Growing up in 1980s New York as an immigrant from Israel without knowing a single word of English was no easy task for Roney Zeltser, but thankfully he had help.
Being one of 30 children in a school classroom, Zeltser found himself lost in the shuffle. In an attempt to help become better acclimated with the English language, he was pulled back a grade, but it had little positive effect until a teacher took him under her wing.
Antoinette Messina spent many one-on-one hours with Zeltser until the boy could speak as well as any other child in the school. This kind deed led to a unique bond and close friendship between the pair. In the years to come, Zeltser would often refer to his beloved teacher as a guardian angel but as time wore on, they lost contact — until February of 2021.
In the years since his boyhood struggle, Zeltser became a physical therapist for MJHS Home Care, a 20-year occupation in which the now 42-year-old prides himself on helping others.
Still, it was business as usual one January morning after Zeltser had finished up a visit to a patient at MJHS Hospice and Palliative Care, who was bedridden when a thought struck him.
“I was sitting in my car, and it just came to me ‘Wow, wait a minute’—the name and the face—everything connected, and I thought that might be my first-grade teacher. It had to be a message from God,” Zeltser told amNewYork Metro.
Zelster ran back upstairs and asked the patient’s husband for information concerning her former line of work, to which he responded, “A teacher.”
From that moment on Zelster was determined to help the woman who had taken the time to guide him so many years prior all the way back in first grade, but the process would not be easy.
Messina was not only unable to move at that time, but she also suffered from dementia, and was deep within hospice care. However, in the mind of the physical therapist the stars had aligned, and this was meant to be.
“It was tough to get her back and you know we worked really hard, and we just pushed. I physically got her up and just walked with her and said ‘We gotta get that muscle memory back.’ This is that crucial time where it could either go this way or the other. It worked and she came back and is now doing wonderful,” Zelster said.
Following several months of grueling physical therapy and spades of determination by both Messina and Zelster, the woman who had spent 40 years teaching has not only returned home, but she can also even travel with the help of a walker.
“I did a good job,” Messina said, referring to her teaching skills as she sat beside Zelster one week after her 90th birthday.
Although some days are better than others in terms of her memory loss from dementia, she still chats with Zelster about her old school days, remembering that he was a shy boy. Even now, Messina takes great pride in her teaching ability.
“Children are afraid of losing. If you can get them talking and make them feel that the lessons are not hard, they can do it and they get it,” Messina told amNewYork Metro.
Messina’s husband, John, and daughter, Catherine, credit the beloved wife and mother’s recovery to the special bond she shares with Zelster and is endlessly thankful to the physical therapist for his steadfast determination.
“She can even go outside for coffee now,” Catherine said, beaming with pride.
For Zelster though, this is the only result he was looking for after everything he says he owes to his teacher.
“I made a commitment to her that no matter what: hospice, homecare, I will always be there for her,” Zelster said, explaining that he now visits at least twice a week. The student has now become the teacher, and after their work together — family.
Still, no credit can be taken from Messina, who fought tooth and nail to return home.
“I never give up!” she exclaimed.