California man donates part of liver to rabbi he doesn’t know

‘I’ve always had that altruistic streak and always sought out ways to help where I could,’ donor Eric Steger said.

Live liver donor Eric Steger meets with recipient Rabbi Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner. (photo credit: UPMC)
Live liver donor Eric Steger meets with recipient Rabbi Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner.
(photo credit: UPMC)
For Californian Jewish resident Eric Steger, being able to give and help others is a massive part of his life.
Steger isn’t someone who just gives money – he literally gives of himself to save others, whether it’s through donating blood, platelets or bone marrow.
This time though, Steger donated a bigger part of himself: 60% of his liver. The recipient, Rabbi Jeffrey Kurtz-Lendner, a complete stranger to him, received this gift of life on January 7 at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC).
Live liver donations are not a usual occurrence.
Kurtz-Lendner had been suffering from a severe form of nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and was desperately in need of a liver transplant.
“About 10 years ago, I was diagnosed with fatty liver disease,” he said during a video interview with UPMC seen by The Jerusalem Post.
At the time, there were no complications and he just had to keep an eye on it, he said. “Five years ago it developed into cirrhosis, but asymptomatic cirrhosis.”
But a year ago, he started feeling tired and bloated, and went for a routine test. It was discovered that he had moved to n-stage liver disease.
“They were able to eliminate a lot of the symptoms,” he continued. “But, over the summer I had an attack of [Hepatic] encephalopathy, which is when the toxins build up and the liver can’t clean them out properly.”
The dosage of medication he was taking to clean out the toxins wasn’t enough, and one morning he didn’t wake up and was rushed to hospital. He was treated, but he’d only be able to recover with a liver transplant.
AFTER A LONG process in which Steger had tried to donate a kidney to someone, but was unable to do so because he was diagnosed with hypertension, he was matched to Kurtz-Lendner by Chaya Lipschutz, who runs
She had initially tried to organize Steger to be a kidney donor eight years earlier, and had recently started matching live liver donors, which in itself is a rare feat to take place between strangers.
Steger explained that in 2007, he had initially donated bone marrow to a woman suffering from leukemia after signing up and being matched to her through the Gift of Life Marrow Registry, and that is what started his habit to help save lives.
“I’ve always had that altruistic streak, and always sought out ways to help where I could,” Steger said.
He told the Post this week that his “motivation for getting involved in donating things like blood, platelets, organs, and bone marrow is that it is a great mitzvah to save a life.
“Obviously some of these things on the list are easier to give than others,” he explained. “A person has to find his or her own comfort level and choose what to give accordingly.”
In his case, Steger said, he was willing “to try all of them because I'm not afraid of needles, surgery, or the sight of blood – usually my own.
“Before this surgery, I had had two others in my life, and so I felt prepared to take on the liver transplant,” he added.
“One thing is to save a life, another is to be of service to the Jewish people, and another is what you can do for your country,” Steger said.
Asked how he felt to be on the receiving end of such selflessness from Steger, Kurtz-Lendner told the Post that “it was overwhelming that I had this sudden renewal of life.
“I was so grateful – not even so much that I was going to live a long life, but because my family is going to have me around a lot longer. And I saw the smiles on my family’s faces, and that made all the difference in the world,” he explained. “When I met Eric he truly seemed like the mensch that I thought he would be.”
Kurtz-Lendner stressed that, “to want to give part of your liver away to save someone’s life is truly a selfless act... Eric’s personality matches exactly the kind of person who would do that kind of altruistic deed.”
COMMENTING ON the rarity of such a transplant story, Dr. Abhi Humar, chief of the Abdominal Transplantation Surgery Division at UPMC, told the Post that, “all donors are very special to us, but such transplants are, even more so, very special, with very unique individual stories.
“They are all heroes that deserve our admiration,” he said.
Asked about how to encourage people to take part in live donations, Humar said that UPMC has multiple educational efforts including a national campaign, social media, and efforts through Town Halls, conferences, and special events with partners such as WebMD, Donate Life America and others.
“These efforts are to educate patients and their caregivers or family members, physicians and other healthcare workers,” he said.
For Steger, he said that to encourage others to do what he and my fellow donors have done, “I would invite them to consider how they would feel if they themselves were in need of an organ.
“I imagine they would pray dearly for someone to come along and join them in their fight to stay alive,” he said. “Now, if you can imagine yourself in that unfortunate position, perhaps you can imagine yourself being part of the solution to the problem and alleviate someone else's suffering.”
He made it clear that after deciding to get involved, a person should get educated about the benefits and risks, talk with people who have been through it before, and make an informed decision.
“I hope more people give organ and tissue donation [after] careful consideration, and get involved however they can,” Steger said.
Kurtz-Lendner said that he has always believed in encouraging people to become organ donors. “Now that I’ve actually had to receive an organ, [I have] an entirely different perspective on the issue,” he pointed out. “All I can do is ask people who might become donors to find the stories of the people’s lives who have been saved by living donors – especially when you hear the stories of children with sick livers.
"To give them a new life is nothing short of a miracle – and the fact that these donations can go not only to children but to families.”
He stressed that to donate “goes beyond the definition of nationality, religion, politics, ethnic groups or any other things that artificially divide us as human beings.
“Maybe if more people engaged in these kinds of activities, the world would become better for everyone."