Adam Levitz of Woodbury was dying, desperately in need of a liver transplant. For nearly two years he searched for a donor.
Then, partly through a woman who runs a website called KidneyMitzvah.com, Levitz, 44, found Rabbi Ephraim Simon.
Simon, who had already donated a kidney to another patient, wanted to take the unusual step of also donating part of his liver.
Levitz and Simon met in person for the first time in December at the renowned Cleveland Clinic. Two days later, on Dec. 20, surgeons performed the transplant.
So far, Levitz is thriving.
“I was speechless,” Levitz said. “What do you say to a guy you don’t even know, that has no relationship to you, that is willing to put his health at risk by undergoing major surgery to help a complete stranger out, to give me life so I can see my 17-year-old twins and my 11-year-old grow up and graduate from high school, graduate college?”
Simon, 50, leader of the Orthodox Chabad Lubavitch movement based in Teaneck, N.J., and himself the father of nine, said he was grateful for the chance to help.
'Sometimes you have a situation where somebody is dying and there is nothing you can do. But here … you have a situation where somebody is dying, but there is something that can be done.'Rabbi Ephraim Simon
“To be able to bring somebody life, to be able to bring a husband back to his wife, a father back to his children — it’s a powerful experience,” Simon said. “Sometimes you have a situation where somebody is dying and there is nothing you can do. But here … you have a situation where somebody is dying, but there is something that can be done.”
In a liver transplant, surgeons first operate on the donor, removing the portion of the liver for transplant, according to the Mayo Clinic. Then surgeons remove the recipient's diseased liver and replace it with the donated liver portion, connecting blood vessels and bile ducts. The transplanted liver portion and the portion left behind in the donor's body regenerate rapidly, reaching normal volume within a couple months, according to Mayo.
The Cleveland Clinic said it was rare for a kidney donor to then donate part of his or her liver, and many hospitals will not carry out such surgery.
Levitz is still in Cleveland recovering, staying at a hotel on the grounds of the hospital. He hopes to return to Long Island within the next few weeks.
Levitz's health ordeal dates to his teenage years, when he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at 15. He was able to function adequately until several years ago, when complications from the condition began to affect his liver. He developed primary sclerosing cholangitis, or PSC.
He grew weak, had to quit his job as a credit manager for a food distributor and was hospitalized five times in the past year alone — often for weeks at a time. “I have not worked in the last couple of years because I could not get off the couch,” he said.
He started looking for a donor, mainly in New York, and twice rushed to Philadelphia when livers were available from deceased donors. In one case the liver was not in good enough condition; in the other it was too large.
Increasingly frustrated, he connected through relatives with Chaya Lipschutz, a Brooklyn resident and kidney donor who devotes part of her life to matching kidney donors and recipients. She runs the KidneyMitzvah.com website.
Lipschutz knew that Simon, who donated one of his kidneys in 2009, had been hoping since 2012 to donate part of his liver. But regulations and policies against being a live donor twice made it difficult to arrange.
Eventually, Lipschutz heard that the Cleveland Clinic might perform such surgery. She suggested Simon and Levitz try.
The two were a match, and the clinic accepted.
Lipschutz, who deals mainly with kidney donors, said she was “ecstatic” the surgery took place. “There was a long road until I reached this point,” she said.
Simon said that when the two men first met, it was “emotional.” But an even more moving moment came when he first saw Levitz two days after the surgery.
“Just to be able to see how healthy he looked,” Simon said. “You could see that the operation was successful, you could see the light in his eyes, you could see the color of his skin had already changed. … I was overcome with emotion.”
He said part of his motivation for the transplant was to give an example to his children of what Jewish values mean.
“A rabbi’s greatest sermon is the way he lives his life,” Simon said. “A parent’s greatest lecture is the way we live our lives. … What I want my story to do is to inspire others to leave their comfort zone to sacrifice to help another human being.”
Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, head of the Chabad movement on Long Island and a friend of Simon’s, said doing a mitzvah, or good deed, does not require a person “to give up your lung, give up your organs. ... That you are able to translate a mitzvah into such a high calling is, I think, very rare amongst human beings. It’s a real act of pure unadulterated kindness. It’s just an amazing thing to do. I think he literally saved a life.”
The mitzvah commandment has parallels in other faiths, he said. “There is no question that I think every religion has some type of precept of going the extra yard for a fellow human being and not just being concerned about your own needs.”
Levitz, whose two oldest children are seniors at Syosset High School, said he is still taken aback by Simon’s sacrifice.
“With all the bad that goes on in the world, there are good people out there who are doing things just to do it. They don’t want any kind of payback, they don’t want anything in return, they just want to help another human out,” he said. “It’s like a guardian angel looking over you.”
CORRECTION: In a previous version of this story Rabbi Tuvia Teldon's name was incorrect.