California man donates part of his liver to Conservative rabbi in Pittsburgh
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Saving livesRecipient calls donor "an inspiration."

California man donates part of his liver to Conservative rabbi in Pittsburgh

Eric Steger had donated platelets and stem cells to help others live healthy lives. Now, he has fulfilled his dream of sharing an organ.

Rabbi Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner and Eric Steger 
{Photo by Robin Kurtz-Lendner)
Rabbi Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner and Eric Steger {Photo by Robin Kurtz-Lendner)

Eric Steger’s heart is full, although his liver is smaller by 60%.

Steger, a 50-year-old man from Sunnydale, California, affiliated with Chabad, was in Pittsburgh earlier this month fulfilling his dream of donating an entire lobe of his liver to help save the life of another.

The liver recipient, Conservative Rabbi Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner, 53, said he feels like he has been given a second chance at life.

Kurtz-Lendner, who relocated to Pittsburgh from Iowa for the purpose of obtaining a transplant at UPMC, had been diagnosed with fatty liver cirrhosis, but the doctors did not know how serious it was until they were in the midst of the transplant.

“I could have died before I got put onto a list,” said Kurtz-Lendner, who, after the Jan. 7 surgery, is still recuperating but has been discharged from the hospital.

Steger, a math tutor at Foothill College in Northern California, has donated stem cells for a bone marrow transplant and platelets many times, and has been wanting to help save a life with one of his organs for years. He even traveled to Israel to donate a kidney, but was ultimately turned down because he had hypertension.

About a year ago, though, he saw a UPMC commercial airing in California that advertised the fact that it was now performing “altruistic liver donations.”

“I decided to give it a try,” said Steger.

He then got in touch with Chaya Lipschutz, an Orthodox woman from Brooklyn who donated a kidney to a stranger in 2005, and since then has made it her work to help others find kidney matches. She receives no money for her services.

Lipschutz had “made the shidduch with the kidney patient in Israel” for Steger that did not work out, he said.

As fate would have it, Lipschutz did know people who needed a live liver transplant. Steger was medically cleared for the procedure, but the first few people with whom he matched found other donors. Lipschutz then turned to message boards to post that she had an able and willing donor.

“Now I was a solution in search of a problem,” said Steger.

When Kurtz-Lendner’s sister in Teaneck, New Jersey, happened to see Lipschutz’s post, the match was made.

Post-surgery, both donor and recipient are doing well.

“I’m feeling very positive,” said Kurtz-Lendner, noting that full recovery from the procedure will take about a year. “Two weeks ago, I was dying. Now, I have another 30 years.”

He, his wife Robin, and his oldest daughter will remain in Pittsburgh for at least six months.

Kurtz-Lendner did not meet Steger until after the surgery, and sees him as “an inspiration of a human being. I appreciate what he has done. He just saved my life.”

Steger returned to California this week. During his time in Pittsburgh, he received warm hospitality from the city’s Jewish community, particularly the Bikur Cholim of Pittsburgh, run by Nina Butler, he said.

“Patients and families who come here from out of town always remind us of how special our community is,” said Butler. “As the Bikur Cholim of Pittsburgh, I’m simply organizing the generosity of volunteers to provide the specific support that each patient wants. That started before Jeff or Eric arrived, answering their questions about housing, Shabbat observance and kosher food.”

“Eric is observant and came unaccompanied, so his housing was complicated because the Family House does not allow patients to stay completely alone,” Butler explained. “We provided home hospitality, and we also organized volunteers to drop off meals for Eric while his hosts were at work. Most of all, we formed relationships with both patients and Jeff’s family so they knew there were Pittsburghers who had their backs.”

Robin Kurtz-Lendner said that she and her husband “felt so supported, even before we got here. It’s been incredible. The whole community has been rallying around us and it’s really been appreciated.”

Donating part of his liver was not easy, Steger acknowledged. Still, he wants to encourage others to consider organ donation.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” he said. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was a year out of my life, one full year when I was thinking about this all the time.”

There was a battery of tests, the surgery itself, and now the recovery phase, he said, “which all carry physical and emotional risks.”

But he is hoping what he did will help generate continued interest in organ donation.

“I hope my experience will inspire other people to investigate it for themselves,” he said. pjc

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at
ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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