It was the call every parent dreads most. Ken and Ellen Blair were at their suburban Dayton, Ohio home the night of May 27, 2005 when the phone rang with the news that their 24-year-old son Don had been struck by a van and was critically injured. He died the next morning at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. Hours earlier, Don, a controller in New York’s fast-paced fashion industry, had been at La Guardia Airport waiting to board a plane to visit his parents for the Memorial Day weekend. His flight was overbooked, delaying his trip until the next morning. He was running an errand on his bike when struck by the van.
The next night, just before midnight, the phone rang at the summer home of my brother Jonathan and his wife Heather in the Berkshires. It was the call they were praying for. Mount Sinai Medical Hospital in New York City had obtained a donated liver for my ailing 51⁄2-month-old nephew, Alexander.
Alexander Jack, grandson and namesake of my father, former URJ President Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, z’l, didn’t look like most 51⁄2-month-old babies. The whites of his eyes were dark and yellow. His skin was jaundiced. Except for his distended stomach, he was skin and bones. He had been born with bilary atresia, a rare and deadly disease that causes cirrhosis of the liver. The ducts connecting his liver and gallbladder were blocked, trapping in his liver the bile that is critical for human digestion and excretion. Jax (as he was nicknamed) often had to be fed through a tube. His health continued to deteriorate. To survive, he desperately needed a liver transplant.
Jonathan, Heather, and Jax had arrived in the Berkshires about the same time Don Blair was being told that he had been bumped from his flight.
When Don Blair died, Jax was at the top of the National Transplant Waiting List, administered by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). Don’s papers showed him to be a willing organ donor. Jax’s telephone number had come up on the UNOS list. A portion of Don’s liver would be given to Jax.
The next morning Jax was in the operating room at Mount Sinai. “We actually got to lay Jax down on the operating table,” Heather recalls. “He gave us a look like a thumbs-up sign. Not a tear. Not a sound. He just lay there peacefully as if to say, ‘Okay, mom and dad. Here it is. I’m ready.’”
The transplant took ten hours. Within days, Jax’s skin color was normal.
Today, Jax is healthy and happy, walking, and starting to talk. He loves to giggle and play.
Our two families made contact in the months following the transplant. The day after Jax was released from Mount Sinai, Heather and Jonathan sent a letter via the New York Organ Donor Network to the anonymous parents of Jax’s liver donor. “We wanted to try to give them some comfort,” Jonathan says, “and to thank them for all they and their son did to save our son’s life.”
Explaining to the donor’s parents that Jax was named Alexander for his grandfather, the Schindlers went on to quote him: “A person’s body may depart from us, but the soul will never die when their memory lives in the hearts of loved ones.” “In the case of your son,” they wrote, “it is so much more than a memory that keeps him alive….He truly does live on.”
Several months later, my brother and sister-in-law received a “beautiful letter telling us all about Don,” Heather says. They learned how Don had been equally comfortable in the worlds of football and poetry; how he had talked himself into a $10-a-day internship at a $90-million Italian clothing company after college and had risen to controller; and how, after Don died, his parents found a file on his laptop that read: “Note to self: Do not wait for things to happen to you.…Make things happen to you….This is your one chance; make it count.”
Ellen and Ken Blair, both of whom professionally facilitate organ and tissue donations, also related how comforting the Schindlers’ letter had been to them. “[The experience] was overwhelming,” Ken says. “The letter gave credence to what we had done. I said, ‘Okay, this is the good part.’”
Given the shortage of organ donors, Jax was one of the lucky ones. While more than 400,000 people living in the U.S. are successful organ transplant recipients, an average of 6,200 Americans die each year waiting for an organ. Today, 92,000+ patients are on the national organ transplant waiting list; another name is added every thirteen minutes. And seventeen of those waiting die each day.
Sadly, within the Jewish community a perception still lingers that Judaism does not embrace the concept of organ donation and transplantation. Many ethicists, experts, rabbis, and doctors across the country have encountered Jews who are reluctant to be organ donors because they believe, incorrectly, that donation contravenes halachah. Elaine Berg, CEO and president of the New York Organ Donor Network, relates how “time and again, when members of my staff approach a Jewish family in a hospital to discuss organ donation for their deceased loved ones, we hear, ‘donation is forbidden by Jewish law.’”
In fact, the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Movements, as well as some highly respected Orthodox rabbis, have firmly endorsed organ donation.
The Reform Movement has been advocating organ donation for nearly forty years. A 1968 Central Conference of American Rabbis responsum entitled “Surgical Transplants” and written by Rabbi Solomon Freehof states that the use of such body parts in order to heal or save life is in keeping with the dictates of Jewish tradition and a positive act of holiness. And in 1996 the Union for Reform Judaism initiated the “Matan Chaim: Gift of Life” program to promote organ donation.
The Conservative Movement affirmed the life-giving benefits of organ and tissue donation a year later, when the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism adopted a Biennial resolution encouraging all Jews to enroll as organ and tissue donors. Citing the biblical commandment “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Lev. 19:16), J. B. Mazer, then chair of the United Synagogue Commission on Social Action, stated that the life-saving impact of organ donation cannot be disputed….The preservation of human life is obligatory, not optional.”
Among Orthodox Jews, while Chasidic groups remain reluctant to participate in organ donation because of concerns about “defilement of the dead,” the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) has approved organ donation as “a modern mitzvah to save a life.” “If one is in the position to donate an organ to save another’s life, it’s obligatory to do so, even if the donor never knows who the beneficiary will be,” wrote Rabbi Moshe Tendler, chairman of the RCA Bioethics Commission. “The basic principle of Jewish ethics, ‘the infinite worth of the human being,’ includes donation.” And Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, a leader influential among the ultra-Orthodox both in Israel and the U.S., has endorsed organ transplants to save a life with the proviso that the heart must stop beating for thirty seconds before vital organs may be removed.
The misconception among many Jews regarding organ donation emanates from “the false belief that it desecrates our bodies after death, or that if such a thing as resurrection exists, our missing organs will prevent us from returning,” says Rabbi Judy Schindler, senior rabbi of Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina and Jonathan’s twin sister. “These are fallacies. Delaying burial to donate an organ is not a desecration of our bodies, but a holy act…viewed by all four streams of Judaism as a mitzvah—pikuach nefesh, the saving of a life. It is the only mitzvah we can do when our breath ceases.”
In addition to saving Jax’s life, Don’s donated organs brought healing to many others. Two people received Don’s kidneys—one an active outdoorsman who loved to hike in the mountains near his home, the other a woman whose failing kidneys had forced her into early retirement. A New York City lawyer received Don’s heart. Don’s pancreas is enabling a woman in her forties to live her life free of the debilitating effects of diabetes. A mother of five received a portion of his liver (Jax received the other portion). And the lives of more than fifty other people may be enhanced or improved by the numerous surgical grafts created through Don’s gift of tissue donation. By choosing to be an organ and tissue donor in life, Don, in death, was able to fulfill the prophetic words found on his computer: “This is your one chance, make it count.”
Jewish tradition teaches that when we save a life, it is as if we have saved the world. We pray that we will all live long and healthy lives. But if we do not, in our deaths, through the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, we can give life to others.
Just ask what it means to Heather and Jonathan to have Jax alive, strong, and flourishing.
Elisa Ruth Schindler is senior campaign executive with the Jewish National Fund and a member of Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan. She thanks Kevin Lamb of the Dayton Daily News for permission to use portions of his story for this article.
|The Fear Factor |
The need is great. In America, every 13 minutes a new name is added to the organ donor list. Every year, 6,000 people on the list die waiting for a liver, a kidney, a lung, a heart.
We Jews can be part of the solution. Each of us has the ability—literally—to save another person’s life. And yet, most of us have not consented to becoming organ donors.
Why not? What stops us?
We are afraid.
We are afraid, first of all, that agreeing to become a donor will hasten our own deaths. There is a passionate Jewish belief in the value of life and the preservation of life. We do not want to do anything that might shorten our own lives.
But this fear is unwarranted. Organs are not taken from a person until he or she is declared dead by two physicians, neither of whom is involved with the transplant. Organs are not taken from someone who can breathe on his or her own. Organs are not taken from someone whose brain is active in any way. Someone may be kept on a ventilator to keep organs working long enough to save someone else’s life, but the donor is not alive.
We are also afraid that our bodies will not be treated with respect. That fear is based on a real Jewish value—kavod hameit, the dignity of the dead—the value that tells us to care for the bodies of the deceased, to watch over them, and wash them and bury them with love.
This fear, too, is unwarranted. The surgery for organ transplantation is deeply caring to the body. Consider this description of a transplant procedure offered by Dr. Calvin Stiller in the book Lifegifts: The Real Story of Organ Transplants:
When the decision to transplant is made, the donor and the recipient are taken to the operating room. The donor’s body is treated with profound respect, because we are watching one of the most extraordinary acts a human being can accomplish. The surgical theatre is hushed and reverence for life prevails as the donor organ is removed and taken carefully to the sick, partially destroyed body of the recipient. The sick organ is removed to make way for the new healthy organ. We watch in silence as the retrieval of life from the donor occurs and the restoration of life in the recipient begins. We watch as the skin begins to clear, the body chemistry begins to improve, and the brain gradually quickens as the new organ functions and restores life.
Moreover, some of us may be afraid of the advent of a messianic age, at which time the dead are restored to life (m’chayeh hameitim), and if we’re missing organs, we’ll be in serious trouble.
Perhaps the best response to this comes from the website of the Halachic Organ Donor Society: “Some people believe that organs should be kept in the cadaver because they are necessary in order to be resurrected from the dead. This is pure fantasy because immediately upon death, organs begin to rapidly decompose and after a few months are gone.”
So, what stops us from donating our organs to save one or more lives? What stops us ultimately, I believe, is the deepest fear of all: the fear of death. Many of us find it much easier to sign a living will and healthcare proxy than to check off the organ donation box on the back of our driver’s licenses. To do so forces us to imagine not only dying but being dead—to imagine our bodies being in the world without us inhabiting them.
But our discomfort and fear should not prevent us from the possibility of saving lives. And at the end of the day, that is what organ and tissue donation is all about.
So please join me in signing the back of your driver’s license. Join me in signing the donor card in the Union for Reform Judaism’s pamphlet on the Gift of Life. And join me in speaking about these decisions with those you love, so that if they ever find themselves in the terrible situation of being asked what your wishes would have been, they will know the answer.
—Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, Congregation Rodeph Sholom, New York City
|To Learn More |
The “Organ Donation and Transplantation Bio-Ethics Study Guide,” published by the URJ Department of Jewish Family Concerns, discusses the modern Jewish view of organ donation. A Donor Card is also available. www.urj.org/jfc/bioethics/donor
Hadassah’s Pikuach Nefesh—To Save A Life program educates communities about the importance of organ and tissue donation. www.hadassah.org
The Halachic Organ Donor Society encourages organ donation and educates Jews about halachic and medical issues. www.hods.org
UNOS (United Network for Organ Sharing) administers the nation’s only Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network established by the U.S. Congress in 1984. www.unos.org
Donate Life America advocates and serves as a conduit for organ, eye, and tissue donation. www.donatelife.net
Community Tissue Services is a clearinghouse for information on human tissue donations used for transplantation. www.communitytissue.org