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Chayim Aruchim Hailed as Dedicated Advocate for Patients' Rights

Chayim Aruchim Annual Board Meeting - October 29, 2015
Chayim Aruchim Hailed as Dedicated Advocate for Patients' Rights
(L-R) Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz; Dr. David Reich; Dr. Yashar Hirshaut; Abe Eisner; Marcel Biberfeld, DSW; NYS Health Commissioner Howard Zucker; Rabbi Gedaliah Weinberger; Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel

Nearly 100 prominent rabbonim, hospital administrators, doctors, elected officials and members of the medical field turned out at Chayim Aruchim’s annual board meeting at Kehal Chasidim in Boro Park on October 29th.  The meeting, which featured remarks by New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, was an opportunity for Chayim Aruchim, a division of Agudath Israel of America, to raise awareness of their continued efforts to advocate for patients’ religious rights as they undergo medical treatment. 

Chayim Aruchim, the Center for Culturally Sensitive Health Advocacy and Counseling, was formally founded five years ago in order to manage the growing number of requests that the Agudah received from families dealing with end of life issues who found themselves facing medical personnel whose practices ran contrary to halacha.

Among those who spoke at the meeting were Rabbi Shmuel Lefkowitz, vice president of  Agudath Israel of America, who spoke about disturbing trends in modern medicine, questioning whether physician are actually complying with legislation which states that terminal patients must be informed of all available medical treatments.  The Agudah’s chairman of the board, Rabbi Gedalia Weinberger, discussed the value of human life, particularly for those who live a Torah life.  Commissioner Zucker, who admitted to being fascinated by classes on Jewish biomedical ethics he took as a student in Columbia University, noted that his own grandmother is over 90 years old and a powerful example of the value of every individual at any age.

“I think the whole issue of making sure that we work and take care of those who are older is important,” said Commissioner Zucker. 

The commissioner stressed the importance of having someone to advocate for patients of all ages.

“When dealing with medical issues, the public needs people to help them along with the process and I think that is one of the most valuable things you can do for people,” said Commissioner Zucker.

Dr. David Reich, president and chief operating officer of Mount Sinai Hospital, said that Chayim Aruchim plays an important role by serving as a liaison for Orthodox Jewish patients.

“Often with the frum community, they have a very special set of needs and it is very useful for us to have the integration between our teams at Mount Sinai Hospital, including geriatrics and palliative care and Chayim Aruchim, who then work together with them and they find great solutions for patients and their families,” said Dr. Reich.

Keeping the lines of communication open is crucial, according to Dr. Reich.

“The most important thing is that they talk to each other,” said Dr Reich. “Often the families feel threatened in the hospital, because they don’t see what I would describe technically as a “heimishe punim” and the heimishe punim factor is very important in terms of what Chayim does for us.  We have fantastic relationships with Chayim Aruchim and we build on them every year, creating an ever-growing friendship between two organizations that share common goals.”

“A lot of families are complaining that their sick people are not getting the attention they should be getting,” explained oncologist Dr. Yashar Hirshaut, a member of Chayim Aruchim’s medical advisory board.  “Chayim Aruchim is here to examine the issue, develop objective understanding of what is going on and then to intervene and act as a patient advocate.  Even very sick patients deserve good medical care.”

“I think that the collaboration between doctors and rabbonim has created a better atmosphere for the patients and for the hospitals to understand the patients,” added oncologist Dr. Mark Sonnenschine.  “That is what Chayim Aruchim is trying to do: collaborate and get the best care possible for the patients more than caring about the  bottom dollar.” 

Patients’ values should not be compromised noted Toby Weiss, director of cultural diversity and Jewish programming at the Metropolitan Jewish Health system, which partially supports Chayim Aruchim.

“One of the things we see and experience on a day to day basis is that the health care industry is populated with people from many different backgrounds, many different cultures and many different religions and not everybody holds the same values when it comes to end of life needs,” explained Mrs. Weiss.  “MJHS and Chayim Aruchim both believe that hospice and end of life do not have to clash and that a person who lives a Torah life should live a Torah life for every day that Hashem gives them.”

One of the highlights of the meeting was an emotional video presentation titled I Want to Live.  Various individuals shared stories of their own experiences with physicians who tried to dissuade them from seeking further medical treatment for their loved ones because of what they perceived to be a poor prognosis.  In some instances, patients that doctors had dismissed as “at death’s door” went on to live months and even years longer.

Having a national organization advocating for patients can be a powerful motivator.  Rabbi Eliezer Gewirtzman is a member of Machon Chayim Aruchim, a group of rabbonim who are on call around the clock to answer halachic questions.

“We had a story on  Erev Rosh Hashana, just as my wife was lighting candles,” said Rabbi Gewirtzman.  “I got a call from a Russian family in Philadelphia whose parent had been declared brain dead and while their frum doctor had assured him that nothing would be done until he returned on Thursday, as soon as the doctor left, the hospital staff came in and insisted on extubating him.”

Rabbi Gewirtzman consulted with Mordechai Avigdor, former legal counsel for the Agudah, who advised him to make sure that everything be put in writing.

“I spoke with the family a few days later and the daughter in law who called told me that she told the hospital that she was going to be calling a national organization that helps patients deal with hospital issues,” said Rabbi Gewirtzman.  “By the time she was finished with the phone call, the head of the hospital had been called in on the weekend, and he was in the patient’s room assuring her that nothing would happen as long as he was there.”

While the patient was niftar the next morning, family members were grateful to Chayim Aruchim for its intervention.

“Just the idea that the hospital knew that someone was representing the patient was enough to make them back down,” noted Rabbi Gewirtzman.

Chayim Aruchim is currently training additional rabbonim to be part of the Machon.  Rabbi Naftali Katz is one of three rabbonim who travel in weekly from Lakewood to receive the necessary medical training.

“We have covered the gamut, from top to bottom,” observed Rabbi Katz.  “We had oncologists who came in about every type of cancer. We have spoken about congestive heart failure and all sorts of issues towards the end of life.  We have had a nice number of doctors from palliative care and one of the focuses of the class was to show that palliative care can be done l’halacha.  The goal is to give us enough information so that when somebody calls, we will be able to read between the lines and understand what is going on so that we can present a shayla with the real facts on the ground and really understand what all the options are.”

Chayim Aruchim continues to gather accolades for its efforts.

“This organization has been so crucial to so many families,” remarked Assemblywoman Helene Weinstein. “With all of modern medicine and what can be accomplished, people need an even greater understanding of what medicine can do and also the religious aspect of Torah and halacha  and how to proceed with their care.”

Weinstein, who lost her own father last year, said that she identified with many of the people depicted in the video.

“We struggled with many of the same issues of care and ultimately, regardless of what the medical people say, you as a family have to make what you hope is the right decision for your family member when they are not able to do that and the ability to have guidance from their dedicated rabbonim and the volunteers is really critical.”

The value of human life cannot be underestimated and should not measured in years, observed Assemblyman Dov Hikind.

“The message is forget about age,” said Hikind.  “Don’t look at the numbers, every day counts and every day is important.  My parents were both survivors and with what they went through, every day meant something and they appreciated every day. Life is the most precious commodity no matter what point in life you are at and the Torah is all about realizing that life means more than anything else no matter how old you are.”

Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, described Chayim Aruchim as one of the Agudah’s “proudest achievements.”

“The community has long found itself without adequate representation in the context of medical issues that may arise in end of life situations,” said Rabbi Zwiebel. “Chayim Aruchim has stepped into the breach and has developed legal representation, has developed political advocacy at the legislative level, has worked with the hospitals across the tri state area and now we are starting to expand beyond that in making sure to sensitize them to the needs of the Orthodox Jewish community in end of life situations.”

The importance of Chayim Aruchim cannot be overstated in a society where medical trends continue to move ever farther away from the dictates of halacha, according to Rabbi Zwiebel.

“Chayim Aruchim has worked with hospital administrators and has developed a number of formal protocols and informal understandings that require them to respect the rights of Orthodox Jewish patients, allowing rabbonim to play a role in the determination of whether treatment should be continued or discontinued or whether a particular form of intervention should be made or not,” explained Rabbi Zwiebel.