought was to delay the wedding until Yana was better, but Zach insisted that the wedding should not be postponed, believing that the dream of walking their daughter to the chuppah would hasten Yana’s recovery. Interestingly, Yana’s therapy sessions incorporated trying on dresses and walking down the aisle with her husband’s help. Zach was right, and this goal helped Yana find the courage to exceed her own expectations. On the anticipated wedding day, four months after the accident, unplanned and unexpected, Yana took the arm of Chaim’s mother and with her flower-decorated cane in her hand, circled with Shana around her groom seven times, as is the custom in Jewish tradition.

“About two months after the accident, I had a hard time recognizing people that came to visit me that were not my immediate family. Yet I recognized Rabbi Sherman and Michal, who came to the Bryn Mawr Rehabilitation Center.”

Rabbi Sherman has been by Zach’s side from the first moment of the accident. He was the person who sped to the hospital following the ambulance with Zach in the passenger’s seat, and has been the family’s constant source of emotional and spiritual support throughout the entire ordeal.

Rabbi Sherman reflected on Yana’s journey, saying she “was and still is a pillar of our community. Her accident had a big impact on everyone, and her recovery is a source of joy in our community. Yana loves learning, and her questions were deep, focusing on how to integrate ideas of Torah into her recovery and implement them in her daily life. As I was visiting her in the hospital and rehab, she would ask questions about why this happened. Very often, we spent time getting comfortable with the idea that the goal was to understand how to move forward in the current situation, asking, ‘What’s the next step?’ rather than dwelling on ‘Why did this happen?’ ”

“We focused on what inspiration can be taken from the challenges she was facing,” he continued. “To process such trauma really required reaching beyond the normal limitations of intellect and being able to touch something far deeper. Being such a soulful person, Yana was able to understand such a language. However, integrating it in everyday life was a vital part of recovery.”

Yana also discussed with Rabbi Aryeh Weinstein of Chabad of Newtown the challenge of trying to make peace with her situation. “We spoke about my struggle to find meaning in physical and emotional pain,” she said. “Rabbi Weinstein encouraged me not to ask why this happened to me, but rather to rephrase the question to why this happened for me.’ I remember admitting that I could not find the reason behind the accident, and the rabbi simply said that ‘the book is still being written,’ and that ‘my story is still unfolding.’ Having patience with myself was part of my recovery. I’m acutely aware that I’m a ‘walking miracle,’ but in a way, we all are.

“Many things fell into place to create my new reality. While I could no longer practice as a physical therapist or a chiropractor after the accident, I was offered an opportunity to become a volunteer assistant teacher in a Jewish preschool. I spend my days with children who are oblivious to my health struggles, and they view my cane as a magical wand that keeps me grounded.

Yana with her golden 'simcha' cane at Dina and Dovid's chuppah.
Yana with her golden 'simcha' cane at Dina and Dovid's chuppah.

“Almost to the day of the one-year anniversary of the accident, our youngest daughter, Dina, married a wonderful man, a Chabad rabbi—Dovid Rechavel. Soon after the wedding, they moved to Milwaukee to become shluchim, Chabad emissaries in Wisconsin. Both Dina and Dovid teach in a Jewish high school. When Dina was recently complimented by a student on her teaching skills, she proudly announced that her mom is a teacher and the love for education runs in the family.”

Yana believes that her faith helped her overcome all odds of her poor prognosis. She was particularly inspired by her conversations with her daughter Shana, who shared the wise words of her high school teacher, Rebbetzin Rachael Biberfeld. She explained that those who believe in G‑d with all their hearts do not fall under “statistical analysis” because G‑d is infinite and can change any outcome despite the statistics. This idea gave both Shana and Yana the strength and the courage to go on.

Yana is still working hard on regaining her functions. “My recovery took years, and I still continue to struggle with some daily activities. I still receive physical therapy twice a week and have trouble with balance.”

Today, she is actively rebuilding her life and not taking any physical or mental functions for granted. “I am honored to serve as a mikvah attendant and focus on performing good deeds, mitzvahs. I have an acute appreciation for time and strive to bring light into the world. After years of self-searching, I now ask myself ‘what can I learn from this?’ instead of ‘why did this happen?’ This allows me to co-write my own story. After all, ‘my book is still being written.’ ”