October 22, 2021

21 years after 'dying,' Shimon Ohana celebrates son's bar mitzvah - opinion

By Barbara Sofer

I might have forgotten the upcoming anniversary if I hadn’t run into Avi Rivkind in the Zoti Coffee Shop in the Hadassah Ein Kerem mall, where medical staff recharge their caffeine.

Twenty-one years this week.

The Second Intifada. In September 2000, the 1987-1991 uprising, named for the Arabic word for “shaking off” the way a dog shakes off fleas, got a new name. It was no longer just “the Intifada.” It became the First Intifada, the way the Great War became The First World War in 1939. There was now a Second Intifada.

The residents of the neighborhood of Gilo have become the targets of the sharp shooters from Beit Jala. A Border Policeman, just 18 and only two months into training, Shimon Ohana is dispatched to protect the Gilo residents. He pushes a woman aside and intercepts the three bullets aimed at her with his body.

A medic tries desperately to revive him, but cannot. The medic reports this to Dr. Avi Rivkind who is waiting in Hadassah-University’s trauma center in Ein Kerem. “Bring him dead or alive,” Rivkind insists. Covered in a body bag, the teenager arrives with two holes in his heart, and two in his stomach, marked DOA. Dead on Arrival.

In a moment of decision that is as clear to him today as 21 years ago, Rivkind orders that an attempt be made to revive the border policeman. Israel’s first traumatologist, Rivkind knows better than to try and bring back a blunt trauma patient with no pulse. Call it a sixth sense, call it a moment of heavenly inspiration, but he believes he can save this young man. 

Vast units of blood are poured in. The cardiothoracic surgeon sews up one bullet hole, finds another and repairs it. He massages the heart until he feels the beat. It begins to pump. The anesthesiologists pour in adrenalin. 

Shimon Ohana is alive again, but he is in a vegetative state.

 “Some of my colleagues thought I was beyond foolish, to being cruel,” remembers Rivkind.

I HAVEN’T mentioned that this took place midweek of the Sukkot holiday. In Beersheba, Rachel Ohana has the TV on in the living room while she is grinding 14 kilos of meat for Moroccan stuffed delicacies and Shimon’s favorite meatballs.

Her only son, born after five daughters, is bringing home two friends serving with him, and they deserve a treat. A news flash on the TV reports a military casualty in Gilo. Rachel sighs and says aloud “I pity his poor mother.”

Within the hour she hears car doors slamming outside the apartment block. From the kitchen window, Rachel sees her husband Meir, a policeman, surrounded by higher ranked police officers. Something in their body language frightens her. All she can think of is that internal affairs has found some flaw in her husband’s performance.

But when she sees Meir’s face, Rachel knows something worse has happened. Shimon, their son, is that soldier shot in Jerusalem, she learns. She is the poor mother.

She and Meir begin what feels like an endless journey to Jerusalem, but before she leaves the apartment, Rachel remembers the meat and tosses it into the freezer.

In the hospital, the statistics terrify her. Shimon has a tenth of one percent chance of recovery. Oddly, the tall trauma surgeon named Avi Rivkind is optimistic and promises her – rashly, his colleagues believe – that he will dance at Shimon’s wedding.

For 17 days, Ohana lies still, his curly black hair a halo on a pillow. Nonetheless, Rivkind’s assurance has given them hope.

On day 18, Shimon’s eyelids flutter and he wakes up.

THERE’S A problem. He refuses to eat, the doctors say. His mother – giddy with joy – admits that Shimon is a fussy eater. She and his sisters have spoiled him. Rivkind orders her to go home and make his favorite food. She calls the neighbor – please take out the ground meat in the freezer.

When she gets back to Beersheba she makes meatballs all night and returns with an aluminum pot that fills the hospital halls with the aroma of coriander, garlic, cumin and mint.

She knows this is not exactly an invalid’s diet, and insists that Rivkind stand by her side while she feeds her son. One meatball after another and another. Never underestimate the power of a mother’s food.

Rachel Ohana swears she won’t cry in front of her son, but when Shimon says Ima, tears stream down her face.

On November 23, Ohana, bolstered by medicine and a daily diet of Moroccan meatballs, walks out of the hospital. He still needs physical, cognitive, occupational therapy.

Fortunately, he falls in love with Avia, one of the aides.

In a wedding hall in Beersheba, Avi Rivkind walks Shimon Ohana down the aisle. He is also the sandak, watching the mohel do surgery, when Shimon and Avia’s son Uri Meir is born.

Rivkind isn’t one of the doctors who wears a religious head covering, but he reminds me that his late father was a disciple of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk. “We believe that at the cusp of life and death, no patient wants us to ‘let him go,’” says Rivkind. “That’s the dictum that has informed my life.”

I’d like to add that he is an the only child of Holocaust survivor parents whose families perished. Both his parents were saved by Righteous Gentiles. That also informs his life.

And Shimon’s revival? “Of course it is a miracle,” he says, surprised that I might even ask.

ON OCTOBER 17, Rivkind phones Rachel. She fills his ears with a cornucopia of blessings.

I also call Rachel, whom I’ve got to know in the time of Shimon’s recuperation. We once flew together to Paris where Rivkind presented his story and then Shimon, in the audience, startled the taciturn European doctors by standing up when Rivkind told about his recovery.

“You’ve remembered Shimon’s birthday!” Rachel answers the phone with her usual ebullience. I know she marks both birthdays – the one where he came out of the womb and the one where he returned to life.

We share updates. They’ve recently celebrated the bar mitzvah of Shimon and Avia’s son Uri Meir. She apologizes that they’ve had only a family celebration because of coronavirus restrictions and didn’t invite us. 

We will get together now that we can. She promises to make a cauldron full of her magic meatballs.