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The power of faith and friendship

Englewood man triumphs over illness to win his doctorate

 
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At his graduation, Dr. David Feder is flanked by his wife, Orli Feder, and his mother, Naomi Feder.

This past year was particularly good for David Feder of Englewood. Dr. David Feder, that is.

Not only did he marry an “amazing” woman, but he earned a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from NYU Poly.

But Feder is older than the average student, and the road he traveled to his doctorate was a long and hard one. So hard, in fact, that had he not believed that “our prayers are heard and God is with us,” he might not have been able to continue.

A self-described “Englewoodian” — he lived there most of his life and attended the Moriah School there — Feder moved to Israel in 1984, studying at Har Etzion and serving in the Israel Defense Forces for several years.

“I went for a year, but I really knew it would be more,” he said.

But after starting a program in engineering at Tel Aviv University, he was called home in 1991, when his father became ill. He finished his undergraduate studies at Yeshiva University and then began work for his father’s company while pursuing a master’s degree.

In 1992, Feder was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.

“It’s an auto-immune disease that affects the colon and/or the ilium,” he said. “The immune system attacks your internal organs, causing lesions and ulcers. It’s very painful.”

Feder’s condition worsened until he became housebound, unable to function for some four years. Fortunately, he recovered, and when he felt well enough he returned to Israel in the hopes of getting a job.

His search proved unsuccessful.

“Everyone told me to go back and get some experience in engineering,” he said, noting that while he was in Israel, “I was not feeling well.”

Returning to the states with the intention of getting a job, he got sick within weeks.

“It was difficult to get up and go out,” he said, but when he was once again able to function, he attended a job fair sponsored by Columbia University and Polytechnic University.

“They said I was out of the field for too long and couldn’t apply for jobs as a new graduate,” Feder said. “But I [also] couldn’t compete with those who had work experience.”

Still, that job fair would prove to be a turning point, motivating him to go back to school for a one-year certificate that would enable him “to get my feet wet and go back to the workforce. I really loved it,” he said. “I had been home for so long and this was a chance to work and get out and do something. I gave it my whole neshamah.” In other words, he put his whole soul into his study.

While pursuing the certificate, he met the man who would help him shape his future. Professor Richard Gross, whom he describes both as his “boss/mentor” and “a kind of a father figure,” pointed him in a new direction, introducing him to the world of chemistry.

“I had originally chosen the instrumentation track, which is similar to systems engineering,” Feder said, differentiating between the two approaches to biomedical engineering. “Professor Gross introduced me to the world of chemistry, and because of him, I switched to polymer science.”

“It wasn’t my field,” Feder said. “I had no chemistry lab experience.”

Nevertheless, Feder impressed Gross so much with his ability and his drive that the professor suggested he consider a doctorate, with Gross as his adviser.

“I never thought of doing a Ph.D.,” Feder said. “And I was afraid of chemistry.”

Deciding to go for it — and taking an immuno-suppressant that apparently was working well — he spent the next five years doing research for his doctorate. But then, advised by his doctor to stop taking the medication because he appeared to be in total remission, he got sick once again.

This time, however, he developed a new range of symptoms, and the medication no longer seemed to work.

“It was getting much worse,” Feder said. “There were a lot of other symptoms, like joint degeneration and problems with my liver. I tried to push through the pain until I couldn’t do it anymore.”

The timing was terrible.

“After five years of Ph.D. work, I had just started to write my thesis,” he said. Now, he found himself in Holy Name Hospital with a severe blood disorder. “I didn’t think I’d survive,” he said. “But I got through it.”

With the worst behind him, he could once again begin to deal with his Crohn’s.

Feeling well enough by September to resume work on his thesis, Feder managed to finish it by the end of December. He defended the work in January and received his doctorate last week. When, as a Ph.D. recipient, he was hooded on the stage, Professor Gross “gave me a hug and said ‘You did it.’”

The new Ph.D. said that giving up never was an option.

“There was too much at stake,” he said. “I had worked too hard and gone through too much to give up.”

Still, he said, he could never have done any of it without the support of family, friends, and Professor Gross.

“He got me through every single step,” Feder said of his thesis adviser. “He was like a father figure. He stepped in when he saw I was sad and called me in [to talk]. He was that kind of person.”

For his part, Gross says he was impressed by Feder’s perseverance and by the fact that “after being sick for so long, the first time he had enough strength he would start working on his thesis. It was pretty amazing. He was determined to get this Ph.D.”

Gross said he took Feder under his wing because “I thought he had the ability, the drive, the interest. I look for certain characteristics in a person. Is he self-driven? Will he be able to problem-solve? David had those characteristics.”

While there was never any guarantee that Feder would be able to get through the program, “all you could do was hope,” Gross said. “Nobody knew what the outcome would be.”

Now, Gross said, the challenge is to get a job.

Gross said that Feder’s faith is “obvious. You could feel his spiritual side. That part of his life means very much to him.”

He said as well that he considers it part of his job “to leave the door open” so that students can come in and talk. Whether a student is dealing with an illness or is here from another country and missing home, “it’s pretty difficult,” he said. “One of the things I love about my job is developing a very special bond with the students that’s more than work.”

Feder, who got married last year to a woman who has “been with me through everything,” said his faith has helped sustain him through his long ordeal.

“You look at the world, how scary it is, even if you are healthy. If you feel that you are alone, that there’s no one in charge, it’s so easy to lose hope.”

While he continues to undergo treatments every five weeks that “knock me out for a few days,” he says it’s a small price to pay for what he has accomplished.

Shmuel Goldin, the rabbi of Congregation Avodath Torah in Englewood, has known Feder and his family for three decades.

“They were leaders of the shul,” he said. “I knew and respected his father deeply, and his mother is an extraordinary woman.”

While he was aware of Feder’s health issues over the years, his relationship with the longtime congregant deepened more recently when he helped guide the conversion process for Feder’s wife, YuFei Zhao, now called Orli by family and friends.

“He is a tower of quiet strength, someone whose sense of God’s presence in his life, and of God accompanying him during his journey, is very real and very natural,” Goldin said.

 
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