Weekly Chasidic Story # 1379 (5784-36) 5 Iyar5784 (May 13, 2024)

"Double Jeopardy"

"It's not like I woke up one morning and wanted to donate a kidney," he said. "My own nine children, ages 2 to 14, are my first priority."

Why This Week? The Jewish month of Iyar is often referred to as the "Month of Healing"-primarily because the four letters that spell Iyar in Hebrew are an acronym for G-d's holiest name.

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The Double Organ Donator


Compiler's Note: In 2009 I filed a news story about a Chasidic kidney donator in my "Future" folder. This week I finally decided to use it. While editing it one last time, I thought to google him in the hope to see his current health status. To my total astonishment, I discovered that in 2019, he had donated again-this time a part of his liver!! So: on to the old story and then to the newer!

Part A: The Kidney

"It's not like I woke up one morning and wanted to donate a kidney," said Simon, who serves as the Chabad Rabbi in Teaneck, New Jersey. "My own children, ages 2 to 14, are my first priority."

He recounted how a woman named Chaya Lipshutz in Tsfat, Israel, had been posting for years on Teaneck Shuls about people who needed kidney donors. "I would read them, and sigh, and go on with my day. I have nine little children and it was not something I would envision doing." However, one such posting touched him deeply. "In August 2008, Lipshutz posted about a 12-year-old girl - how could I let a 12-year-old girl die? I have a daughter who is 12.

"I spoke to my wife about it. We discussed it intensely; we could not let a 12-year-old girl die." When he called a few days later to offer to test for the youngster, the need had already been met.

"My wife was very relieved. But I felt if I could do this for her, I could do it for someone else in a similar situation." He was tested as a donor for the next two postings, a 40-year-old mother of two and a 30-year-old male, but he did not match. "OK," he thought. "I can't give this kidney away."

Then, in the spring of 2009, Simon, 41, learned of a 51-year-old father of 10 who desperately needed a kidney [and who asks that his name be withheld]. "After Purim I was tested. About one hour before the Passover Seder I got a call from the hospital: 'Rabbi Simon, you match.'

"Since I'm a Chabad rabbi, in the summer we have childrens' summer camp to run. I asked if it was OK to wait until after camp ends."

Camp ended on Aug. 7, and the following week the two surgeries were performed at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/ Weill Cornell Medical Center.

"Eighty thousand people need kidneys. The amount of people willing to donate is not that many," said Simon. "Live kidneys from living donors are healthier, and last longer."

Lipshutz states in her postings that "99 percent of the time there are no complications for the donor. As for the recipient, there's about a 5 percent chance that the kidney will fail."

Simon explained that he did extensive research. "There are risks," he said, "but they are minimal. A donor will go through life with one kidney, but you have plenty of kidney function with one kidney to live a long, healthy life.

"If I put on a scale the risks and rewards, and I can save a human being, and give a father of 10 back to his children and a husband back to his wife, that reward outweighs the risk," said Simon. "I can't live my life afraid of tiny risks. Every time we get in a car we take risks. It is such a small risk to save a life."

Simon reported that in the process of screening you are asked if you are getting any money to be a donor. "I responded that I wouldn't sell this mitzvah for anything in the world. My two motivations were to save his life and be an example for my children," he said.

"My younger ones don't completely understand. The older ones said, 'Wow, that's amazing.' The real hero in all this is my wife, Nechama. She has been very supportive from the minute I came to her about the 12-year-old girl. For my wife it's a much bigger sacrifice. When you have nine children you need both parents hands-on. I live to make life easier for my wife and this will temporarily not make life easier for her."

A major goal of Simon's was the lesson he could provide for others. He was disturbed by the recent scandal involving Jews in New Jersey selling kidneys. "I hope that my operation taking place at the same time will show that there are good people as well, and it will be a kiddush HaShem [sanctification of G-d's name].

"I'm a rabbi and I teach my congregation and children how important it is to give," he continued. "G-d put us here to help others.... My children should see what it means to be a Jew and to sacrifice for others. I told my older children, 'You all are one of my main motivations for doing that, so that you should have an example.'

"The rabbi's greatest sermon is the way he lives his life," said Simon.

"The kidney started working right on the operating table for him. In 48 hours he had completely normal kidney function," Simon reported. "It was just an amazing experience, right up there with the birth of my nine children," said Simon. "Here's a man who was dying and now he's a healthy man. It's so rewarding to see that and to see the looks on his and his wife's faces. They said, 'What can we say? What is thank you? It doesn't begin to touch the surface.'

"I told him, 'Thank you for giving me this wonderful opportunity,'" said Simon. "I really feel that way. I don't want him or his wife to feel any obligation. It's my incredible honor. He shouldn't feel that he owes me anything ever. G-d could have just as easily made me the recipient."

Lawrence Milstein, a Teaneck resident who attends a class offered by Simon, said that the rabbi's deed has inspired others in the community. "We have all in certain situations turned to each other and said, 'If Rabbi Simon can donate his kidney, I can at least do such and such.' For some it is stretching to give more time and or money to worthy causes at a time when we are all feeling the economic pinch, or it is committing to being a better parent, spouse, or friend...We are certainly taking other actions in our own lives to make a positive impact."

Part B: The liver

What do you say to the person who has chosen to save your life? For their initial phone call, Adam Levitz wracked his brain for the right words to offer Chabad Rabbi Ephraim Simon, a man he had never met but was willing to donate him a portion of his liver.

Levitz, who turned 45 in January, was battling death due to a rare autoimmune disease, "primary sclerosing cholangitis" (PSC), that was slowly destroying his own liver.

"I wanted to call him, but how do you start that conversation? Saying thank you doesn't seem enough," states Levitz, who lives in Long Island, New York with his wife and three children. "Especially since he had given so much already."

A New Jersey resident, Simon - age 50, married and the father of nine - donated a kidney in 2009 to another stranger in need. If he were to donate a lobe of his liver, he would be one of a handful of people in the United States who are dual living-organ donors - and the fourth to do so at Cleveland Clinic.

Rabbi Ephraim Simon with his wife, children and the spouse of the married ones. (Courtesy: Rabbi Ephraim Simon)

Getting to that point was a six-year ordeal for Simon. Just three years after his kidney donation, he felt a calling to give a portion of his liver, too.

"I was so grateful to be able to bring somebody back their health, to save a human life," he explains. "I wanted that opportunity again. My biggest challenge was finding a hospital that would accept me."

According to Federico Aucejo, MD, liver surgeon and surgical director of the Liver Cancer Program, most centers refuse to accept previous kidney donors as liver donors because they consider it risky and too much for one person to undergo.
"These are very special situations that must be considered on a case-by-case basis," says Dr. Aucejo. "At Cleveland Clinic, we carefully evaluate the donor's physical and psychological condition. Based on his results, we found Simon to be both physically and psychologically fit. As a result, we thought he could safely undergo the operation. Additionally, it was decided for him to donate the left lobe of his liver which is traditionally a safer operation as opposed to donating the right lobe."

Every day Levitz passed without a new liver, he grew weaker. Diagnosed at 15 with Crohn's disease, a chronic intestinal disorder, Levitz experienced occasional flare-ups until his late thirties. "From time to time, I would get severe stomach pain, fatigue, joint swelling," he recalls. "But it would clear up with medication."

However, in 2017, as he was preparing for an operation, he became so ill the surgery was cancelled due to PSC, an autoimmune disease that attacks the bile ducts. Doctors advised he would need a liver transplant one day - a day that came sooner than expected.

As Levitz's liver quickly deteriorated, he got sicker and weaker. Unable to make the hour-long commute to his job as a credit manager, he stopped working and focused solely on finding a liver. It can be a daunting task, as statistics from the United Network for Organ Sharing show approximately 3,000 people die annually or become too sick while waiting to receive a liver transplant.

Twice Levitz got the call from a Philadelphia transplant center that a liver from a deceased donor was available, once in August and again in October 2018. Each time, it was called off because the donor liver was not suitable for transplant. "We were devastated," recalls Levitz. "I didn't know how much time I would have if we didn't find one soon."

Desperate, he reached out to Chaya Lipschutz, a kidney donor and self-described "kidney matchmaker" who pairs donors and recipients through her nonprofit Kidney Mitzvah. "I figured it was a long shot, but maybe she knew of someone who wanted to give a liver," Levitz explains. "And she did."

That someone was Simon, who too had contacted Chaya in hopes of finding a recipient for his liver and a transplant center willing to accept a previous organ donor. Within weeks, the Cleveland Clinic Transplant Center determined Simon and Levitz could safely endure a transplant, scheduled for December 20, 2018. Donna Ferchill, RN, a living donor coordinator who Simon says "was like an angel to us," played an essential role in arranging the logistics.

Donna also arranged their first face-to-face meeting, just weeks after their initial phone call, on December 18, 2018. Having learned Simon, despite his New Jersey roots, is a Cleveland Browns fan, Levitz presented him with a Browns jersey, inscribed with his name and the number 18 - which holds special significance in Judaism, as it corresponds to a Hebrew word meaning "life."

Levitz says Simon was overjoyed with the token of his appreciation. "He said, 'This is the greatest gift I ever got.' I said, 'it's a shirt! I think you're giving me the greatest gift.'"

The night before their surgeries, Simon texted Levitz a picture of him wearing the jersey, and the message he would share each time they met: Adam, I'm 100% in. You're going to get this liver.

Dr. Aucejo harvested the left lobe of Simon's liver in an operation that typically lasts four to five hours; and his colleague, Koji Hashimoto, MD, PhD, director of the Living Donor Liver Transplantation at Cleveland Clinic, transplanted 32% of Simon's liver into Levitz, in an 8-hour operation.

Adam got the transplant in a very timely fashion," notes Dr. Hashimoto. "Unless he had a chance to receive a new liver in another two or three months, he might not have been in condition to undergo surgery. Living donor liver transplantation can save sick patients before they reach the point where they are no longer a candidate for a liver transplant."

A month after the transplant, Simon is back at work in his New Jersey office. Levitz returned home to New York, with a new lease on life.

"He's unbelievable," says Levitz, of his donor. "All he wants to do is help people. It's amazing."
As for Simon, he is thankful to be blessed with good health: "Being a donor is my way of thanking G-d that I can help bring a husband back to his wife, a father back to his children. I'd do it again, tomorrow, if they would let me."

Photo: Rabbi Simon (left) and Adam Levitz (right) after the liver transplant at Cleveland Clinic. (Courtesy: Adam Levitz)


Source for part A: Excerpted and modified by Yerachmiel Tilles from LchaimWeekly.org (#1091), which reprinted with permission the original article by Dr. Miryam Z. Wahrman from The New Jersey Jewish Standard.
Source for part B: From my.clevelandclinic.org/patient-stories/263. Lightly edited by Yerachmiel Tilles

Why This Week? The Jewish month of Iyar is often referred to as the "Month of Healing"-primarily because the four letters that spell Iyar in Hebrew are an acronym for
G-d's holiest name

Yerachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.

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