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Thursday, March 21, 2019

Rabbi Ephraim Simon, left, with Adam Levitz after the surgeries.

Rabbi Simon and Adam Levitz found they shared a love of football. (Courtesy of Stefanie Levitz)

Adam Levitz gets ready to embrace his donor. (Courtesy of Rabbi Ephraim Simon)

You don’t have to donate a third of your liver to make the world a better place.

But if you do, it’s extraordinarily appreciated.

Rabbi Ephraim Simon, 50, director of Chabad of Teaneck and a father of nine children, did just that on December 20. At the Cleveland Clinic he donated his liver’s left lobe to a fellow Jew he’d never met, Adam Levitz, 45, of Syosset, New York, a young husband and father who was gravely ill from complications of Crohn’s disease and primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), an autoimmune disease that affects some Crohn’s and colitis sufferers.

This isn’t Rabbi Simon’s first go-round with organ donation. Inspired by an email sent out by “Kidney Mitzvah’s” Chaya Lipschutz, he donated his kidney in 2009.

In 2012, he asked Lipschutz, who is from Brooklyn, if she knew anyone who needed a liver, as his
experience in saving the life of his kidney donor had been positive and he knew that liver donation was also possible.

In the past there have been many people who have donated a portion of their liver, which is unique among all human organs in that it regenerates in both the donor and the recipient. Fewer people have done it altruistically, but it has been done. But Rabbi Simon is the third person at the Cleveland Clinic to have ever made a liver donation after also donating a kidney; most hospitals consider such a donation high-risk and wouldn’t consider doing the surgery. Transplant programs create their own inclusionary and exclusionary protocols, and few, if any, other transplant programs are known to take donors who have previously donated a kidney.

In October, Lipschutz came through as a liver-donation matchmaker, connecting Rabbi Simon with Levitz, who was on liver registries in New York, Pennsylvania and Florida. Rabbi Simon had initially been directed by Lipschutz to Cleveland Clinic to test for another recipient, which didn’t work out. He later learned that no other transplant program wanted him as a liver donor because of him having previously donated a kidney. But the Cleveland Clinic was willing and happy to work with him, and are seeking to expand and stretch the limits of their living liver donor program, said Donna Ferchill, the clinical nurse manager for Cleveland Clinic’s liver transplant program and living liver donor coordinator. Of the 156 donations they did in 2018, just 19 of the donations came from living donors.

“We are a very-high-volume program and we would like to expand our criteria. For that reason we are almost considered a high-risk program; for example, we take recipients for liver donation who have cardiac complications,” she explained.

Other donors have generally not publicized their donations, said Ferchill. But Rabbi Simon came in as a directed donor, i.e., he came in asking to be tested for someone specific. She said she thinks the publicity his donation will bring bodes well for the program and for liver donation. “Just to see the true generosity of someone who put his life on hold and to have this surgery, something that they don’t need to have. It’s so rewarding to be a part of this process. This is a bigger story because, for me, it’s part of educating the public. Most people don’t know you can give a part of your liver and that it regenerates. Rabbi Simon’s donation will make people more aware that this can be done,” she said.

Rabbi Simon’s reasons for donating a portion of his liver were, in some ways, the same as for donating his kidney. “To save a person’s life,” he told The Jewish Link. “God gives us all various blessings, resources in life. Thank God, I was blessed with the gift of good health. If I can share that with someone who wasn’t blessed with that, then that is our mandate,” he said.

Rabbi Simon lamented that sometimes there are situations where a person is dying and there is nothing medically that can be done. “You have only prayer. But here you have a situation where this person is dying. In the case of my liver recipient, all he needs is a liver and he can live.

“I felt this is something I can do. A week of pain, two weeks of pain? But another person can have a long, healthy life,” he said.

“In the end, our lives are fleeting. Eighty, 90 years. The most we can do is leave a legacy behind us of caring. I want my life to have made a difference in the lives of others,” he said.

Rabbi Simon also wants his congregation and his children to see him walk the walk as well as talk the talk. A rabbi’s greatest sermon is how he lives his life. He wants people to make real efforts to do chesed. “As much as I want to inspire my community and the world, I want to inspire my children to live good, meaningful, caring lives. It’s not as if I am telling people to donate their liver. You don’t necessarily have to donate your liver to make the world a better place. Just strive to make the world better.”

“Life’s greatest blessing is chesed (kindness). I think other people can leave their comfort zone and sacrifice to do chesed. True chesed involved sacrifice.”

Rabbi Simon explained that the liver donation was a much bigger operation than the kidney donation, which was laparoscopic. That entailed, according to Rabbi Simon, “discomfort for several days, but pretty much controlled… In a couple of days I was back to myself, though I also learned that opioid-based pain medications have no effect on me.”

The liver donation was invasive. He has a scar from the sternum down to his belly button and extending to the right hip, like an elongated “J.” He had 35 staples to close the wound, and inside there are sutures as well, because they had to cut through muscle.

Because he knew that pain medications didn’t work on him, he admitted he was worried about the pain. “Because I knew about it, the Cleveland Clinic gave me a different pain protocol, including a pain block in the muscle that extended until Day 3 after the operation,” but the next several days he had the most pain. On Day 6 he was released from the hospital. Speaking from Cleveland on Day 12, he said he was feeling only a small amount of pain. And that pain paled when thinking of his recipient, Levitz, who was brought back to his family.

“This is one of God’s miracles. The liver started working immediately in him, on the operating table,” he said.

Levitz, for his part, wasn’t sure how to express his emotions to the “friendly guy with a great sense of humor” he just met, whom he “clicked with” and talked about football, he told The Jewish Link.

Father to Ryan and Sydney, 17-year-old twins, and 11-year-old Austin, and husband to Stefanie, Levitz didn’t know if he would see his children’s high school or college graduations. Sick with Crohn’s disease since he was 15, and with PSC for the past six or seven years, he has been on liver transplant lists in three states for close to two years, since March 2017.

For the past year, Levitz, a credit and finance analyst, has been unable to work. “I was very jaundiced, fatigued; I had chronic pain, no energy. My body was shutting down. The liver filters everything and mine was filtering nothing. I was very foggy every day, couldn’t think straight, I had trouble driving. It didn’t just affect me; obviously it affected my wife and kids. Thankfully, I have a great support system of family and friends and they have been wonderful,” Levitz said.

And now, 12 days post surgery, how does Levitz feel? “My chronic pain is completely gone; the only pain I have is surgical. I am still weak and need to build up strength. In liver failure, you lose so much protein and can’t hold muscle tone,” he explained. For now, his directive is to exercise every day and follow immunocompromisation protocols, like staying away from crowds and avoiding viruses or illnesses of all kinds.

So he feels better physically, but how’s his mood? How does he feel about what Rabbi Simon did? “He should be the Time Magazine Man of the Year. There is no greater human being than him,” enthused Levitz. “I’m going to see my kids graduate high school and college, see them get married. My brother-in-law, he had the best response: He is never speechless, but he is speechless at this guy. Living donation is the most unbelievable thing. I have to find a way to pay it forward,” he said. Levitz added that he was especially heartened to hear how Rabbi Simon asked to be wheeled to see him in the ICU and continually checked on him during their hospital stays.

Chabad of Teaneck’s youth director, Rabbi Michoel Goldin, stepped in during Rabbi Simon’s absence to assist at the Chabad House. He said he was happy to help and doubly inspired by Rabbi Simon’s gift. “His tremendous humility and kindness is something we all can learn from. He loves to help people and has tremendous patience and knowledge of how to deal with many situations that come up in our community. As a young rabbi I couldn’t find a better role model in all areas of the work we do.”

Inspired by Rabbi Simon’s kidney donation, “Rabbi Simon’s Gang” was created by Juda Engelmayer, who started a GoFundMe page to benefit the Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County. The campaign’s goal is to raise $100K, but any small amount will help Rabbi Simon continue to share his goodness and kindness with the Teaneck community.

To contribute to this campaign, visit https://tinyurl.com/yadndsfr.

By Elizabeth Kratz