Human life is invaluable.  Once we place a price tag on life, we desecrate the sanctity of the G‑dly image, and begin the slow but slippery descent into deciding who shall live and who shall die based on their benefit to society.

Jewish Ethical Wisdom


Whoever saves one Jewish life, it is as if he has saved an entire world…

Mishnah, Sanhedrin




It all started innocently with a routine email I received on May 26, 2008:


Dear Rabbi Kantor:


Hi and greetings from Montreal! I spoke to Rabbi Fine from Chabad Queen Mary and he said you would be the right person to speak with.  


My uncle David has lived in Thailand for 30-40 years.  Never married, he is now 71 years old. Although in the past he was president of a company and held positions of prominence in the garment industry, he now has little money to his name.  I don’t know him very well, but my childhood memory of him is that he’s the Uncle who would bring us nice gifts and always have an exciting tale to tell.  I have heard him described as an unusual, free-spirited individual, who was always trying to live his dream and find the elusive rainbow over the horizon.  Over the years he has turned off many family members here in Montreal because of the unconventional choices he has made in his life.  


He is now in the hospital with double kidney failure.  He has asked family members here to pay for his bill but they have refused.  Although I hardly know him, since my father notified me of his plight I feel it is only right not to abandon him in his time of need.


My father and I are not in financial position to do anything.  If he can travel perhaps we can raise money for a ticket to bring him here to Canada where he might eventually have regular healthcare.


I hope that you can visit him at the hospital and find out what his real situation is.  He is not a religious Jew but I believe when a person reaches the end of their life it is time to thank G‑d for everything he has done for you.  


His name is David R----.  Please let me know if you are willing to visit him for me.


Thanking you in advance!


Best regards,


Joanne R------- (Channah Elka).



Naturally, I responded in the affirmative.  Of course I would visit him. I had no idea yet what this would eventually entail, but even had I known it wouldn’t have made a difference.  Our mission is one of dedication and love to G‑d and His people, and as such we are here to provide both spiritual and material support to all who need.  

David was in the Somdej Pra Boromrajathevi na Sriracha Hospital in Sriracha, about 120 km from Bangkok.  I visited him that day or the day after, we prayed together, put on tefillin, and talked. He was touched by the visit and promised to keep in contact with me.  At that time he was receiving assistance from his friend Jack and was not yet convinced that he should try to go back to Canada.


In the beginning of July, David called me from his home in the coastal town of Pattaya, updating me on his “miraculous recovery.”  He is weak but much better, and does not need any more dialysis. Apparently, though, he wasn’t sharing the whole story. Just one week later, I received another email from Canada, this time from David’s brother Howard.


July 7 2008

Dear Rabbi,


I just had a call from my brother David, He is very, very ill. He was crying and is unable to help himself on his own. He is in a small apartment in Pattaya, arranged for by friends.  He is in bad shape and so alone. Could you contact him? He is going to need whatever help you are able to give him. He has agreed to come back to Canada where he can get the latest treatment and be among family.


His passport and visa are non-existent.   Through family friends we have already made contact with the Canadian Embassy to arrange an exit visa and special passport, with no penalty to him. I don’t know how he can even travel being as sick as he is. 


I would like you to know that I truly appreciate the efforts you have made on behalf of my brother David. 


All the very best,


Howard R------ 


 

As Pattaya is a two hour trip from Bangkok, I called David on the phone.  It was clear that he needed to get to a hospital. I offered to send somebody out to take him there, but he wanted to wait for Jack, who would only be available the following day.  It was also clear that with his health in the condition that it was and with no reliable support network out there, it was crucial that we get him to Canada immediately. I conveyed this urgency to his family.  Realizing that money was an issue, I encouraged them to continue pressuring for a passport and visa, and offered the following:


I will find a way from my end to buy him a ticket G‑d willing as this is something I have undertaken to do for Jews living in Thailand who have the need to be "evacuated"…


G‑d bless you for caring about your brother/uncle notwithstanding anything that may have transpired over the years.

David did make it to the hospital, but a few days later he was back home.  A kind Swiss gentile woman, Louisa, visited his home and reported on the conditions with candor:

He hasn’t touched food or drink in days because for some reason he can’t hold down his food.  He is even refusing to drink the hospital medical drink. Even had he wanted to eat, the Jello in his fridge, made by a compassionate Thai boy, and the canned fruit is beginning to grow mold.  He is carrying no fever, yet he keeps feeling as though he is in the sun and burning up.  


His mattress is putrid and soaked through and through, from a combination of his incontinence and the water and ice-chips he has been pouring over his bare body to cool down, yet a fan is constantly blowing directly on him and threatening him with pneumonia. He is plainly confused, and not making much sense.  He was angry and demanding and wanting to go to Canada, yet refusing to speak to the Canadian Embassy directly, to ask them for help. 


To complicate matters, no one really knows what is wrong with David.  Although he has previously been admitted to a hospital and received some sort of treatment, there is really no diagnostic situation, since the hospital he went to is really a “minimal care facility.” The hospitals in Thailand are fantastic - when you are in the right ones and you have money.  But when a foreigner is in a Thai hospital you get little to no care.


It is possible that David has prostrate cancer and that he is in the final stages.  Renal failure is often a final stage of prostate cancer. In these stupid clinics they told him he has Diverticulitis, and that the Ibuprofen caused the kidney failure, but to me this is suspect.  Now that his PSA counts are over 200 they tell him to come back in 3-4 months for a biopsy.  Well in Thailand that usually means you don't come back because they expect you to die within the 3-4 months. 


His friends, are well-meaning—Jack has laid out over 100,000 baht (about 3,000 USD) on hospital fees—but impractical.  They are waiting for him to get better by some miracle so they can go with him to Bangkok and get his passport.  If something is not done soon, David will die here in Thailand, in this horrible room. 


I had originally planned on going out to see David on the following Sunday, but upon hearing of his unsanitary, precarious situation I instructed Louisa to get him into a decent hospital immediately and that I would take responsibility for him and negotiate with the hospital over the payments, which would not be insignificant. 


Indeed, he was admitted with severe dehydration and malnutrition, a very serious fungal infection in the mouth, throat, and possibly into the esophagus, his blood work showed anemia and other white blood-cell count issues, indicating that his immune system was in jeopardy and not functioning properly, and his urine tests showed that his kidneys were failing again.  The doctors decided on an immediate plan of action, with a priority to stabilize him enough to be able to travel. David slowly began to come back to himself.


David finally did speak directly to the Canadian Embassy and we were then able to be in direct contact with them and his family to coordinate his return to Canada.  Thankfully, the Senior Consular Program Officer in Thailand, Fakchit Racharit, took personal interest in this case. (Eventually she was so inspired by our efforts that she donated from her personal funds towards the expenses.) 


There were many complicated issues to be sorted out, and many more hurdles to jump until David finally made it to Canada.  They included the following:


  • David had over stayed his Thai Visa so there was a fee of 20,000 baht


  • An Emergency passport could be issued, but it would only remain valid for 5 days, and David’s medical condition was hit or miss.


  • Since David had lived for so long outside of Canada, the Canadian government required that the family guarantee him when he returns.


  • Ironically, this “family guarantee” would put his continuing medical care at risk: he would only be eligible for immediate free care at the hospitals if he was completely alienated from his family, but without free care what other options were there? Government healthcare would take 3 months to kick in and the price per day of hospital stay was unrealistic for the family budget.


  • David’s condition kept changing; he was in and out of ICU for various complications.  At some point it was decided that not only could he not travel but he couldn’t even be transferred to a lower cost government hospital.  This, after a conference of doctors that included the general surgeon, the cardiologist, the nephrologist and the ICU doctor.


  • It seemed that David might only be able to travel with a licensed medical escort, the fee of which would be exorbitant. 


  • Either way, it was clear that with his condition of DVT (deep vein thrombosis) he would need to travel business class with a companion, who would need both accommodations in Montreal and a ticket back to Thailand. 


  • Thai bureaucracy dictated that foreigners who pay the penalty for overstaying their visa must leave Thailand immediately, since the fine is in place of prosecution for the illegal stay.  If the foreigner cannot leave on the scheduled flight he must remain in the airport transit area, under the supervision of Thai immigration authorities until accepted on a flight. If for some reason David would not be able to board, as indeed happened, would he be able to return to the hospital without fear of prosecution, or would he be stuck in the transit area?


Somehow, it all began to come together.  We prayed, bought tickets, negotiated and made financial arrangements with the hospitals, who wanted more than 1 million baht (over 30,000 USD).  We continued to coordinate with the Embassy, Jack, and Louisa, while keeping Howard and Joanne abreast of the situation. Agence Ometz, the Jewish social service in Canada, agreed to share in the cost of David’s transportation and ensure that he receive adequate medical attention upon his arrival in Montreal.  And the Thai Jewish community joined together to contribute to an emergency appeal.  


After at least one failed boarding attempt, subsequent Embassy pressure on the airport immigration inspectors to allow him back to the hospital, and repeated exchanges with the Lufthansa doctor who kept finding reasons to refuse him travel clearance, David finally departed from Thailand for Montreal.  He arrived in Montreal on August 13, 2008, and was transported by Hatzalah Ambulance to the Jewish General Hospital, where he eventually regained his strength and enjoyed renewed ties with his family. 


As Joanne had suggested in her original correspondence, in his last years David did indeed express a new interest in his relationship with G‑d and His people.  He began to attend various community holiday programs at Chabad of Queen Mary, would readily laid tefillin when offered the opportunity, and lived his life with a new appreciation and perspective.


David had tremendous gratitude for Chabad and all the people who helped to bring him back to life.  On more than one occasion he got up and shared the story of his “rescue” in public, which touched and moved many a person.  The extraordinary efforts of kindness and ahavat Yisrael (love of fellow) on his behalf also made an indelible impression upon his family.  


Unfortunately, though, his recurring health issues prevented him from pursuing his new dream to its fullest.  Last month, about one and half years after his arrival in Montreal, David returned his soul to its maker.  


Rabbi Fine of Chabad of Queen Mary shared that David, happy to have been given a new lease on life, always felt that he didn’t do enough.  In his words, “David had showed a keen interest into his yiddishkeit and eagerness to learn Torah…His soul went back to his creator with a yearning to be connected….”  


May this, and the many actions of kindness and sacrifice that were accomplished in this world because of him, stand in his merit On High, and may his soul be bound up in the bond of Life. 


As told to Zalman HaYitzchaki by Rabbi Yosef C. Kantor, Director of Chabad of Thailand.