A Life-Saving Gift

A Life-Saving Gift

The symptoms — fatigue, a “really bad cough” — struck Lauren Weisman 10 years ago, a few weeks after she gave birth. The diagnosis, after three misdiagnoses, was cardiomyopathy, a rare form of heart disease.
Her condition worsened within months.
“Nothing” — not medicine, not rest — “was helping me,” said Weisman, of Holbrook, L.I., who was on maternity leave from her job as a speech therapist.
Finally, facing death, she underwent a heart transplant in March 1993 at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan. The donor was a 15-year-old boy who had died of a head injury.
Today, following a decade’s worth of daily anti-rejection pills, regular checkups and a strict diet, Weisman, 39, enjoys good health.
Last week she told her story at a breakfast hosted by the Commack Jewish Center Sisterhood and Men’s Club, and she encouraged the 100 people in attendance at the Long Island synagogue to consider becoming organ donors.
“My message was ‘Think of me. It could happen to anyone,’ ” said Weisman, whose speech was part of a campaign sponsored by several Long Island synagogues on behalf of organ donations in the Jewish community.
The Commack event was organized by Anita Liebowitz, who was inspired by a discussion on the topic she heard last year at a meeting of the Hadassah Leadership Academy. The academy grooms young women for leadership roles in the Jewish community.
An independent program, the Huntington Organ Donation Project: The Gift of Life, began last week under the auspices of Rabbi Leonard Troupp of Temple Beth David in Commack, and his wife, Michelle Levine-Troupp, a psychotherapist. Seventeen Suffolk-area Jewish congregations and Christian churches, and the Suffolk Y are taking part in the pilot project that is supported by the New York Organ Donor Network.
The Huntington campaign includes clergy sermons and guest speakers, articles in congregation bulletins and programs on Long Island cable television stations. Assemblyman James Conte, a recipient of two kidneys, spoke about his experiences during Friday evening services at Temple Beth David.
Rabbi Troupp and his wife designed a 21-panel display about organ donations that went on exhibit at Temple Beth David and the other participating institutions.
The project’s goal, Rabbi Troupp said, is registration in the New York State Department of Health’s on-line organ and tissue donor registry (www.health.state.ny.us/nysdoh/donor. donor.htm), and refutation of the “myths and misinformation” that organ donations are uniformly forbidden by Jewish law.
Many Jews believe that, the rabbi said. “Interestingly, other faiths had similar misunderstandings,” he wrote in the current edition of his temple bulletin.
Halacha, respecting a deceased person’s dignity, states that a body should be buried intact. However, because of pikuach nefesh (the saving of a life), Jewish law allows organs to be removed for the sake of a recipient whose identity is known and whose need is emergent.
Several Orthodox authorities, accepting the medical standard of brain death, have sanctioned organ donations. Advances in technology make it possible to keep organs viable until they are transported to recipients hours away.
“Not only is organ donating acceptable, but organ donating is a commandment,” said Rabbi Troupp, a member of the Reform movement’s responsa committee. “The halacha has not changed. What has changed is modern technology,” which makes organ donation more practical than in earlier years.
The on-line registry is accessible at any time, making the wishes of a potential donor who dies easier to determine than the permission granted on donor cards or a signature on the back of a driver’s license.
More than 400,000 New Yorkers have enrolled in the registry since it began two years ago.
Rabbi Troupp and Levine-Troupp geared The Gift of Life to coincide with the religious holiday seasons.
“We wanted to do it in the season when Jews and Christians give gifts to each other,” the rabbi said. “What better gift can you give?”
“You can save lives,” Levine-Troupp adds.
The goal of their project is “several thousand” people enrolled as donors, the rabbi said. In the United States, an estimated 80,000 people are on waiting lists for life-saving transplants for hearts, livers, pancreases, spleens, kidneys, lungs, bones, ligaments, corneas and skin.
Rabbi Troupp calls The Gift of Life the first-such, community-based project affiliated with the New York Organ Donor Network, a federally designated, nonprofit organization.
“We’re hoping to be able to bring this program to other communities in New York State,” he said.
Liebowitz says several people enrolled in the on-line registry following the breakfast at the Commack Jewish Center. “People have been thanking me,” she said.
And Steven Weisman, Lauren’s husband, said he will sign up soon; he’s already informed his family he wants to be an organ donor.
“For me, it’s payback,” he said. Ten years after Lauren received a new heart, he still has a wife and his 10-year-old son, a mother. “I owe them a tremendous thank you.”

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