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Rabbi Stephen Fuchs: two heart surgeries later and still making a difference

By Staff | Dec 13, 2017

Several months ago, I spotted an announcement in this paper that Stephen Fuchs was coming to Sanibel as the new Rabbi for Temple Bat Yam. I decided to email him about this year’s Sanibel/Captiva Heart Walk since Bat Yam has had a team walking every year. I expected a polite response; I did not expect to find someone who had two heart surgeries, would so generously share his experiences and agree to be the featured survivor at this year’s Heart Walk

Rabbi Fuchs’ story started in Nashville, where he served a congregation after earning his doctor of ministry degree from Vanderbilt University Divinity School. In a routine checkup by his internist the doctor detected an abnormal murmur and sent him to a cardiologist for an echocardiogram. He was diagnosed with aortic stenosis, a progressive condition that would eventually result in the need for open heart surgery. It wasn’t urgent since had no symptoms. The question was how long to wait. Fuchs knew that as people age other physical conditions may arise, eventually making the surgery riskier.

Several years later, he and his cardiologist decided it was time and scheduled the surgery for July 1, 1996. The date was chosen to give time to recuperate before he was to officiate at his niece’s wedding and for the High Holy Days in September. His surgery was successful, but after 10 days at home he seemed to be regressing. His wife Vickie took him to see the cardiologist at the hospital and after a 5-minute exam they zipped him up to the operating room to treat pericardial effusion (fluid around his heart). The reality hit hard; despite his planning he was not going to be ready in time for his niece’s wedding. Although he had a mechanical heart valve and was taking coumadin, he eventually recuperated and returned happily to his sports passion: tennis.

A year later Stephen and Vickie Fuchs moved to Connecticut to lead a new congregation. His new doctors monitored him closely, doing an echocardiogram every four to six months. After 14 years with the West Hartford congregation he was ready to see more of the world. He became president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and travelled for 18-months. During that time he made 65 visits on five continents and lived both in Israel and in New York City.

In 2012, his cardiologist became concerned about his mechanical heart valve and also discovered an aneurism. Rabbi Fuchs learned that repairing an aneurism and replacing a valve during the same operation was not routine. He and Vickie did extensive research and they decided on a specific surgeon at Cleveland Clinic. After he had scheduled his surgery life threw another monkey wrench into his plans. Fuchs parted ways with his employer – not a positive prelude to heart surgery.

After heart surgery depression is very common. Questions like “what should I do with the rest of my life?” have a new urgency. The period that followed Fuchs surgery was difficult, but the enforced quiet time made space for Fuchs to finish the book he’d had in his head for 40 years. During his time in Cleveland, Rabbi Fuchs became an active Facebook user and discovered how meaningful words of encouragement from friends and former acquaintances can be.

Through coincidental connections Rabbi Fuchs and Vickie ended up going to Milan and Germany for the next few years. Germany was a strange place for two people whose parents had suffered at the hands of the Nazis, but led to some fulfilling experiences. Fuchs spoke in more than 20 churches where a rabbi had never spoken before and where many of the worshippers had never seen a living, breathing Jew. Fuchs speaks of this period as providing “divine interventions” in his life and path forward.

It was pure serendipity that led Rabbi Fuchs to learn of and accept the position as Rabbi at Temple Bat Yam. How many times do you get to consider a position based in Sanibel that involves a commitment only from September through April? The people of Sanibel are fortunate to have him here to exemplify his message, that the essence of Jewish values are found in concrete acts of caring and kindness that make a difference in the lives of others.

Please join Rabbi Fuchs and Vickie for the fifth annual Heart Walk. It takes place on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018. Festivities for the walk begin at 2 p.m. and the non-competitive, family-friendly walk begins at 3 p.m. at Sanibel Community House, 2173 Periwinkle Way. Walkers enjoy a safe, closed loop, and may do as many as laps as they wish to complete a 3.2-mile 5K or optional one-mile course. The Sanibel/Captiva Trust Company and Il Cielo are once again the Platinum Sponsors for the walk. To join a team or donate please visit www.SanibelCaptivaHeartWalk.org . If you are interested in becoming one of our sponsors or for further information regarding the walk, please contact Lee Heart Walk Director Kelly Glewa at (239) 340-2407 or Sandy Teger (973) 420-3233. The social media hashtag for the walk is #sancapheartwalk.