It was erev Pesach. It was not a very windy day. There was no hurricane. There were, incidentally, two doctors standing on the lawn when the tree came down. As his wife Michelle would later say, it was “clearly from G-d.”
The tree hit Yaakov Bernstein square in the back, knocking him to the ground and knocking him out. The doctors began CPR immediately. Had they not been present, things might have ended quite differently.
Michelle and an ambulance arrived soon after, ushering Yaakov to a Level II Trauma Center. After the doctors in the Trauma Center performed a full scan of his body, they realized the damage was far worse than they had imagined.
Yaakov was airlifted to a Level I Trauma Center.
“We’re putting humpty dumpty back together again,” the doctors joked. It was a light moment in a mess of broken things: bones, spirits, hearts. From his face down to his ankle, nearly everything was fractured: Yaakov broke both shoulders, the C7 in his neck, the L1 in his back, his right arm, left elbow and his left leg from his hip to his ankle. He suffered facial fractures underneath his sinuses, abrasions on his cornea and a punctured lung. Had the break in his back been one centimeter off, he would have been paralyzed.
Yaakov needed a lot of drugs to keep the pain in check. Between that, anesthesia from multiple surgeries and lack of sleep, he’d enter into a sort of delirium. “We’d ask him, ‘Yaakov, where are you?’ and he’d respond, ‘I’m in Progressive Field [a baseball stadium]!’” Michelle laughed. “‘No! You’re in a hospital!’” she’d exclaim. “It was frustrating not being able to connect.”
Michelle wasn’t even able to speak to him on the phone initially; Yaakov’s injuries made it impossible for him to hold a phone. “You realize that to be able to simply say goodnight means so much.”
When Yaakov was transferred to the Montefiore nursing home two weeks later to continue his rehabilitation, the staff stood in awe. “They had never seen anything like this,” Michelle says.
Things were difficult. “Someone said to me, ‘Don’t worry, it can’t get worse,’” Michelle recalls. “And then…it did get worse.”
Michelle’s youngest of four children, a nine-month-old baby girl, contracted C. difficile – a serious, potentially life-threatening disease of the intestines.
C. diff is highly contagious, so the baby was pulled out of playgroup. Every surface in the home was subject to aggressive Lysol-ing. Michelle needed to drop off stool samples at the lab every week. Ultimately, Michelle ended up in the hospital with her baby – only to return home on erev Yom Kippur. It took six months to get rid of what her baby had picked up.
“Balancing day-to-day life with taking care of Yaakov – it was exhausting, emotionally and physically,” Michelle says. “I couldn’t cut out on anything – you can’t ignore your kids, your husband, your job, and even yourself to a certain extent.”
Prior to her most recent job, Michelle worked as a social worker in a trauma center. So she knew from the beginning what to expect. She approached the situation realistically, practically.
Her former job alerted her to the damage that could occur when parents don’t tell their children about what is going on at home. So she gave her kids all the (watered down) information from the beginning: “Tatti’s really hurt and not coming home for a long time, but he will get better.” And she walked them through what he looked like.
“I was able to think about it from a professional perspective,” she says. “I felt like Hashem really prepped me for it, gave me certain coping skills.”
Indeed, Michelle recounts all the troubling details amidst many “baruch Hashem”s and mentions of hashgacha pratit (Divine providence).
But she is quick to note, “I definitely don’t want to give the impression that we were great. There were times I completely broke down.”
The parents and in-laws flew in on alternate weekends, and the community members called nonstop, making offers. They said Tehillim immediately after they heard the news, and again erev Pesach they gathered in shul “as if they had nothing else to do,” Michelle says. Their assistance was endless – regular visits to Yaakov, friends buying groceries, babysitting – and Michelle, literally, could not have done it without them.
Still – a husband is meant to be your partner, your support. Not having that throughout the entire experience was possibly the hardest part. “As amazing as your friends and family are, at the end of the night, you’re on your own.”
As difficult as things were, it was critical for Michelle to keep things in perspective. “With Yaakov, we knew from the beginning that his mind was fine, that he would eventually walk again. He would recover. So how could I complain, ’Why me?’ when the obvious possibility was so tragic?
“On the one hand, you feel like you’re being punished, but on the other hand, you have so much hakarat hatov (recognition of the good),” Michelle notes. “The feelings are very mixed.”
Yaakov’s attitude gave Michelle strength. “For the first few months he couldn’t even get up in the morning; he would wake up crying, he was in so much pain,” she recalls. “But he was never bitter. The whole time, he never asked: ‘Why me? It’s not fair.’”
Always looking towards the light at the end helped center Michelle. The Bernstein’s had a seudat hoda’ah right before Chanukah at Montefiore, the nursing home where Yaakov stayed, to give thanks to G-d for Yaakov’s tremendous recovery. “From the beginning I was dreaming about this,” Michelle says. “As important as it was to [Yaakov], it was so important to me. That’s what got me through [the whole ordeal].”
The halacha dictates that one makes a seudat hoda’ah every year on the event’s “anniversary.” This means a seudah every year on erev Pesach – not the most uneventful time.
Michelle sometimes wonders, “Do you ever forget?” It’s a question of human nature. Do we remain impacted even by the most challenging times, the ones we deem “life-changing”?
Everything’s for a reason, but the lessons can be painful.
Now, one year after the tree first fell, Michelle can list some of the things she has gained from the whole traumatic and exhausting ordeal. “It really brought home the point of hashgacha pratit,” she says. “Of course, I never would ask for this – but Hashem put us in this situation for a reason and He’s going to have to help us get through it.” It was simple logic of faith. “Trees don’t just fall on people,” and this tree obviously had a purpose.
You learn not to take things for granted. Michelle now turns to Yaakov and says, “’I’m so appreciative you’re alive.’ How many people can say that to their husband?” Perhaps not many. But, perhaps, a tree needn’t fall before those words are uttered.
People pass Yaakov on the street and exclaim, “You’re a walking miracle!” But Yaakov shakes his head: “You’re a walking miracle,” he says.
“You just don’t appreciate it.”