Vered Ben-Shimon speaks slowly, rolled up on a couch. She is frail and constantly short of breath. Once an Israeli dance teacher who worked out four times a week, she now sleeps 14 hours a day.
She cannot lift or take care of her 19-month-old son."I can’t do anything physical. I can’t drive," says Vered, 34.
The Huntington resident, who moved from Israel with her husband, Uri, in 1987, has been diagnosed with viral cardiomyopathy, or congestive heart failure.
"I need a new heart. I could die any day," she says.
But the Ben-Shimons cannot pay for a heart transplant that would save Vered. Last week they started a public campaign to raise money for the operation. The procedure and follow-up care will cost at least $250,000, Uri says. They need $150,000 to place Vered on a waiting list for a transplant.
"Nobody will talk to us until we have the money," says Uri, 40.
The Ben-Shimons, Israeli citizens, have no health insurance here. Medicare, which has helped pay for Vered’s recent hospitalizations and $300-a-month pharmacy bills, does not cover the expenses of such an expensive operation, she says.
"I have nothing to sell," says Uri, a house painter and artist who rents a small apartment with his wife. "If I had a house to sell, I would sell it."
Relatives back in Israel will try to raise some money, but returning to their homeland, which has an extensive medical insurance program, is no solution, Uri says. "Israel has a different problem: no hearts. People [with similar conditions] are dying there waiting for hearts."
Last week the couple began contacting synagogues, Jewish community centers and other Jewish organizations on Long Island.
"My wife, Vered, and I find ourselves in a troubling and frightening situation," says a letter they are distributing. "The cost of medical care and surgical expenses are far beyond our means. God will surely bless you for your help in this mitzvah of saving a life."
The first sign that something was wrong with Vered came one night in December. "I couldn’t breathe," she says.
She had sudden chest pains. The Ben-Shimons thought it was bronchitis. Visits to the emergency room and a battery of tests over the next few months determined the more serious problem.
Her doctor, Vered says, told her that her heart was probably damaged by a virus she contracted in giving birth to son Daniel, and that the organ operates at only 25 percent of its normal strength. A pacemaker was installed as a stopgap measure.
"At this time her condition has not improved as we had hoped," according to an evaluation signed by Dr. David Grossman, director of the regional heart failure center at North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in Manhasset. "It is my opinion, she should begin the process to evaluate her for a heart transplant given that her condition could deteriorate rapidly in the near future."
"Basically, her condition is not improving," Uri says. "Her condition goes up and down."
She has returned one recent morning from an overnight stay in the hospital. "Every little cold, every little thing, I have to run to the hospital," she says.
Lubavitch of Long Island is spearheading the fund-raising drive for the Ben-Shimons. Its executive director, Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, who has known the couple since they moved to Long Island, has established a special account at Fleet Bank with an initial deposit of $108. The rabbi has contacted the 14 Chabad-Lubavitch centers in Nassau and Suffolk, and prepared a letter in which he calls the couple "friends and congregants of Chabad Lubavitch of Commack for the past 12 years."
Vered and Uri have volunteered for several Chabad activities, Rabbi Teldon says. "They are always willing to help."
The rabbi has coordinated one similar campaign: for his son, Baruch Nissan, who developed severe complications of cystic fibrosis in 1990 and died in 1991. Rabbi Teldon raised some $150,000 for his son’s treatment.
"I feel a personal obligation" to another person facing a medical emergency, he says. "I want to do what I can." Spokesmen for the Israeli Consulate and UJA-Federation said the institutions may be able to provide limited financial help to those requiring major medical procedures, but cannot provide the funds that often total several hundred thousand dollars.
Rabbi Michoel and Shoshana Estreicher, a Lubavitch family in Commack, have taken Daniel into their home.
"They’re doing a mitzvah for us," Vered says.
The Suffolk Y has accepted Daniel into its day-care center at no cost.
"I can’t take care of my child. It’s terrible," Vered says.
"She can’t even lift him up," Uri adds.
Vered says she makes a few phone calls each day and reads a little bit. Uri has reduced his working hours to assist his wife at home.
"It’s taken a great toll on me," he acknowledges. "I thought I was a tough guy. I never asked for help … today we need help."
"I’m not a practicing Orthodox Jew, but in my heart I’m an Orthodox Jew," Uri says. "I daven every morning.
"I am having conversations with God: ‘What are you doing to us?’ " All of a sudden our prayers get answered in an awkward way.
"The only thing" Vered requests in her prayers, " he says, "is good health."
"I’m optimistic," Vered says. "Every morning I wake up I say, "Thank God I’m still alive."
For information on the fund-raising drive for Vered Ben-Shimon, contact Lubavitch of Long Island at 58 Commack Road, Commack, NY 11725, or call (516) 462-7383.