A Miraculous Recovery Remembered
By Malky Levitansky
IT'S A WARM October day and hundreds of people have gathered in Copenhagen
for a celebration marking the dedication of a Torah scroll.
Benny Fischer, the director of Magen Lacholeh, or "Shield for the Sick,"
is called upon to address the crowd. He strides to the podium and shakes
hands with Rabbi Chaim Michoel Gutterman. Without a word to the crowd,
Fischer begins to punch a telephone number into his palm-sized cellular
"Hello, this is Benny Fischer," he says into the phone, and within
he is connected to the head of Kupat Cholim, Israel's health insurer.
"Remember that man I called you about a year ago?" the crowd hears Fischer
say into the phone. "The one who was suffering from liver failure.
"Remember how I wanted to fly him to Belgium for a transplant, and you
said he would never make it.
"Remember how I told you at the time that I would get him to Belgium and
one day I would call you from the celebration he'd make when he recovered?
"Well," continued Fischer, pausing dramatically, "right now I'm calling
your from Copenhagen where Rabbi Chaim Michoel Gutterman's parents have
donated a Torah scroll in honor of the one-year anniversary of his
miraculous recovery from a severe bout of hepatitis.
"And I wanted you," Fischer told the head of Kupat Cholim, "to join us in
IT ALL BEGAN on Thursday, Nov. 1, 1998. That evening, Gutterman was rushed
to the hospital in serious condition. He had been ill for a number of days
from what his family had assumed was a routine case of hepatitis. But the
doctors at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital quickly realized he was suffering
from liver failure. He had an extremely low white blood cell count and a
severe deficiency in his clotting system.
Gutterman's condition steadily deteriorated. He soon lost consciousness
and had to be hooked up to a respirator.
Specialists were brought in throughout the night to confer on his case.
They all come to the same conclusion - Gutterman needed a liver transplant
to survive, but in his condition, it was just too dangerous to fly him
abroad to get one.
His family broke down in tears when they heard the news. Though no one
said it, it was readily apparent that the doctors believed Gutterman's end
THE NEXT MORNING saw no improvement in Gutterman's condition, and he sank
into a deep coma. At the family's request, the attending physician
contacted Benny Fischer, director of Magen Lacholeh. Magen Lacholeh, a
non-profit organization established 10 years ago, provides medical
information, referrals and assistance to patients throughout Israel.
The physician spoke at length with Fischer, who came to the following
decision: Gutterman had to be flown immediately to a medical center in
Belgium. There the world's leading experts in liver failure would be able
to examine and treat him, either by connecting him to an artificial liver
or by giving him a liver transplant. Fischer told the physician to prepare
Gutterman for the flight. His organization would take care of the rest.
BACK IN HIS small office in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem, Fischer immediately
put a call through to the medical center in Brussels. After a few minutes
he was connected to its head physician, with whom he had spoken on a
number of previous occasions. Fischer convinced the physician to accept
Gutterman despite his critical condition and to make the necessary
preparations to treat him upon his arrival.
As soon as Fischer hung up the phone, his staff began frantically
searching for a flight that would take Gutterman to Brussels. Because it
was Friday, there were no El Al flights to Belgium, and try as they might,
they couldn't find a single available seat on any of the other airlines.
They realized their only option was to hire a private plane to take
Gutterman to Brussels.
Finally, at one o'clock on Friday afternoon, the Magen Lacholeh team
located a private plane. Then the next stage of the operation was set into
motion: A Magen Lacholeh ambulance, filled with sophisticated life-support
equipment, picked up Gutterman from the hospital and drove him to the
Meanwhile, at the airport, a separate Magen Lacholeh team was working
feverishly to transform the plane into a flying ambulance. They completed
the job minutes before the ambulance carrying Gutterman arrived.
After receiving the go ahead, the ambulance driver sped onto the runway,
where he met the private plane.
ALL SEEMED TO being going well - almost too well - until a staff member
realized the oxygen tanks on hand couldn't be fitted to the plane. He
placed an emergency call to Fischer, who initiated a desperate search for
an appropriate oxygen tank.
Fischer called one medical equipment company after another, but no one
seemed to have the type of oxygen tank he was looking for. He found some
that did, but they didn't have it in stock. Then he found a small company
that had the tank he needed and even had it in stock. There was only one
glitch - the owner, who possessed the only key to the warehouse, had
already gone home for the weekend.
Fischer, not one to give up easily, called the owner at home, apologized
for having disturbed him and explained the situation. Within minutes the
owner was in his car and on the way to the warehouse. He grabbed the
oxygen tank and sped off to the airport, where Fischer was waiting for
him. Fischer thanked him, took the tank, and raced down the tarmac to the
The Magen Lecholeh staff ready Rabbi Gutterman for flight.
By then it was 3 p.m. and Fischer, feeling he couldn't risk a further
delay, contacted the airport's control tower and requested special
permission for the plane to lift off immediately, despite the fact that a
long line of commercial carriers were taxing on the runway. The private
plane was given priority one, and it lifted off minutes after the Magen
Lacholeh staff put the unconscious Gutterman inside.
The Magen Lacholeh staff watched Gutterman's private plane take off, and
then the ambulance sped back to Jerusalem. It reached the organization's
headquarters just minutes before Shabbat.
FOUR HOURS LATER, Gutterman's private plane touched down at Brussels
Airport. An intensive care unit was waiting for him and it rushed him to
the medical center. There Gutterman was examined by the medical center's
top liver failure specialists, with whom Fischer had been in contact
during the flight.
After examining Gutterman, the doctors decided to transport him to
hospital and stabilize his condition. Once there, they planned to hook him
up to an advanced life support system.
Within hours, the liver began functioning and Gutterman's prognosis
The doctors, gratified that they were able to help Gutterman, said that
had it not been for Fischer's appraisal of the situation, they would never
have agreed to accept a patient in such critical condition. But Fischer,
it seemed, had been right about the move. Without it, Gutterman may not
In addition, thanks to Fischer's intervention, Kupat Cholim agreed to
underwrite the costs of the flight, as well as the medical treatment in
both Israel and Belgium. Had it not been for Fischer, Gutterman's family
would still paying off thousands of dollars worth of medical bills.
BENNY FISCHER PAUSES for a moment while the Kupat Cholim director recovers
from the shock of hearing that Gutterman had, in fact, survived his bout
Fischer, not missing a beat, continues
"Now remember that 18-month old girl I told you about last week, the one
who needs that transplant abroad? Well, this morning you sent me a fax
turning down my request for an emergency flight.
Silence from the other end of the line.
"Will you reconsider? Now will you agree to pay for the operation? If you
say yes, I promise to call you from her celebration party as well!"
Not wanting to be proven wrong again, the stunned director has only one
thing to say: "Yes."
His answer echoes in the air, thanks to the hall's audio system. The
people in the audience, who have been sitting on the edge of their seats,
stand up and cheer.
Fischer raises the phone over his head so the director can hear the
crowd's standing ovation. He then hangs up the phone and makes his way
down from the podium.
The applause continues for some time, but Fischer isn't around to hear it.
He is already in a taxi to the airport. With his cell phone to his ear and
a worried expression on his face, his fingers deftly click through an
electronic organizer containing lists of specialists.
He is already on his next case.
Benny Fischer on call constantly
from the January 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine