By Chana-Rochel Eller
“I live a normal life; I take care of my family, I cook, clean, I bake, I shop, I drive, I have a small business…” the words of Monsey resident Rivka Zucker . A fairly common description of a stay-at-home mom, except, perhaps, for the mention of a small business.
So one would be hard put to imagine that 11 years ago, Rivka was in the throes of “cavernous angioma malformation.” Sound formidable? Most of the time, the condition is not. A cavernous angioma is a group of abnormal tiny and large blood vessels that can cluster anywhere in the body. Most people who have such malformations are neither affected by nor aware of them: they are clinically insignificant.
In rare instances, however, a cavernous angioma can hemorrhage—a singular event that can ravage anything and everything from mobility to vision. Because the malformation on Rivka’s brainstem had hemorrhaged three times before she was treated, her prognosis, announced by an instructor to a group of med students standing in Rivka’s hospital room, was “There is nothing we can do for this patient.”
Well, Rivka certainly showed them. Because of her brand of perseverance, the steady shoulders and unremitting work of her husband, the help of her own doctors and the love and support of family, friends, physical therapists and occupational therapists, today Rivka is in full swing as a wife and mother. She is also a Monsey, New York entrepreneur who makes and sells custom challah dough to order. All miraculous in view of that “false-negative” prognosis.
In her book “Struggle to the Summit,” Rivka describes her steep and rapid decline into an illness that began with a bit of numbness, uncharacteristic stumbling and blurred vision. It would become clear that all were the results of cell clusters hemorrhaging on her brainstem. The illness could have proved fatal but for the brachos and assurances of the great Rav Chaim Kanievsky in Israel, and Rivka’s doctors, Dr. Alexander Schick in New York and Dr. Robert F. Spetzler in Arizona. While all other surgeons refused to operate for fear of brain damage to the patient, G-d forbid, Dr. Spetzler agreed.
Dr. Spetzler was the right shaliach, says Rivka. “He said, ‘I work, and G-d does the rest.’” A tornado of tefillos on Rivka’s behalf shook open the gates of Shamayim. And G-d said, “Let there be a refuah—a cure.”
That refuah was in the form of blessing upon Rivka’s hishtadlus—her efforts and stamina. Rivka’s significant recovery was a gift hard won; she had no idea of what lay ahead as she pre-op’d for the operation on her brain. Her expectation was that once the unwelcomed malformation had been excised, she would be back to her active, capable self.
Hardly. After gaining consciousness post-operative, she was unable to move the left side of her body. Her vision doubled, she spoke in a slurred monotone and light hurt. Reading was out of the question between her compromised vision and her inability to hold a book.
Anti-inflammatory steroids wreaked havoc on Rivka’s visage and personality. She lay suspended for weeks in an apathy that would leap to hysteria, tears, laughter and back to apathy. She says, “I wasn’t the easiest patient to deal with.” It was no wonder. Between the effects of steroids vital to her recovery, and the fact that most of her body was in some form of immobility, it was doubtless impossible for her to be an “easy patient.” Sometime later, after she’d been weaned off the steroids, Rivka was able to say “I’m lucky to be alive.”
According to her doctors, it was true. A fourth hemorrhage would have proved fatal.
“I’m lucky to be alive” was the unequivocal statement of a spirited, Torah-observant woman of vitality and independence. Oxymoronically, she was now dependent upon others for everything, down to the simplest of human tasks. This dependency would be her condition for many months.
Once her confusion and cloudiness dispelled somewhat, Rivka’s goal solidified: to return home and care for her family. She had left her babies, a 7-month-old boy and an 18-month-old girl. She wanted her job as their mother back.
There were days spent in ICU, three months in acute rehab replete with hours and hours daily of PT and OT, a month of sub-acute care and two months of outpatient care. Her progress was excruciatingly slow but steady. There was pain and tears, all underpinned by an unslakable thirst to return home as wife and mother: it was the test of tests. Taped to her hospital walls were words of inspiration from Torah: “Ivdu es Hashem B’Simchah”—Serve G-d with joy, and , “Yeshuas Hashem K’heref Ayin”—G-d’s salvation happens in the blink of an eye. Her own mantra was “Mile by mile it’s a trial, yard by yard it’s always hard, inch by inch is but a cinch.”
And that’s how it went for many months. Inch by inch. In her book she makes clear how grateful she was, and is, for every success that most of us would not associate with success—from brushing her teeth to dressing her children. Hers was not simply an uphill battle. It was a battle fraught with pitfalls and setbacks including hardships on her family. But in our interview, Rivka says “No family victimized by trauma of this extent escapes completely unscathed.” There are typically financial, physical and emotional challenges to be met despite all the outside support one would hope for, and which she had.
After four long months, Rivka returned home to her children. Slowly, in many stages and with many hours of physical therapy, she returned to the job she loved best: taking care of her family and home. But the tasks that had come so easily in the “before” days had to be relearned with her new physical drawbacks. Even potato peeling was challenging. Rivka worked around it. “Don’t challenge me to a race,” she says. “You’ll always win.”
But that does not diminish her joy of home life an iota. So that she can work at her own pace, her Shabbos food is prepared on Thursday; Friday morning is reserved for making challah dough and baking.
Effects of the illness that struck in 2005 yet remain. Rivka calls them “souvenirs.” Although she can use her left hand, it is still weak, but the picture in its entirety is strong. She drives, shops and cooks on her own—all challenges Rivka overcame. Once her therapy was over, she worked on each movement by herself, never wasting a moment of time. Eventually she saw results taking her to a state of health that must have been but a dream after her operation.
In time, her thoughts turned to making her own challah as she once had. Her husband would tease her about her efforts to make challah three pounds of flour at a time, all that her kitchen mixer could accommodate. He’d say “I’m looking for a commercial machine. Your own wonderful challah will be even better.” “I thought,” says Rivka, “‘He knows about challah?’”
Five years ago Mr. Zucker acquired a used, 20-quart professional Hobart stand mixer, Hobart being the crème-de-la-crème of bakery tools, and purchased a new bowl and dough hook,. Rivka had her doubts—until she used the Hobart and realized that the texture of her dough and taste of her challah resulted were unmatched.
“He was right!” she admits.
At about the time she began using the Hobart, Rivka had a conversation with her mother-in-law that would prove significant. Members of her husband’s family run a small, in-home bakery. (They use a Hobart machine.) In that conversation her mother-in-law asked Rivka, “Why don’t you bake for other people?”
“I don’t want to bake for people.” Rivka brushed the idea off. “You have to have the space, the time, the professional-type cleanliness….Anyway, everyone bakes.”
It struck Rivka later that if in fact everyone did bake, there would be no need for bakeries. “So there had to be women who would like to bake, but didn’t have the time, the confidence, or the right tools. There were probably many reasons women didn’t bake.” Rivka thought that perhaps she could fill that void.
She embarked on her project. Five batches of her recipe for challah dough later, all churned with the Hobart, she gave one batch to each of five friends and waited for their reactions. The reviewers raved, and she began selling her dough in Monsey under the name, “I Make It, You Bake It.”
Initially, Rivka advertised, but soon discovered that word of mouth is the best advertisement. Her own recipe is the most popular, but if a customer provides a recipe, Rivka will make it. These days she gets requests for custom challah dough—whole wheat, half white and half whole wheat flour and challahs with sweeteners other than sugar or honey. One person might prefer a salty dough, another a sweeter dough, another wants spelt flour, another a particular oil….
Halachic questions can arise. For instance, she asked her rav if she could combine dough for two customers who wanted the exact kind of dough. The answer was that she could. She ended up not combining the dough, nor does she “take challah.” She gives that chiyuv—the privilege and obligation of a mitzvah, in this case “taking challah”—to the customer.
So Rivka makes each batch separately. She bought a second Hobart three years ago, and both machines sit on the floor, three feet high, each as large as a garbage can. If two customers want identical dough, she uses the machines simultaneously. She says “It is time-consuming work, but I enjoy it very, very, much.”
Rivka’s busiest seasons are the first Shabbos after Pesach, and the weeks directly before Rosh Hashana, Shavuos and Succos. And, of course, there are her regular customers. But at one point, a funny thing happened on the way to the Shabbos table. Rivka’s challah was so delicious, that certain families were becoming “addicted” to it and consequently began dieting! All of a sudden, matzah wasn’t just for Pesach any more. Some of those customers have returned with their own recipes, and Rivka accommodates them.
I asked Rivka where she gets her energy and strength.
“I felt I had no choice even when I couldn’t move. My children were so little, I automatically zeroed in on becoming a mother to them again, without help.” She adds, “The fact that my husband in his concern, love and support denied me nothing, motivated me even further. If I needed or even wanted something to help with my therapy, he got it for me. He made sure I always had full-time help until I was ready to function with only bi-weekly cleaning help.”
In her book, Rivka says that claiming her home as her own with all its work and responsibilities has been her greatest joy. One day long ago, when she no longer had full-time help and was home alone, she spilled liquid on the floor, making a grand mess. She recounts that she was thrilled at the prospect of cleaning it up by herself—and doubly thrilled when she’d done the job!
As seen from the outside, Rivka’s verve, determination, and laser-like focus are surely blessings she has cultivated and capitalized upon. It would be understandable if another person struck with Rivka’s form of cavernous angioma did not come nearly as far as she. Rivka’s recorded journey from complete disability to health is worth the read. She does say that with all the Zucker family’s difficulties included in the book, much was left out. Her point is that lest anyone think there were no bumps along the road to her successes, he or she would be wrong.
My favorite passages in the book include her humor, and in particular her responses to the well-meaning strangers bound to improve her life. For instance, there was the common question, “Did you hurt your leg?”
“No. I’m much more talented than that. I had brain surgery.”
And her response to the woman who commented, “You are a pretty young woman. It looks like you have something wrong with your leg.”
“Nothing is wrong with my leg. I had brain surgery.”
“Oh. I was thinking a chiropractor would be good for you.”
I asked Rivka where she gets her energy and strength.
“I don’t know. I don’t feel as if I’m working so hard. On the other hand, when I re-read the book I wrote, I’m amazed myself!”
To speak with Rivka or to read her book “Struggle to the Summit” is to rev up one’s appreciation for things bound to be overlooked. The ability to tie one’s shoes, to tie one’s children’s shoes, to shower independently, to move both hands in coordination, to walk with a cane, to walk without a cane, to cook a simple meal, to sweep up Cheerios, to feed oneself—all are gifts for which we owe thanks to the One Who makes all possible. Rivka has been there and knows how precious are these G-d-given gifts. Having lost these abilities and found them again, Rivka has fought the pugilist’s fight. And who would have thought that anyone would have such drive after all of it to build for herself a small, delicious business?
Against all odds, Rivka Zucker.
*Rivka Zucker” is the pseudonym under which the book “Struggle to the Summit” was written, and used here for privacy. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.