September is here and as we prepare for our annual family tradition of participating in the Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk, all I can think about is what an amazing year it has been. This year, we had the privilege of taking part in so many family occasions - bar and bat mitzvahs, engagements, weddings and milestone birthdays. While this has resulted in an unprecedented amount of travel for this “vacation-by-car” family, it has been incredible to celebrate with those closest to us. For us, the most monumental event was celebrating the bar mitzvah of our eldest son, Ben, in Jerusalem.
When I was diagnosed with a brain tumor in July of 2004 only a few weeks before I was preparing to marry Tova, I never would have thought this life possible. God has been so great to me and my family in granting us health to make it to this time. The blessing of “shehechinayu vekiyimanu vehigiyanu lazman hazeh” (“blessed are you, lord...who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this time/occasion”) could not be more apt.
In 2006, as Tova was just starting law school and Ben was only a few months old, a routine MRI showed that my tumor was no longer stable, but was clearly growing. Despite the risks involved, it was clear that it was time for action and surgery was scheduled for the day after the holiday of Simchat Torah, on October 16th.
At the conclusion of the holiday, my parents and in-laws hit the road from New York to be with us and watch Ben. We expected that I would be in the hospital for three days, and back at work in about three weeks. However, what took place on that day really threw Tova and the rest of my family for a loop. After they completed the eight-plus hour surgery, and had closed up my head and wheeled me up to the Neuro ICU, I was supposed to be waking up from sedation. After Tova came in to see me, the nurse commented that it was unusual that I hadn’t yet woken up, and the nurses then rushed me down the hall for an immediate CT scan. It was discovered that I was suffering from a hemorrhage in my circle of Willis, which is in another part of the brain. Needless to say, this was not good news. They immediately inserted a drain into my brain to release the pressure and filled in my family on this unexpected turn of events. Dr. Peter Black, my neurosurgeon, who was departing to Japan for a conference late that night looked straight at Tova and with tears in his eyes said, “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” In that moment, I think it actually began to dawn on Tova what this complication might mean for me, her and Ben.
For the next few weeks the amazing doctors and nurses kept me sedated and alive while trying to make sure that I didn't suffer from vasospasm or other complications. Dr. Black cut his trip short after two days and flew back to Boston to take back control over my care. Dr. Patrick Wen, my incredible, brilliant and humble neuro-oncologist at Dana Farber, who at the time I had only met for one consult, personally checked on me every single day in his quiet, unassuming manner. The staff’s expertise, quick thinking, care and compassion literally saved my life. I remember only parts of it as I was under pretty heavy doses of whatever good stuff they give you in those situations. They reduced the sedation during angiograms and I will never forget the horrible drug-induced nightmares and hallucinations that I experienced over those days.
When I arrived home I needed physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. The right side of my body had significantly weakened and my speech was gone. I distinctly remember the therapist trying to coax words out of my mouth. She was showing me a picture of a dog under a table and asking me to identify the dog. My brain was saying dog, but after a significant pause, my mouth could only say the word “pen”. I could hear myself saying “pen” and knew that it was not the correct word, but I could not produce the word I wanted to say. I couldn't write either. I was stuck in my own head. It was a painful time for me, as well as for my wife and family.
Thankfully, I worked with amazing people (some of whom I still work with today) and they slowly reintegrated me back to the office. My speech and my strength came back and to all but who know me best, I haven’t experienced any lasting deficits from the surgery and hemorrhage.
In 2009, my tumor started to grow again and my amazing team at Dana Farber decided that chemotherapy was the best course of action since surgery was out of the question judging from my previous experience. It was at that time that we had Nate (Yonatan Raphael - which literally translates to “God gives, God heals”). We actually went straight from one of my appointments at Dana Farber across the street to be admitted at the Brigham for a last minute cesarean section. Turns out that chemo did the trick and I have not needed to intervene since and we pray that we won’t have to for many many many more years.
We settled into life as we always did, having more children and dealing with all the joys and noise that comes with a bunch of boys.
Then, in 2016 when Tova was pregnant with our fourth son, she mentioned to her obstetrician that she had noticed a lump on her neck and he sent her to a thyroid doctor to get it checked out. After conducting an in-office ultrasound, then an immediate needle biopsy, the doctor scheduled her for a core biopsy the next day. Even before knowing for sure what we were dealing with, we immediately called Dana Farber and lined up one the best hematologist oncologists out there, Dr. Ann LaCasce. We couldn't help feeling that this was some cruel joke God was playing on us. So there we were with Ben (10), Nate (6) and Ari (3) at home, and one in the oven and a fresh diagnosis.
Once again, Dana Farber put together a remarkable team of specialists to work together to treat Tova during her pregnancy. Due to a number of factors, it was decided that waiting for treatment until after the pregnancy would be a mistake and that the baby would be okay despite the doses of chemo that Tova was to receive. (Sidenote: Yakir, who was born in November 2016, has some supernatural talents and may one day follow in the footsteps of Tom Brady. Even his uncle (a long suffering Jets fan) is truly amazed by Yakir’s ability to throw and catch a football. He likens it to Peter Parker after getting bitten by a radioactive spider…. Who knows, without chemo, Yakir might have suffered the same athletic destiny as generations of Goldrings.)
Tova would take naps and recover from chemo when the kids were at school so she could be at her best when they got home. Our kids do not know how good they had it! (Neither do I.) I won't bore you with all the details that go along with chemo, unfortunately many of you know all too well, but delivering a baby via c-section in between doses of poison that you must take is anything but boring. The chemo schedule and the delivery had to be perfectly timed, and Tova’s oncologist, high-risk OB and obstetrician were in regular communication to balance all of these factors and make a plan. After Tova was admitted for her c-section, an eleventh hour decision was made that it was too risky to deliver the baby in the regular OBGYN operating room. Due to concerns about her heart function (thanks to the chemo), down to the bowels of the hospital we headed, to deliver in a cardiac operating room. There were approximately 30 people in the OR, including a cardiac team, and a bypass machine was up and running. We were thankful that there was actually space for me and Tova in there!
All joking aside, although they called in the cavalry, thankfully, we did not need it. Our beautiful baby was born safe and sound, and was transported down the winding hallways back to the elevators on Tova’s chest, to congratulatory exclamations from the hospital staff we passed, since it is not at all commonplace to see newborns down in those corridors. Tova powered through the next few months of chemo with the incredible support of our family, friends, and colleagues. Thank God, she is going strong and will God willing approach her three-year remission date early next year. I honestly can’t say which is worse. Being treated for cancer or being a caregiver to a spouse who is getting treated for cancer. To be honest, they both suck and I don't wish it on anyone.
Through all of this there were four constants in our lives that have carried us through. The first is God’s guiding hand, that has made itself undoubtedly known to us. In all of this, there have been so many coincidences, and small serendipitous events, that have led us to where we are now. Ultimately, our health and the many blessings in our lives come from Him.
Second, is the unyielding support and love from our family, friends and community who have always gone above and beyond to do anything they could for us. My in-laws moved in for chunks of time during Tova’s treatments, and our friends came out of the woodworks with calls, texts, gifts and much-needed laughter. Our community fed us, arranged rides and playdates for our kids and rallied around us. We are overwhelmed until this day by the remarkable people we have been blessed to have in our lives, and couldn’t ask for better role models from which our children can witness and learn the true meaning of kindness, friendship and community.
Third, is the incredible institution that is Dana Farber, that emphasizes patient care and compassion with the same dedication that it values medical excellence and scientific breakthrough. Having flirted with the idea of leaving Boston on various occasions over our 15 years of marriage (yes, we are getting old, thank God!), the idea of leaving Dana Farber is something that we just cannot swallow.
And last, is you, our incredible donors, who year after year directly impact my chances of survival with your immensely generous contributions. I have always said that with my kind of tumor, the name of the game is buying time, and every year that we send this letter and ask for your support is yet another year where we have the opportunity, along with our children, to directly impact the development of more treatments that will benefit me, and so many others like me.
Standing at the Western Wall this Passover and celebrating Ben’s bar mitzvah with so many loved ones present in person and in spirit really culminated what we are so grateful for. It was an event that for a long time, I did not think I would make it to. Attached is a link of the video montage we played at Ben’s bar mitzvah. Every moment pictured, and innumerable moments that aren’t, are gifts that would not have existed without Dana Farber and your support.
Once again, we ask you for your support as we embark on the Walk this year (in just two weeks!), so we can have many more moments like these as a family in the future.
With much gratitude,