Ronald Gold’s life is so dramatic that it’s hard to resist the temptation to start with a cliché.
The story of his life is about the moment when everything changed, the second that split it inexorably into before and after. The time when he almost died, when his understanding of himself in the physical world ended, when through great pain he was reborn.
But really, the person Mr. Gold became after the terrible accident that rendered him paraplegic was a logical outgrowth of the person he was before. His integrity, athleticism, ambition, courage, tenacity, brains, competitiveness, and strength — as well as, yes, his deep Jewish connections — not only saved his life but allowed him to embark on this next part of it.
Here’s what happened.
Ron Gold, who is 55, grew up in West Orange, going all the way through school at what was then the Solomon Schechter School of Union County and now has become the Golda Och Academy. “I grew up in the Conservative movement, but my parents were serial shul switchers,” he said, so the family belonged to three of them. He was active in Young Judaea, becoming regional president, and spent his gap year in Israel with that group.
During that year, he met Betsy August, who grew up first in Douglaston, Queens, and then in Florida. They got married in 1987, moved to Hillsdale, and had three daughters, Stephanie, Jacqueline, and Alexandra. Ms. Gold, a journalist, spent many years as the business editor of the Record of Hackensack.
“I grew up in a very Zionist household,” he said. “My mother, Sherry — she was Shifra then — was born in Lithuania in 1926, and came here in 1937. All her relatives who stayed died in the Shoah, so she felt that it was on her to carry on what they couldn’t.”
Next, he went on to the University of Pennsylvania, earning a double major — an undergraduate business degree at the Wharton School, and a bachelor’s degree in oriental studies (which since has been smoothed into Asian studies).
Back in this country, Mr. Gold went to work on Wall Street, and soon went back to college for an MBA from Columbia. Armed with that degree, he began to work selling Asian equities.
His father, Melvin, who died last year, “was brilliant in math,” Mr. Gold said. In fact, his father was a top actuary, very well-known in his field, with one of those minds that reveled in the dense mysteries that numbers pose to the rest of us. “He passed his actuarial exams on the first try,” his son boasted; that is a very difficult feat.
“I was good at math,” Ron Gold said. “Not like my father, but I was strong at it. It came easily to me. And I always wanted to work on Wall Street. It seemed very exciting. So what I did combined a lot of my knowledge, my skill in mathematics, my interests in history and geopolitics — it all came together. And I’ve always been personable, and I had no problem on the phone.
“It was a good fit.”
During his Wall Street career, Mr. Gold worked for Lehman Brothers, and then at Barclay’s.
“I liked the intensity,” he said. “I was at my desk at 6:30 in the morning. I’d sometimes get home at 6 or 7, but sometimes I’d go out at night for dinner with clients. I traveled a lot, both in the U.S. and in Asia.
“It was a very full day.”
Not only were the days full, so was the family’s life. All three daughters went to Solomon Schechter of Bergen County; the two older ones have been through the Young Judaea Year Course in Israel, and the third is about to begin it this school year. The family belongs to Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, where Mr. Gold was on the board, and to the Washington Township YJCC, on whose board he still sits.
The family went to Israel often; they hosted Israelis through the YJCC’s Open Hearts Open Homes program, and then visited them in their own homes on the other side of the world. Mr. Gold also kept up with some of the Israeli friends he had made through Young Judaea.
“I was a big athlete,” Mr. Gold said. “A very good skier. I cycled, I ran, I did yoga. I worked out at the Y or outside. It was a very big part of my life.”
He and a group of friends were serious cyclists; just about every weekend, three or four of them would ride for hours on the scenic, hilly, curving roads of northern Jersey and Rockland County.
It was a good life.
Still, before his own nightmare, when things were still good, Mr. Gold had a close-up of a national trauma.
“I was at the World Financial Center on 9/11,” he said. “I saw the wing drop off the first plane. I was next to the window, on the third or fourth floor. I heard it, and I looked up and saw that the building was on fire.
“I went out, and I saw people jumping. I will never forget how shocking it was, how long it takes for someone to fall.
“I saw a piece of the wing fall on the ground, on fire, and then I saw a person on fire. I saw him rolling on the ground, trying to put the fire out.
“They told everyone to stay in the building, because in 1993,” when the World Trade Center was bombed, “they did the opposite thing. But after the second plane hit, they told everyone to leave. That’s when we walked out, and saw people jumping.
“I usually got home by ferry to Hoboken, but I couldn’t leave, because the towers were on fire. Everything was all covered with smoke, a cloud of smoke, but then I heard a loud noise. I knew that something had fallen but I didn’t know what, I didn’t know it was the tower because I couldn’t see it because of the smoke.
“And then when the second tower fell, I had a clear view of that, looking south.
“I kept walking north. At that point, I knew that it was a terrorist attack. And it was such a beautiful day.”
When he finally got a boat from the Chelsea Piers and arrived in Hoboken, “they hosed us all down, and they took everybody’s blood pressure,” he said.
Still, he recovered from that; for some time he twitched whenever a plane flew overhead, and because his house was under a flight path to Newark, that happened not infrequently. But he was a frequent and nerveless flier. Life returned to normal.
And then, just about 10 years later, on Thanksgiving weekend in 2011, “I wasn’t going to go riding, but it was a gorgeous day,” Mr. Gold remembered. “It was so hot that we took our vests off, and left them at a 7-Eleven on the way.
“We were coming back from our ride. Perry,” one of the four men on the ride, “lived in Upper Saddle River, and he had just turned off to go home, and Marvin,” another rider, “stopped at a bike shop.
“I was right behind Zach” — Dr. Zachary Orden of Hillsdale, Mr. Gold’s next-door neighbor and the third rider. “I was right on his wheel, my eyes were on his wheel so that I wouldn’t ride into him. And then all of a sudden I see this SUV go into Zach in the road, Upper Saddle River Road. She,” the driver, “had fallen asleep. She was just a couple of miles from home, and she thought that she could make it, but she blacked out on the curve.
“She hit Zach, and he went flying. And then she hit me head on.
“I saw it all in a flash, and all I could think of was ‘Keep your head above the hood.’ I know that if I had tried to make a sharp turn to avoid her, I wouldn’t have made it, and if I had fallen, I would have been dead.
“That’s the last thing I remembered for several weeks.”
Dr. Orden, a dentist, remembers more of the accident.
Unlike Mr. Gold, who remembers the day as glorious, the way 9/11 had been, he says that it was “crummy.” But he was a serious rider — he had been a good rider as a teenager, dropped it for some time, was inspired by Mr. Gold, and took it up in great earnest, riding in races and endurance events, loving it.
“Initially, Ron was the stronger rider, but as time went by I had more time to ride” — unlike Mr. Gold, who had to commute to work, Dr. Orden’s practice is local — “and so eventually I became the stronger rider.
“That’s probably why I was in front of Ron when it happened. I was pulling.
“Generally, the stronger rider pulls. It’s a real effect, and you can feel it — you are literally being sucked along by the other person, who is breaking through the wind. As soon as you get close enough to someone, you don’t have to pedal as hard.
“We were coming around a turn on East Saddle River Road, just north of the post office,” he said. “If you are headed north, the road makes a right turn, and then a left turn. And then, around the second turn, headed south, I see a vehicle headed toward us, a dark SUV. I didn’t remember that I screamed out to the driver, but later the prosecutor said that the passenger heard me scream, ‘What the f••• are you doing?’
“The next thing I know, I am staring at the sky, and people are hanging over me, asking me what is my name.
“I think that as I was traveling through the air, I might have heard a loud bang.
“When I came to, there was a nice red-haired female EMT hovering over me. I knew right away that Ron was in worse shape than I was, because she wanted us to both go into helicopters, but she had only one available. She said okay, he — Ron — had to go into the helicopter, and told me that they were going to throw me into an ambulance.
“I think I remember the ambulance making the right around the entrance ramp onto Route 17, but the rest of the time I was knocked out. I think I remember arriving at Hackensack Medical Center.”
Dr. Orden’s pelvis was shattered, and his left hand was damaged. Given everything, though, he was lucky. The surgical team that took care of him was very good and he had been in prime physical condition; his hip replacement took, his hand was repaired, and after a stay at Kessler and a great deal of physical therapy, he was able to go back to dentistry. “I count my blessings,” he said.
Mr. Gold’s injuries were much more severe; had he not been in such good physical shape, it is unlikely that he could have survived them.
He was in an induced coma in the hospital in Hackensack for about three weeks — “when I came out, all I could remember was the neurosurgeon coming in to tell me that I would never walk again, and he had to come back several times before it sank in” — in intensive care for two months, in the hospital for three months, and in Kessler for physical therapy for five months. “I would cry myself to sleep, and think that when I woke up, the bad dream would be over,” he said. “But it never was.
“The spinal cord is very complicated. With all the medical advances, they still haven’t been able to figure out how to get above the level of the injury.”
Eventually, Mr. Gold was discharged. “Now I was supposed to be able to re-engage with society, but I was nowhere close to that,” he said.
“They send you home, and leave you there. I had some physical therapy at home, covered by insurance, and I had some nurses from Visiting Nurse Services who came because I was getting antibiotic infusions and wound care.
“The antibiotics went on for several years. It ended last fall, when I developed an infection from them. I almost got sepsis and died. After that, they stopped with the infusions, and I have been able to keep the infections away. I have found that standing is good for my circulation and my bones.”
Soon after his discharge, the Golds moved to a townhouse in Saddle River, which is much more convenient for him. He can drive a specially equipped car, and he can walk, leaning on a walker, with what looks like superhuman determination and upper body strength.
But how to pay for all of this? How can it possibly work?
“After maybe eight weeks, caregiving stops. Insurance stops covering it, and so you are on your own. I had to decide what to do.
“I could continue with the agency that supplied the caregivers, but pay it out of my own pocket. It costs $25 an hour, but the caregiver is only making $10 or $11. And I will need it indefinitely. So I started thinking, well, why don’t I hire a caregiver privately? And as I start speaking to people, I realize that they hire a caregiver privately because it is cheaper, and because you get to choose who cares for you, and you can control the care without the middleman stepping in.
“I need care only two hours a day, and the usual minimum for an agency is four hours.” Agencies tend to be rigid about such things, he added.
On the other hand, “the advantage to an agency is that it screens people and provides backup.”
As Mr. Gold considered his situation, he also thought about his parents; his mother and his father needed assistance as they aged. (His mother still lives in Five Star in Teaneck.) Most people who need such care, he realized, are more like his parents than they are like him.
“So Betsy and I thought that this doesn’t make sense. All these people want to hire care privately, and the estimates are that many people do it privately, but the probability is that generally they do it in an underground market.
“It’s a neighbor’s uncle’s friend, say, someone at least two degrees removed from whoever gave you the recommendation. That seemed crazy. We are in the 21st century, and I am supposed to take a recommendation from someone who is two or three degrees removed? And that person may not be available, may not be appropriate, may have a criminal record, probably will have no backup, and probably is not paying taxes.
“People love doing that, though. They feel more comfortable with the word of mouth recommendations than they do going through an agency. It’s not just the cost, although the expense is a large part of it — it’s also the idea of a personal reference, even if it is so removed. Even if it is that you finally get someone on the phone, and that person says ‘I’m not available, but my cousin is.’
“It’s like a kid’s game of telephone.”
So the Golds ran focus groups, and “the message that came through loud and clear is that people will bend over backwards not to go through an agency if they are paying out of pocket. So much so that if they have caregivers who they found through word of mouth and they knew were stealing from them, they’d put their stuff out of reach rather than switch caregivers.
“Once people are in that situation, inertia keeps them going. They don’t know what else to do.”
And sometimes, he said, real relationships develop. Sometimes patients and caregivers feel great loyalty toward one another; sometimes that is wise, sometimes it is not.
So here was Ron Gold. He could no longer work at the job that had sustained him, but he had energy, drive, a fierce need to change things, to do things, to move forward. Here was Betsy, supporting him, ready to work too.
What to do?
“We figured that if so many people prefer to hire through word of mouth, but there is no clearinghouse or forum or network to find people, there really should be.” There were such sites for childcare, he added, but none for the kinds of services that interested him.
“So we said, why don’t we address this?
“Why don’t we meet each caregiver, and create a network of caregivers? We will meet each one, spend time with them, vet them.
“Can they work legally? Are they over 21? Are they experienced? Do they have at least two references from people we can hear from, not just from agencies? We wanted to create a network that would offer the same peace of mind we would have if these people were caring for my parents.”
That’s how LeanOnWe was created.
LeanOnWe, at www.leanonwe.com, is an exchange where people in need of care and caregivers are matched. It’s a business, but it’s also a passion, and a place where Mr. Gold pours a great deal of himself.
“I want to speak to every caregiver and the family they cared for,” he said. “I want to hear in their own words how they know each other, and I want to vet them. I want a real background check. We started off with an Internet check, but we realized that it leaves a lot of holes. That’s not good enough. We need a fingerprint check — that’s the highest level that you can do.
“And then we want to sit down with them and get to know them, understand their history, and help them create a bio and an online resume. And then we shoot a video.
“If someone goes online, they can see the actual references, dictated to us, they can get a summary of work history, and an idea of the skills people have and the work they’ve done.
“It’s amazing how much you can tell about somebody in a 60-second video,” he said.
LeanOnWe charges prospective patients and their families a one-time $395 fee. The website explains the fee and much more in clear detail.
LeanOnWe started in the fall; since then, Mr. Gold has gone to hospital, rehabilitation centers, and independent living facilities to discuss it. “We are now recommended on the private pay list at hospitals like Hackensack, Mount Sinai, New York Presbyterian, Memorial Sloan Kettering, Jersey City Medical Center, Kessler, and Helen Hays,” he said; he plans to call on local medical centers, including Englewood and Holy Name, soon. “We also have met with a lot of geriatric care managers,” he said. The group’s coverage area includes New York City’s five boroughs, northern and central New Jersey, Rockland and parts of Orange, Putnam, and Dutchess counties in New York, and Fairfield County, Connecticut.
Meanwhile, the legal system that should have dealt with the accident that crippled Mr. Gold and left Dr. Orden with a regrown pelvis and implanted hip seems to have failed them.
The woman who hit them, Darshana Gandhi, is a real estate agent in her late 50s, who lived in Upper Saddle River and had been driving a late-model Lexus. She was coming back from a shopping trip at Riverside Square when she hit and nearly killed the two men.
“She had crappy insurance coverage, and didn’t even have a umbrella policy,” Dr. Orden said. “Everybody should have that — it’s also known as an excess liability policy. It is considered one of the greatest bargains in the insurance agency.
“We did an asset search, which determined that she didn’t have a lot of assets,” he continued. “People can live flashy lives but on their last nickel.” On the other hand, they also can hide those assets.
At first, he said, the prosecutor’s office seemed eager to prosecute the case — Ms. Gandhi was charged with two counts of fourth-degree assault. Not surprisingly, he said, she said nothing either to him or to Mr. Gold, although both of them showed up in court.
“When we were in court for the hearing, she would stay in the hallway until right before the session,” Mr. Gold said. “She didn’t want to be in the courtroom where she would have to look at me.
“She never apologized. She never reached out.”
Dr. Orden agreed. He has two brothers who are criminal defense attorneys, and both assured him that she could not possibly say anything until all the legal matters were over, and that she reasonably might not want to put anything in writing even after that, but she made no attempt to get in touch with either of them ever.
If she is sorry, if she has nightmares, if her equanimity is at all disturbed by what she has done, the two men she harmed, one of them grievously, do not know it.
Ms. Gandhi claimed to have fallen asleep, but then she was diagnosed with something called transient global amnesia, which would have mimicked drowsiness. Dr. Orden finds that odd, because the young man who was her passenger said that she had said she was feeling sleepy and they had put the radio on to keep her awake on the rest of the short trip home. But the prosecution agreed to have her examined by a doctor, and that doctor’s diagnosis agreed with Ms. Gandhi’s. The case was dropped — prosecutors told neither Mr. Gold nor Dr. Orden of that decision — and because Ms. Gandhi was not convicted, the two men decided not to bring a civil case against her. It was time to move on, Dr. Orden said. It would have cost them both too much, in both money and emotion, to pursue what might have been a losing case.
“My life has changed completely,” Mr. Gold said. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think about the accident, and that I don’t wish that I could go back to life as it was before that, but at some point, if not embracing it, I have accepted what’s happened.
“I have friends who have dealt with much tzuris. I get that this stuff is supposed to happen to other people, but it happened to me. And I still think that I have a lot to offer. Not only does this business do good for other people, it has done good for me. It has allowed me to re-engage with society and find something with a purpose, something that excites me.”