The Angel of Sloan-Kettering

The Angel of Sloan-Kettering

For me, one of the most moving aspects of the incredibly moving newly-released book Noa’s Strength (in which the author, Boruch Sirisky, tells the tragic story of his wife’s battle with cancer and untimely death at 29) is the outpouring of kindness that was showered upon him and his wife from all corners of the Orthodox community. Whether from a Chai Lifeline volunteer who stopped by the cancer ward once a week with a kosher tuna sandwich or from a Boro Park family that provided them with a free apartment for months at a time while Noa was undergoing treatment at a New York hospital. But the greatest kindnesses Boruch and his wife received were, without a doubt, from their extraordinarily dedicated oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Dr. Wexler. Here are some excerpts from the book about Dr. Wexler, the Angel of Sloan-Kettering.

Noa starts treatment with Dr. Wexler:

One who has reason, hopefully as a volunteer, to visit Memorial Sloan-Kettering…Day Clinic may discover that on certain days it is not easy to get in to see Dr. Wexler. When such a visitor asks the desk clerk, “When will he be available?” and the answer is, “He’s with a new patient,” then the petitioner might as well get comfortable in his chair and make sure he has good reading material.

At long last, we were told to proceed down a short corridor to the last door on the right. We entered a room which was papered with 3 x 5 snapshots of children, many of them without hair, but all smiling for the occasion. Other items of curiosity, obviously all gifts, graced the bookshelves. In front of me sat a man in his late forties, with reddish hair and a mustache, wearing a leather yarmulke. He stood, proffered his hand to me in what was almost a semicircular gesture, bowing his head in politeness to the point that his eyes squinted and nearly shut, and invited us to be seated.

A photo of the author, Boruch Sirisky


Dr. Wexler was by every means methodical. he had to play many roles when he met a patient. If the patient had ever been sick before, he had to be a historian– in Noa’s case, the history alone took a good forty-five minutes to cover. He had to be a good detective, to determine which of many possible strains of cancer might be hiding inside the patient’s body. He had to be a social worker, to calm a shocked and often panicking family, work with their fears, and guide them to strength. Childless himself, he had to play the role of father to his patients providing them with warmth and nurturing– and over the years he had come to have many such “children.” It was incredible to discover, in the course of the long conversation, that Noa had already been in Dr. Wexler’s care once, when, as a 13-year-old girl, she had come to America [from her native Israel] for the summer to attend Camp Simcha, a multi-week chance for sick children to forget some of their troubles. It had been her only summer at the camp, and Dr. Wexler’s first of several. He vividly remembered Noa, and amazing fact considering how many patients he helped over the years. But then again, such was the inner grace of Noa, and I, for one, was not overly surprised.

Noa had often told me that somehow all oncologists that she had ever met looked alike. They tended to be soft-spoken, almost shy, with sympathetic eyes. Dr. Wexler, a religious Jew and a kohen as well, fit this mold perfectly, but even so we were impressed by his remarkably gentle and calm mannerism. You could ask him any question at all, and there was nothing to be afraid of. Whenever we were with him, he made us feel that he had all the time in the world…

Noa’s condition gets worse, and she has to undergo chemotherapy. Her husband writes:

There was one other singularly Jewish moment that brought light and warmth into a dark and cold winter. At a few minutes before 4:00 PM, several doctors in Memorial (including Dr. Wexler) would receive pages on their beepers reminding them to come downstairs and daven mincha. Together with a few visitors like me, we would scrape together a minyan. While in the summer months today’s doctors do not always wear the traditional uniform of white coats, a great number do wear them once the weather cools down. Hence the better part of the minyan was wearing white coats—and it invariably made me think that I was davening mincha not on a simple Tuesday, but on Yom Kippur. Of course, upon greater reflection, I realized that the real reason that these doctors were wearing white and the real reason that there was an aura of the Yom HaKadosh (the ‘Holy Day’—Yom Kippur) was because they themselves were angels, each adding to his prayers a long list of patients for whom he had been charged the deep responsibility of caring and healing by the One to whom he was praying.

June 2006, Noa arrives for surgery to remove a cancerous tumor:

Someone came to take Noa’s clothes and placed them in a classy garment bag, rather than in some old sack as we were given elsewhere. But the most helping hands were those of Dr. Wexler, who showed up in person before the surgery, not only to wish Noa well but to bless her warmly with birkas kohanim [the priestly blessing], as he is a kohen. It was almost enough to make us forget what Noa was about to go through.

Noa’s condition grows more severe

The 3rd course of chemotherapy knocked the [cancer] into submission, but went rather badly in terms of side effects. Noa’s throat pain was more severe than before, and the nausea was terrible. Due to the almost complete closure of her esophagus, it was nearly impossible for her to vomit, and when she did the agony was unbearable. She spent day after day in her hospital room, miserable, getting respite only during the hours that she spent asleep due to the medications she was taking.

The only consolation for either of us was the sight of Dr. Wexler entering the room. He immediately offered me his characteristic handshake, his eyes nearly squinting as he smiled naturally. He approached Noa as if she were his own daughter and knelt down next to the bed. She turned to him, unable to speak from suffering, and gave him a look as if to say: “Please do something!” He spoke, softly as always, “You’re in pain…,” although what he clearly meant was, “It hurts me just as much to see you like this.”

A few months before Noa’s death

As time went on, Noa slipped more and more into a dark world of silence. She slept almost all the time. During those moments when she was awake, when she was not attempting to overcome the agonies of thirst or the side effects of various medicines she was taking, she simply stared at the walls of her [hospital room]. I am uncertain what she was looking at or for, if anything. What do captives and detention inmates gaze at? What makes them sadder: the fact that it is raining outside, or the brightness of a sunny day that they cannot experience? Or perhaps they no longer even care to distinguish between the two?

After about two and a half weeks, with Sukkos already behind us, Dr. Wexler approached me and said with what was clearly a heavy heart, “Noa seems incredibly sad, and medically she’s probably entered a deep depression. We have to do something about it.” Entering her room, something that in the past had been able to stir her into a smile, brought little change in her disposition. “Noa,” he began, “you’ve been in this room for a long time. It’s time we got some pictures of [your son] Shlomo up.” He visited for a while, a lot longer than he probably had time for, but I could see that he was determined, more than ever, to do what he could to bring her back to the emotional as well as physical health with which she had once been blessed. In the coures of the conversation, there were moments in which she did not respond, and there were others in which her eyes were full of tears.

A doctor is not permitted to cry in the presence of his patients, but it wasn’t hard to guess what was beneath his professional demeanor. I asked myself a question that had often come up: How could one ever choose to be an oncologist or work in a cancer hospital, where happiness, if it ever comes, arrives only after an eternity of sadness.

Then again, how could one ever be a Jew in this world? There are many who have left our fatith because they have determined that it is “too hard” to be Jewish. Sometimes, it really does seem like too much to bear. But a person of faith, a person who chooses not to relinquish that faith, has only one choice. he must cling to the notion that he does not live solely for himself but for the greater glory of his Creator, no matter how distant He may seem. He must remember not to make himself afraid, lo yispached klal, even if he cannot see an inch in front of him…

The words “I am the man,” that appear in Lamentations can also mean “I am a person of gevura”– that trait of strength which enables a person, even at the price of endless wandering in darkness, to grab at his Divinely-appointed task with both hands….

Boruch and Noa returns to Israel, and dies at the age of 29.

During the week of shiva…there were many rabbis who came to see me. It was, however, not the sight of a rabbi but rather that of a kohen that froze not only my body but my entire being to the point that for the fist time in my life I could not speak. I was sitting in my chair, listening to a conversation going on around me, perhaps even drinking a glass of water to revive me from the ongoing eulogizing, when I saw him walk into the room. It was a man slightly taller and well over a decade older than me, with reddish hair and sympathetic eyes, who gave the appearance to all those who noticed him enter the room of being soft-spoken and almost shy.

He crossed the small space in the center of the room where no one was sitting and knelt down next to my chair, just as he had always done next to Noa’s bed. As my throat tightened he looked at me and gave me his hand, the way he always had. As tears poured down my face, silent but unstoppable, the last five years of my life flashed before my eyes: days of sadness and disappointment, days of hope and prayer, days of waiting and waiting for rain and the ultimate redemption that we might someday return to a rebuilt Jerusalem.

While neither of us had had the ability to save Noa, both of us had tried hard in our respective roles, and so I felt, as Dr. Wexler continued to grip my hand, that the ciricle was somehow complete.

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2 comments

  1. Father of a Patient of Dr. Wexler

    My son has been a patient of Dr. Wexler for just over a year. He is warm, caring, concerned, and deeply empathetic and sympathetic about the health and well-being of our son. He is excellent, and I do not know where we would be without him today. Everything in this post just strengthens my appreciation and liking of Dr. Wexler.

  2. Susanna Rossen

    This is an incredably moving and inspiring story.

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