Facing Injury and Surgical Recovery: A Jewish Perspective

I find myself a stranger in a strange land. I was a stranger in my own body after experiencing physical trauma in a sports accident. The pain in my ankle upon breaking three bones from a high impact fall brought me into the present moment like nothing else before. My rapid breath whisked me from one second into the next as I prayed for the speedy arrival of the paramedics. Time moved neither fast nor slow; there was no more time, no past or future as the adrenaline absolved me of everything else. As I began to shiver from shock, it dawned on me that life was about to change. 

Surgery is something that most everyone faces during their lifetime. Sometimes surgery is the result of physical ailments, a tonsillectomy being much different than an emergency bypass surgery. Sometimes people opt to go under the knife for cosmetic reasons to improve their outlook on their body image or return them to a more “normal” appearance following an accident. Other times, like in my case, surgery is necessary after physical trauma to return the person to the normal function of their body. 

According to Oxford Brookes University professor Estēe Dvorjetski, the ancient Jews had intimate familiarity with human anatomy for healing and surgical purposes, which appears in parts of the Talmud. From best practice for the Brit Milah to shared knowledge of herbal anesthetics for cranial surgery, there is evidence of complex healing practices and procedures. Dvorjetski suggests Jews received a wealth of information about human anatomy from the Egyptians during our time in slavery, a testament to how much is to be learned from harrowing experiences.  

No matter what the reason, whether it’s voluntary or not, ancient or modern, experiencing surgery is hard work. ]

To face surgery is an act of faith, an act of surrender. You have to trust your surgeon completely. My surgeon told me that if I wanted to run, climb, jump, hike, and enjoy the activities I took for granted during my life prior to this breakage, I needed screws and a plate. She said if it were her ankle, she would want this done. To her, performing this operation among several others on her schedule is a typical Wednesday, and I wasn’t sure whether I found comfort or distress in that fact. This was my livelihood after all. 

Surgery is also an act of faith in God or fate or whatever metaphysical entity you believe in; there needs to be trust that healing will occur, that everything will go well. And if it doesn’t, God forbid, you pray for a light at the end of the tunnel regardless. 

As scary as it seemed to have someone alter my anatomy, I was also excited. I couldn’t sleep the night before half from excitement, half from the throbbing in my foot. The sooner this happens, the sooner I can recover. On the day of my surgery, after my mother left to join my father in the waiting room, and it was just me, the anesthesiologist, and his nurse, I had never felt more aware of the helplessness surgery entails. You pass the torch of your future to someone else. And maybe that’s a good thing. It’s a chance to trust others before building trust in yourself and your body again. 

Why do they call it “going under?” Is it a way of implying we’re six feet under temporarily? A spiritual limbo in some sort of underworld? Rabbi David Cooper in his book God is a Verb suggests that the soul, which usually hovers above the body, ascends farther into the skies during sleep. Perhaps the exact direction our souls lean during this particular siluk hakochot, departure of our faculties, is irrelevant. 

The Talmud professes that sleep is 1/60th of death; if this is so, anesthesia certainly makes up a larger fraction than that. Sleep entails dreams and dreams are powerful, prophetic, sacred, and soul-anchoring; under anesthesia, there is nothing at all. Anesthesia is a miracle of medicine, but something to approach cautiously, solemnly. I tried to pray as I watched the anesthesiologist fill a vial with milky propofol to soon insert into my IV, but I found myself not knowing how anymore. Do I have a conversation with God? Do I recite the Shema? All I could do was whimper as two tears slid down from the corners of my eyes, through my chestnut brown hair and onto the sheets where I was laying. Maybe God knew from that alone I needed strength, and He was there for me. 

Waking up in the recovery room, barely able to turn my head, my vision blurry, and unable to speak, I felt nauseous and sleepy, but at peace. A nurse who looked more like an angel wrapped in warm light and lavender scrubs hovered over me. I gave her a drowsy smile and grabbed her hand, a needle still popping out of mine. I was blessed with the wisdom and kindness of doctors and nurses who did everything they could to ease my discomfort and suffering. 

Over the coming days following the operation, I received gifts. A book from a close friend, ice cream and bone broth soup from visiting family members, and a heartfelt card from my roommates, one of them who shares my Jewish heritage writing rufuah shleima inside. Both my mother and twin sister admitted to me while I was in the operating room — one of them miles away at work, the other waiting not too far — that they both experienced sympathy pain in their right ankle while I was under. No one can truly understand what it is like to suffer a traumatic injury or what the ensuing surgical recovery is like unless they’ve experienced the exact same circumstance — trials in one’s life are an emotionally and physically subjective experience — but my friends and family make me feel much less alone. 

I am early on in my recovery process. It has been three weeks since my accident and one week since my surgery. I am predicted to start walking in a week and a half and begin driving in three weeks. Yet there is also an emotional recovery. Recovery takes patience, but God has abundant patience for His free-willed children. Therefore, I should have patience with myself and the unpredictability of life. 

As I recover, I become more aware of this miracle of mine and others’ physical forms. Some people beat the odds and make a full recovery even when doctors informed them they would never quite be the same. I remind myself of the wisdom of my body and place trust into its regenerating powers. Healing is mystical and all who suffer through surgery become close observers of this process. 

After enduring injury and facing surgery and recovery, I am learning that terrible things can bring wisdom and growth if you let them. We only see a square inch of the painting of life; illness and injury make little sense through the lens of the narrow present, but again, we must place trust in life’s wonderment and “awe-fulness.”