Cancer crept into Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro’s life and hit him like a brick. But through the overwhelming support of his community, his faith in God and love of his family, the community leader is overcoming cancer.
It started when Shapiro, 39, noticed he was lacking energy. A leader of Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah, Shapiro was used to running around easily. But his heart began to beat unusually fast whenever he went upstairs or walked on family hikes.
Shapiro went to a cardiologist. The doctor stated his heart was fine, but they decided to run some routine tests just in case. Shapiro went on with life, casually waiting for the results in the back of his head.
One hour before Shabbat, the doctor called with his LabCorp results.
The doctor said his results showed no white blood cells. Ninety percent of Shapiro’s cells were cancerous. The results were so alarming that the doctor believed the results must have been switched.
Shapiro called his mother, a blood doctor.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re 39, you need your mom through this,” Shapiro said. He told her the results, and she told him that he’d be on the floor if it was true.
The doctor called back, confirmed that they were the correct results and demanded he get to an emergency room immediately.
“I knew it was serious,” Shapiro said. He told his children, Lila, Avi, Zev and Roey, that he would be OK. They cried and said goodbye before he drove to Greater Baltimore Medical Center. GBMC confirmed the results and took him to the University of Maryland Medical Center, where he stayed for two weeks.
“I FaceTimed the kids a lot, I told them I am sick, but I’m going to fight. I’m going to be OK,” Shapiro said.
While he stayed there, he said that everyone “from the floor sweepers to the nurses” was full of care and kindness. It took five days for him to receive a diagnosis: Hairy cell leukemia.
Hairy cell leukemia is a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes too many lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell), which build up in the blood and bone marrow and cause infection, anemia and bleeding. One of Shapiro’s greatest fears was that he would accidentally cut himself, because his body would not have been able to stop bleeding. It is a treatable condition. However, it will never completely go away.
Shapiro had to undergo a number of tests and treatments. To support him through it all, his mom flew in from California, mid-pandemic, with a double mask and sunglasses. His sister joined from Philadelphia.
Shapiro became extremely sick after the initial three days of chemotherapy. He would sit up in a fever, shaking frequently.
“If I wasn’t in pain, I felt so good. It feels so good to not be in pain,” Shapiro said.
During his most recent treatment, Shapiro experienced an inflammatory response, which resulted in him losing the ability to hear out of his left ear. It affects his balance, too.
After Shapiro was able to return to his home in Pikesville, his wife, Helene, became his nurse. She helped him with injections and at-home medical care.
Soon after, he was able to start going for walks. Every day, he adds two mailboxes’ worth of distance to the stroll.
Neighbors come out to encourage him on his daily walks. But it isn’t just those physically close to him who are showing support.
Congregants of his shul and people he hadn’t seen in years all reached out with calls, emails and texts.
“One congregant has a pool and invited the kids to use it,” Shapiro said.
Many in the Jewish Baltimore community contributed to a video compilation as well, where families shared photos and get well messages. Shapiro was so moved by the video that he said he watches it every day.
In another act of chessed, some locals organized a meal train for his family. People sign up for a day in which they either drop off food or donate gift cards to local restaurants. As of late August, the train was booked until mid-October.
“Kindness helps so much. Having the community really helped get me through this. I can’t overstate the outpouring of kindness is so important. There are hundreds of heroes in this community. Until this happened, I didn’t realize how powerful it is when your community holds you in their arms,” Shapiro said.
He said he feels a little stronger every day. Now, he is able to walk the entire block by Summit Park.
Shapiro has two more weeks left of chemotherapy. The chemotherapy should support his bones to make new cells. He’ll then have a bone marrow biopsy, and every couple of months from now on, he will get retested.
“It gives me a perspective on time and an understanding of congregants’ health problems. I’ve been there and held their hand through difficulties, but this is a real gift in that I can be more caring and empathetic,” he said.
His faith played a big role throughout the process.
“I definitely think God was with me the whole way, even pre-diagnosis. I kept talking to him, saying I know you’re with me.” He restudied the psalms, in particular, the story of King David’s faith.
If Shapiro met someone in his position, he said, he would simply give them a hug. That, and share the advice another rabbi gave to him.
“He said there are three things I need to remember: bitachon (faith), to stick with God; and secondly ratzon (will) to keep hoping; and savlanut (patience), which is most important. Everyone wants to just get through it, but it takes time.”