NEW YORK – Fifteen years ago, Haifa resident Guy Cohen faced a father’s worst nightmare when his six-year-old daughter, Netta, died on her first day of school.
She was a small little girl, her nose covered with freckles, and shiny bangs falling on each side of her forehead.
She died of cardiac arrest at the end of the school day, a tragedy that occurred completely out of the blue, Cohen told The Jerusalem Post, in remarks ahead of his participation this weekend in a New York swim event to raise funds for heart research.
“Cardiac arrest, until today is a complete mystery,” Cohen said. “Netta died suddenly, without any prior warning, without us knowing that anything was wrong... Maybe there was something we could have done,” he added.
Cohen is determined to help the experts seeking answers to the illness.
On Sunday, as an ambassador of Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center, Cohen will be the only Israeli to take part in the third annual 20 Bridges Swim, a full loop around Manhattan and one of the hardest swims in the world.
Cohen, an enthusiast in extreme sports, joined ranks with Rambam’s quest for a solution to the disease at a “Swim From the Heart” event held last year.
At the time, he had been training for his toughest mission to date: a 24-hour long swim. When he heard of Rambam’s initiative, it immediately struck home, and he decided to use his personal challenge to contribute to the cause.
Only 50 people in the world have ever swam for over 24 hours in salt water and Cohen is now officially one of them.
Beyond the physical challenge, the partnership with Rambam has also helped Cohen deal with the pain of Netta’s death, which he had repressed for many years.
At the time, he and Netta’s mother decided to “choose life” and move forward. They eventually separated and raised new families respectively, along with co-parenting Netta’s older sister Yuval. Today, Cohen has two more children: Noa and Matan.
“Netta is of course always there with us, anywhere we will go. It was important to continue, also for her,” he said. “But when I chose life, I closed that pain up inside me and it’s really been locked away deep inside for 15 years.
“It’s only the encounter with Rambam that revived everything and brought it back up to the surface,” he added. “Until then, people who met me over the years and didn’t know me back then, had no idea.
“Perhaps everything has its own a time and place,” he continued.
Swimming, Cohen told the Post, is an activity that requires much mental strength.
“When you run, you are part of the environment, you see people, you can talk, you smell things, you feel the weather, you can stop to rest, but in swimming, you are completely alone with yourself. The sense are not working. There is no smell, no hearing, no speaking, and no taste except for salt water that burns your throat.”
Being completely on his own in the water, he said, makes him think a lot about Netta and Rambam’s cause, which he finds therapeutic.
“You think of a lot of things and it has to be something that’s a bit more than just ‘Let’s do this,’ otherwise, on a mental level, how can you continue and not stop? You can’t stop to sleep or close your eyes. Part of the rules is also that you can’t touch anything, you have to be in constant movement,” he said.
The New York swim event is part of a Triple Crown of Open Water, a collection of three historically important swims, alongside the English Channel one between France and England as well as the Catalina Channel in California. The Manhattan swim should take Cohen about eight hours to complete.
“Here too I represent Rambam, Israel and myself, and I continue to advance the research on cardiac arrest,” he said.
Small boats will accompany each of the 12 swimmers. Cohen’s children and partner, Sigal, will be on his, cheering him on with Israeli flags.
“It helps me feel like I’m doing something; I’m helping avoid this,” he said. “I may not actually be doing the act itself, Rambam is doing that, but I’m contributing in a way and it completes the circle for me.”