Less than a month ago, Adam Levitz was a dead man walking.
“I was very sick. My liver was black, hard and shrunken,” said the father of three from Long Island, who went into liver failure as a result of Crohn’s disease and primary sclerosing cholangitis, a bile-duct disease.
But his chronic pain is now gone and his life transformed thanks to an organ donor who until two weeks ago was a complete stranger to him: Rabbi Ephraim Simon of Teaneck.
“It’s a modern-day miracle,” an exuberant Levitz said this week.
Simon, 50, is a father of nine children and the director of Chabad of Bergen County. He said he felt moved to become a liver donor after he saved the life of another stranger, a father of ten, by donating a kidney in 2009.
“Sometimes, someone is so sick and there’s nothing you can do. But here there’s someone who is literally dying and there’s something you can do,” said Simon.
As the rabbi of the Teaneck Chabad House, he is accustomed to teaching others about the importance of kindness. But a rabbi’s greatest lesson, he said, “is how he lives his life.”
While Simon doesn’t expect anyone else to give up their kidneys and livers, he hopes his example will inspire others to change the world through good deeds.
Mission accomplished, his followers say.
“I never heard of anyone who donated a liver before, but with Rabbi Simon, it makes total sense because this is who he is,” said Douglas Dubitsky, a congregant who considers Simon a friend. “He provides guidance not only through his teachings but through how he lives his life.”
“There are things he does every day that nobody even knows about: He’ll drive four hours to visit someone in a hospital or a prison,” Dubitsky said.
Juda Engelmayer, a publicist, said he and other congregants initially tried to talk Simon out of donating a portion of his liver. “But he was very determined. He told us that just like some people are born with talent or money, he was born with good health and he is going to use it that to help someone else,” he recalled.
Engelmayer, along with some other friends, has since launched a GoFundMe campaign to help the rabbi offset expenses related to the procedure (most were covered by the federally funded National Living Donor Assistance Center) and raise funds for the Chabad House so he can take a break from fundraising.
For a while, Simon feared his dream wouldn’t come to fruition.
His 2009 kidney donation to a father of ten drew headlines. The two men became friends and have remained in touch. “We speak often. He’s doing amazing — 100 percent healthy!” said Simon.
But Simon wasn’t finished giving.
When he decided to donate his liver, however, he encountered roadblocks: Many hospitals have strict rules that make it difficult for someone to be a liver donor if he has also donated a kidney. Few hospitals will even perform the surgery because it’s considered risky.
Simon contacted Chaya Lipschutz of Brooklyn, who matches up kidney donors and recipients through KidneyMitzvah.com, and begged her to find him a liver recipient.
“Every time I thought I found someone who needed a donor, he was so happy and grateful,” said Lipschutz, who has conducted her services gratis since 2005. “He thanked me so much, you would think that he was the one getting the liver.”
In October, she told Simon and Levitz they were a match.
Levitz was initially skeptical. “When you are sick, you often give up hope,” he said, adding that on several occasions, he and his family had sat for hours at the hospital waiting for a scheduled transplant only to be told that it wasn’t going to work out. “We were devastated,” he said, recalling the shock after a twelve-hour wait.
But Simon immediately reassured him. “I’m 100 percent in, and my liver is 100 percent yours. You have nothing to worry about,” Levitz recalled Simon telling him in their first telephone conversation. “Right away, I was very comfortable with him.”
The Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, whose liver transplant programs is among the largest in the nation, agreed to perform the risky but lifesaving surgery after the men underwent a battery of tests.
Surgery was set for Dec. 20, and two days before the procedure, the men had an emotional first meeting.
Adam’s wife, Stefanie Levitz, said she and her family struggled with how to express their gratitude to Simon for his unexpected gift. “What do you possibly say to someone who is about to save your life and whom you have never met before?” she said.
As the Levitz family watched the men embrace, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the room,” she said. “They stood up and spoke and it was like they had known each other for years.”
Doctors removed Levitz’s diseased liver and replaced it with a third of Simon’s healthy one. Then they connected Levitz’s blood vessels and bile ducts to the new liver. The transplanted organ in Levitz’s body and the remaining portion in Simon’s body are expected to regenerate and reach normal volume within two months, medical experts say.
“Both surgeries went well and the patients are recovering,” said spokeswoman Caroline Auger of the Cleveland Clinic. “This is not the first time at Cleveland Clinic that a living donor has donated twice, but it is rare.”
According to the American Liver Foundation, around 8,000 liver transplant surgeries are performed every year in the United States. There are about 17,000 people on the waiting list for a liver transplant.
Most liver transplants are from donors who recently died. Living donor transplants are less common, and are typically from close relatives.
Within days of the surgery, the doctor informed Levitz that the new liver was working beautifully.
“It’s unbelievable that a complete stranger was willing to do this for me,” said Levitz, 44, whose illness had hospitalized him numerous times and left him unable to work in his job as a credit manager.
Now, he’s planning to attend the graduation this June of his 17-year-old twins, Ryan and Sydney, something he hadn’t thought he could do.
He’s also spreading the word on the importance of organ donations, so that other ill people can know the feeling of waking up healthy. “He basically gave me a new life,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of paying forward to do.”
It’s difficult to measure who is more enthusiastic. “I would do it again tomorrow if I could,” said Simon. “It was an amazing experience to see my recipient healthy and together with his wife and children. I would trade a few days of pain for that any day.”