(This article is a summarized translation of a feature by Smadar Shir, published in Yediot Aharonot)
Hadassah Medical Organization prides itself on always going the extra mile in medical care, but oncology nurse Tamar Madson-Grossman traveled more than most to give joy to a patient in his final days.
She took wheelchair-bound Omri Nissim to Lapland to see the northern lights two weeks before he died at the age of 37.
Their friendship began when Nissim, battling pancreatic cancer, was hospitalized in the oncology ward. Their bond was forged the night it became clear nothing further could be done to save his life.
“I finished a shift. I went into Omri’s room and found him completely broken,” says Madson-Grossman. “I approached his bed. He hugged me and we both started crying. Omri looked at me and said, ‘I’m going to die.’ To this day, I don’t know if it was a question or a statement.”
Madson-Grossman promised she would be with Nissim every step of the way. She explained that there are two recompenses to succumbing to cancer rather than other causes of death: Because you know ahead of time that you will die, you have the opportunity to make amends and say goodbyes; because most people know someone who has had cancer, there is also great sympathy toward sufferers. As a result of the latter, Madson-Grossman posted Nissim’s “bucket list” to Facebook.
Her post began with a question: “What would you do if they said you don’t have much time to live?” Nissim dreamed of working with wood – carpentry, engraving, or carving, learning archery, visiting an observatory and hearing an astronomy lecture, locating a Lego Technic 8855 prop plane, and seeing the aurora borealis, the northern lights.
The reaction was immediate, with thousands of people offering help or passing the message along. Nissim was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love. Oncology doctors at Hadassah got the ball rolling by treating Nissim to a meal and a lecture on astronomy. One by one his dreams were realized.
All but the trip to the Arctic.
Checking her posts, Madson-Grossman saw a message from Guy Gefen, an Israeli who had moved to Lapland two years earlier and was working as a tour guide. She asked Gefen when the best time to travel was. He told her if Nissim wanted to see snow, December was the best month. However, she knew he might not make it to the year’s end. The pair decided Nissim should travel as soon the lights first appeared in the fall.
In preparation, Madson-Grossman began collecting large quantities of drugs, getting permission to transport them, finding a portable oxygen generator, and looking for an agency that would agree to issue medical insurance.
The five-day trip was magical. “Omri was the real glow,” Madson-Grossman recalls. “He was a superhero.”
The trip had its difficult moments, such as the time Nissim was too weak to hold a cup, spilling its contents. But the ups were high. “Just minutes after he spilled his drink he was dancing in the kitchen with his partner and childhood sweetheart, Nurit Strick. It was five days of existential sadness and spiritual transcendence.”
Only 10 days after their return, Nissim was back at Hadassah. He was restless and little could ease his pain. Just 30 minutes after Strick left his bedside, he died on the evening of Friday, November 1.
As he passed, Madson-Grossman was on hand. “You can rest. We love you,” she told him.
“Fine,” he replied. “Those were his last words,” she recalled.
In the four months since Nissim’s death, Madson-Grossman meets his mother, Dita Nir, each Friday either at Nir’s home or at Nissim’s grave. It was Madson-Grossman who delivered the news of Nissim’s death. “Tamar is the greatest gift that Omri bequeathed to me,” says Nir. “Their connection was a spark of pure love. It touched him deep in his soul.”