Passover is usually a happy time, but not this year for Dr. Aaron E. Glatt, who is both a rabbi in Hewlett and an infectious disease specialist at nearby Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital.
During the past month, the pandemic coronavirus has forced Glatt to agonize over numerous life-or-death situations and worry that the highly infectious illness, killing more than 580 Long Islanders so far, might spread further.
Of all these haunting images that Glatt said he has seen, none seems more tragic than the little boy he kept from saying goodbye in person to his 42-year-old father before the man died from the virus.
“I keep seeing the crying face of this 8- or 9-year-old boy and I’m having trouble getting him out of my mind,” recalled Glatt, who has four adult children and 15 grandchildren of his own. “I had to make the decision whether to let him go up to the ICU [intensive care unit] to see his father. I just didn’t think it was good mentally," nor physically, for the child, Glatt said.
Glatt, 61, chairman of the hospital’s Department of Medicine, says he and his colleagues have faced many dire medical situations caused by the virus — from quarantining infected patients from their loved ones, to scrambling for more ventilators so those afflicted with the virus can keep breathing.
These moments seem to require Solomon-like wisdom from Glatt, who worked for Catholic Health Services before joining Mount Sinai in 2015. “I see that poor child crying for his father and I don’t have any words as a doctor or any as a rabbi,” Glatt explained. “But I have complete faith that this is what God wanted and that gets me through it. I’ve dealt with death throughout my career, but it doesn’t make it any easier.”
There’s a bitter irony that the deadly height of the virus is expected to come this week when Jews are preparing for Passover and Christians are looking forward to Easter. “Unfortunately this has been a tragedy of untold proportions,” Glatt explained. “It is so sad to see both the medical, the emotional, psychological, spiritual wreaking of havoc that this virus has caused in every community, in every religion.”
At Mount Sinai South Nassau, an Oceanside hospital that is part of a larger regional system, Glatt has so far been able to gain access to enough ventilators so that he and other doctors aren’t forced to make difficult “triage” choices about who gets a breathing machine.
“I have significant religious problems in taking a person off a ventilator who doesn’t wish to be taken off,” Glatt said. “People don’t realize that when you take a person off a ventilator in this situation you are essentially killing them. That’s a horrible word to use. But we have to face the facts — if you take a person off a ventilator who needs that ventilator, they are going to die.”
A soft-spoken man with white beard, Glatt has answered all sorts of medical and religious questions prompted by the virus. His past work has appeared in The New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association. He is also the chair of the Rabbinical Alliance of America’s Halacha and Medicine Commission.
Locally, as an associate rabbi at Congregation Anshei Chesed in Hewlett, serving the Orthodox community in the Five Towns area of south Nassau County, Glatt has made sure religious traditions adapt to public health concerns — such as social distancing, rather than large gatherings, to prevent spreading the virus. Last month, this was a problem in hard-hit communities like Woodmere.
“Unfortunately, there were already cases present,” Glatt recalled. Many were asymptomatic and hard to detect, he said, ensuing that in “a close-knit community such as ours — as in any other close-knit community — that there will be spread [of the disease],” he explained.
But Glatt, invoking the memory of his parents, who were Holocaust survivors, is confident that Long Islanders will eventually overcome the ravages of this disease. “It’s going to be a difficult recovery for so many reasons, for so many people,” he said. “But we have to start that recovery now.”