Zehava, 36, developed a rare and life-threatening gynecological disease that spread to her lungs and made it impossible for her to do the most basic tasks, like walk or go to work. The Jewish-Iranian wife and mother of two spent months isolated in a hospital in Iran, with no hope.
“It was a bad dream,” Zehava said.
But a dramatic turn of events saved Zehava from what she believed was her tragic destiny. In a wheelchair and attached to an oxygen tank, she left Iran and made her way to the Promised Land to receive life-saving treatment, with the help of an Israeli doctor from Sheba Medical Center.
“I’m sitting here in my office and two ladies come to see me, and they say they are the aunts of a patient in Iran who has something wrong with her lungs,” Dr. Amir Onn, head of Sheba’s Institute of Pulmonary Oncology, recalled.
“They’re showing me medical papers in Persian. I have no idea what they’re talking about or how I could even communicate with this patient.”
The women instructed Onn to get in touch with their niece, Zehava, via WhatsApp. At first he refused, out of concern that the communication could be intercepted, and that he and Zehava would be accused of espionage. But Onn did not want to just say no. So he gave the aunts his telephone number to pass on to Zehava, and said she could reach out to him — assuming she would not do so.
That was mid-afternoon on Dec. 1, 2020. At 6:24 p.m., Zehava had sent him a WhatsApp message.
“I have seen patients from across the ocean and in other countries, but this was the most bizarre interview I have ever had with a patient,” Onn recalled. “She is in Iran, and I am here in Tel Aviv, and we speak as if she is just across the street.”
Jews have lived in Iran for more than 2,500 years. The Tomb of Mordechai and Esther, the heroes of the Purim story, is located in the Iranian city of Hamedan.
Today, there are only around 8,500 Jews living in the country, according to Iran’s most recent report on its population authority website — the largest Jewish population in the Middle East outside of Israel. The majority of the community fled in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Around 250,000 Iranian Jews are living in Israel, and the rest of the once flourishing community are spread out around the world.
“I was sure from the very beginning that someone was pulling my leg,” Onn said with a laugh. “No one believed me when I told them.”
The few that did warned him not to do anything.
“My son was in an intelligence unit in the army, and he told me not to talk to her because it was too dangerous,” he said.
Onn ignored the advice and kept the conversations going.
“We were chatting many times a day and we had video calls,” Zehava said. “Yes, it was dangerous,” she admitted, “but there was no other way. I had to do this in order to get help.”
Zehava, a computer engineer by training, speaks fluent English, which enabled them to communicate. The medical records, however, were in Persian. Onn blacked out Zehava’s confidential information and found a resident whose mother spoke Persian to help translate the papers. The resident’s mother had no medical background, so it was not easy, according to Onn, but it got the ball rolling.
Zehava had been diagnosed with a medical condition associated with a gynecological disease that, like a cancer, had spread, in her case to the lungs. As a result, lesions developed, causing her significant difficulty in breathing. And the situation was worsening by the day.
“When they discovered my disease in Iran two years ago, all the doctors told me there was no treatment and I should just live with it until I died,” Zehava said.
The situation became even more acute when, as the coronavirus pandemic raged through Iran, she caught the virus and developed severe disease. Zehava was put in an induced coma and hooked up to a ventilator, unable to see her children for two months.
Zehava connected Onn with her non-Jewish Iranian doctor via WhatsApp, and they spoke for months.
“It was very impressive that he was allowed to communicate freely,” said Onn. “I don’t know if someone was on the other side of the room or on the other side of town monitoring the communication, but it was purely for medical purposes.”
Consulting with Sheba gynecologist Dr. Jacob Korach, Onn provided advice to the Iranian physician — until one day he just disappeared. Zehava’s doctor had been forced to flee Iran for England. After that, he refused to communicate.
But Onn “always gave Zehava hope,” her Israeli aunt, Daliah Tzadiki, told JNS. “He would say that if she could come to Israel, he could take care of and treat her. Zehava heard this, and she knew she had to come.”
Onn remembers that it was Zehava who had faith in him.
“She was sure I was the one who could save her, and I was doing my best to help, but I was not really doing anything,” he said. “I never proposed her coming here because I did not think it was a fair suggestion. It did not occur to me that someone could leave Iran in 2021. I thought it was impossible.”
In reality, it is not hard for Jews to leave Iran, “but if we leave we cannot go back. I can never go back,” Zehava said.
She said this is especially the case if a Jew wants to visit or move to Israel.
“If they [Iranian authorities] understand [that you plan to travel to Israel], they will stop you and arrest you,” Zehava said. “I did not let them understand.”
Instead, she left her elderly parents in Iran and quietly bought a ticket to Turkey, in hopes that from there she would be able to enter Israel. She knew she was unlikely to ever see them again.
The family flew to Istanbul in what was a remarkably challenging mission, and arrived at the Israeli consulate in the country. There she presented a letter from Onn about her emergency condition and was admitted to Israel. She has since made aliyah.
She arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport on a Monday. The next day, she checked into Sheba’s emergency department, where she was given the medicines and other care she needed. While her treatment is not over, Zehava will live.
One month later, Zehava can walk again, and is no longer constantly connected to an oxygen tank.
“Dr. Onn gave me back my niece,” Tzadiki said. “No one believes that she came back to life.”
For his part, Onn said the message is “never give up” — even when tasks seem impossible.
And Zehava? She is just grateful:
“I have my life, thanks to G-d,” she said with joy, “and after G-d, thanks to Dr. Onn.”