A story of an injured soldier; a singing surgeon; an army that said “yes!”; and the intersection of Judaism, biotechnology, Israeli priorities, and Chicago medicine.
Nothing prepares you for the full impact of Dr. Hagay Amir. He is a presence. Stocky and rugged, with firm hands and a deep voice he envelopes you with a soft gaze and makes you feel immediately at home. Never mind that the “home” where I met Amir and his wife Annette was a modest hotel room near the Northwestern University Medical School in Streeterville. You’d probably feel safe with Amir even in a makeshift battlefield operating room—a setting where he is no stranger.
A denim work shirt, jeans, and sneakers were his wardrobe the morning we met, and his curly dark hair was crowned with a knitted kipah. But to say that Amir is “religious” is to dismiss with one inadequate word the deeply spiritual nature of a man who, in fact, is a healer. He draws from deep wells of spiritual wisdom, medical knowledge, and human compassion, and focuses all those assets to accomplish his mission.
Amir’s mission right now is to complete Israel’s first fitting of a bionic arm, and to bring the breakthrough procedure to Israel, where he practices medicine at Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer.
“This all started when I met a young officer in the Israel Defense Forces who in the line of duty lost his arm very close to the shoulder,” Amir explained, as Stan, the soldier (not his real name) and his wife listened.
The story of Stan begins with Hagay and Annette Amir’s own story of beshert (destiny).
“If I hadn’t met Annette chances are I never would have been able to help Stan. Because if I hadn’t met Annette then I would have less connection to Chicago, and I maybe wouldn’t have had a connection to the bionic arm,” Amir said.
The Amirs met in Israel, but Annette is originally from Chicago (West Rogers Park). Amir’s work as a surgeon spurred him to learn more about rehabilitation. He decided to come to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago to study with Dr. Todd Kuiken, who is director of the Neural Engineering Center for Artificial Limbs and director of Amputee Services.
Kuiken is the inventor of the bionic prosthesis, which enables amputees to manipulate electromechanical limbs using nerve impulses. In essence, the wearer of the prosthetic device controls it the same way as a normal limb, by thought.
Along with Kuiken Amir is working closely with Dr. Gregory Dumanian, a surgeon at Northwestern Medical Faculty Foundation who devised innovative procedures to help patients regain function from peripheral nerves.
Stan’s candidacy for the new surgical procedure is another instance of beshert. Every year Amir is invited to serve as the chazan (cantor) for High Holiday services at Congregation B’nai Shalom in Buffalo Grove. And so every year he has a chance to meet with his old mentor, Kuiken.
“We had just discussed the procedures that Todd had perfected with his team at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, and when I came back to Israel I saw Stan. I was sure he is the person to get that bionic arm,” Amir said.
“I then spoke to the Surgeon General of the IDF [where Amir had served as the head of Orthopedic Services] and to the heads of the rehabilitation wings of the Defense Ministry, and I told them about the bionic arm. They’d never heard of it. I told them what it does and how it can help this young man get back a little of what he has lost. They all immediately got it; I didn’t have to elaborate. The minute I said what we can do, they said, ‘That’s what we have to do, there are no boundaries, whatever we need to do to get him that bionic arm, we’ll do.’”
Amir’s voice is persuasive. Hearing him sing a spiritual is like hearing Paul Robeson. And to hear him chant tehilim (psalms) or the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, is to feel Amir’s spiritual bond to his Judaism resonate with ever fiber.
“When Annette and I lived in Skokie I went and looked for synagogues, and I found that the shul that really welcomed me, where I felt at home the minute I came, was Rabbi Louis Lazovsky’s shul [Congregation Kesser Maariv]. The minute I started davening [praying] there they figured I could sing, so I started davening there almost regularly. For the High Holidays we found some connection to Buffalo Grove and I started going there to daven during the holidays.”
Amir has produced several CDs, which might garner him an audience beyond the synagogue and his other favorite singing venue, the operating room.
“I sing in the operating room all the time,” he said. “I like to sing with my patients. A lot of their treatments are done with local anesthetics, so while I’m operating I hum and sing and they are happy. One of them told me one day that when I was working I stopped humming. After the operation, he asked, ‘Is everything all right?’ ‘Yes, why?’ I asked. ‘You stopped humming!’”
As it happens, Amir also is a physiatrist (physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist) whose concerns encompass the entire mind-body-spirit connection. It’s a connection he seems fully to embody himself.
“Two main things drew me to medicine. One is chesed, giving kindness. My father and mother are both people of chesed and rooted inside me that a person has to give what he has.
“My father used to say that every person gets a gift from Hashem [God] when he comes into the world. He’s not allowed to hold it for himself. If he holds it for himself he didn’t do what Hashem wants him to do. And he goes to his grave with the gift.
‘If he comes to this world with this gift he has to start giving it out and sharing it with everybody else. And if he does the gifts stays in the world and everybody can enjoy it, everybody can live with it, can see the beauty of it. This is the gift of Hashem.
“So basically chesed is something that you give, and one of the biggest things that signify medicine is giving. I give myself to the patients. I give everything that I have to somebody else who needs it.
“When my father asked me what I want to do when I grow up, I said I want to do something that engulfs the whole of me. When you’re a doctor, all the time you’re a doctor. All the time people need you and the minute they need you, you have to go and give them what they need.”
What the world needs, it seems, is more Hagay Amirs.
For more information or to order a copy of Zemirot Mikol Ha'Edot (Shabbat songs from around the world) email Dr. Hagay Amir.