OTTAWA — In a split second, Rabbi Yehuda Simes' life was changed forever.
It has been over a year since an automobile accident left him a quadriplegic and changed the course of his life, a very long year filled with pain and suffering, fear and sadness, but somehow also with hope, happiness and gratitude.
The popular and well-loved teacher at Ottawa’s Hillel Academy was returning home from a trip to the United States with his wife, Shaindel, and seven of their eight children. After they swerved to avoid a deer, their vehicle rolled over. Shaindel, who was seven months pregnant at the time, had been driving. She was slightly injured, and the children were all fine, but Rabbi Simes was very seriously injured.
Following emergency surgery and some time in a Syracuse, N.Y., trauma centre, he was flown back to Ottawa, where the long and difficult journey to recovery began. He was on a ventilator, had a feeding tube and had virtually no mobility.
Bad news travels fast, and as word spread about Rabbi Simes’ condition, the Ottawa community rallied. Financial help, emotional support and assistance with all sorts of domestic chores came from individuals and groups. Students held a car wash and a garage sale, a charitable fund was set up, and people pitched in to cook, clean and help with child care.
In September, while Rabbi Simes was still in intensive care at the Ottawa Hospital, baby Charlie was born. His brit was a cause for celebration for a family that sorely needed something to celebrate. It was held at the hospital, and Rabbi Simes was able to hold the baby in his lap.
After many months at the rehab centre, and to the astonishment of almost everyone, Rabbi Simes had made enough progress to return home – with no ventilator or feeding tube. He has made more progress than anyone anticipated and hopes there is more to come.
“I really think that the people in this community are all sharing this journey, because sickness is a very lonely thing, but it has been amazing. It’s not so lonely when I know so many people are impacted,” Rabbi Simes in an interview with The CJN at his home.
“When I was still in ICU in Syracuse, when things were very touch and go, people in Ottawa and around the world took upon themselves to do mitzvot. That is incredibly encouraging and inspiring to me. I think of myself as a facilitator of people becoming better people. I just see a lot of good. Of course, it is a silver lining in a lot of darkness, but I focus on the silver lining.”
Although confined to a wheelchair and reliant on others to take care of all of his basic needs, Rabbi Simes is able to see the silver lining every day.
“Of course Shaindel is everything for me. At this point, I need 24/7 care. She knows what I need. It is a very big challenge for her.”
Their children also help with daily care. The older ones have learned to help with the bag that helps expand their father's lungs and also to lift him into the sling lift to move him from his wheelchair. The younger children help to feed him.
“I have done so much more than what was expected,” he said. “I didn’t know how serious things were until months after the accident. My family was always smiling and upbeat.”
“I don't know how people in my situation manage without such support and without faith,” Rabbi Simes said.
He is grateful for the support of his family, his community and the professionals who have worked with him over the months. Both his physiotherapist and physician live in his neighbourhood and make house calls, even during the night, if required.
His synagogue is accessible and he’s able to spend time there, which is a great comfort. At the time of his interview with The CJN, work was being done on both a new van that is being customized and a new home that’s being renovated to accommodate his needs.
In the fall, Rabbi Simes plans to do some volunteer teaching at Hillel Academy, where the students eagerly await him. He will also be working with the teachers at Torah High, an after-school high school program that he helped found five years ago.
Bram Bregman, co-founder of Torah High, said the students are looking forward to having Rabbi Simes back. “The students love him as a teacher. He shows them respect, and they in turn show him respect. I am fairly confident that he will be able to come back and teach. It is what he is really born to do.”
Rabbi Simes always considered classroom teaching to be his destiny as well, but since the accident he has had time to think and re-evaluate. “Since then, I have been thinking that my passion and talents have been classroom teaching, but you never know what God wants from you. Maybe now things have shifted. It might seem like I am doing less, but maybe I am fulfilling a different purpose. Maybe God has a different plan for me.”
“Of course I have fears, but the only attitude I can take is that if I can make it through today, then I am victorious over that day,” he said.