Kidney transplant candidates in limbo after Philippines closes gates

Yeshiva dropout heads group that helps where state fails.

yechiel landsman 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy Haverim)
yechiel landsman 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy Haverim)
Towards the end of her army service Shirit Segal, 21, began planning her next steps in life: university, marriage, family. Segal, who had received a mark of distinction for excellence in duty in the IDF, had many aspirations. But just a few weeks before being discharged Segal began feeling weak and complained of back pains. Today, Segal spends about 15 hours a week on a kidney dialysis machine, after doctors discovered too late that an autoimmune disorder had destroyed her kidneys. Segal is hoping to receive a kidney transplant, but she is up against a number of challenges, the first of which is obtaining the cash necessary to finance the operation. The other problem is that the likelihood of a transplant in Israel is low, and the Philippines - long considered the primary destination for those in search of transplants - is closing the doors on foreigners coming to be operated upon. If she does make the trip, Segal would need $120,000 to finance it, a sum well beyond her means. Enter Yechiel Landman, a haredi yeshiva dropout in his mid-sixties who joined the army and went on to a successful career as a banker. In 2003 he established Haverim, an organization that matches people in need of various kinds of medical help - from kidney, heart or liver transplants to drugs not covered by the state-subsidized basket of medicines to dental work - with charity organizations, donors and other do-gooders. "I've always had the skills of a businessman and the heart of a philanthropist," said Landman, who met The Jerusalem Post at Haverim's offices in downtown Bnei Brak, the largest haredi city in Israel. "So I reached a point in my career where I decided that instead of allowing other businessmen to take advantage of my generous heart, I'll let the needy take advantage of me." Landman's office walls are decked from floor to ceiling with pictures of deceased rabbis, some of whom are relatives, and pre-state paraphernalia such as old JNF pushkes [charity boxes]. He embodies a mixture of old-time Zionism (he fought in the Six Day War) and deep Jewish faith. "The upbringing I received at home emphasized giving as a religious commandment," said Landman. "It is something that we need more of here. Especially since the state is not fulfilling its obligations to its sick and needy." Landman and Haverim's staff heard Segal's story. After verifying the details they published it, together with Segal's photo on Haverim's Internet site. The organization also provided the Segal family with a bank account and the tax status of a non-profit organization, enabling the Segals to offer potential donors income tax exemptions and receipts. The Segals, who live in Modi'in, have a circle of friends and family who can provide them with emotional and financial support. Hopefully, as soon as Segal's condition improves she will have raised enough money to finance a kidney transplant. But not everyone is so fortunate. Eshato Tizazu, 45, suffered kidney failure three years ago. His wife left him shortly after he was diagnosed, taking their son with her. Tizazu's Clalit Health Fund financed most of the expenses needed to travel to the Philippines. But Tizazu had to raise another $40,000. Tizazu's circle of peers, poor Ethiopian immigrants like him, lacked the means to help with the entire sum. The entire Ethiopian community got together and raised about $20,000. But Tizazu, who had in the meantime turned to Haverim for help, needed another $20,000. Luckily, Haverim's net catches some pretty big fish. Cherna Moskovitz, wife of the multimillionaire Irving Moskovitz, found out about Tizazu through Haverim and provided the needed funds. She was so touched by Haverim's cases that through the Irving and Cherna Moskovitz Foundation she donated over $300,000 to fund a number of kidney transplants, and another $100,000 for people in need of serious dental work. But now another obstacle has been placed in the way of prospective kidney transplant patients like Shirit Segal. According to international news media reports, last week the political leadership in the Philippines, long a source of kidneys transplants, decided to halt all transplants to foreigners. The move is an attempt to stem the illegal kidney trade, which mainly targets poor Filipinos. A moratorium has already been in place for over a month, but in the next couple of weeks those caught performing kidney transplant operations - along with recipients - will be harshly dealt with, according to news reports. Extensive kidney trading by impoverished Filipinos for paltry sums has been widely reported in Philippines local media in recent weeks, bringing about a groundswell of opposition. One recent news program showed footage of a Manila slum in which virtually all men bore surgery scars after selling their kidneys for the equivalent of $4,700. Philippine Catholic bishops urged the government on Monday to impose stricter regulations on organ donation, worried over abuses that have spawned a lucrative illegal trade of kidneys. The Philippines has been identified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as among countries promoting "transplant tourism" to attract foreigners looking for organ transfers. "Human organ sale or trade, by its very nature, is morally unacceptable," Angel Lagdameo, archbishop of Jaro in the central Philippines and head of the 120-member Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), said in a statement. Rabbis in Israel, who have come out against China's organ harvesting policies, have nevertheless supported the practice in the Philippines, because until now it has been governed by the state authorities, and donors were undergoing operations of their own free will. Meanwhile, Israel's first law governing organ donation and trafficking went into effect on May 1. According to the new law, Israeli kidney donors will be entitled to a NIS 18,000 payment and free health insurance for the rest of their lives. The law also prohibits receiving an organ transplant from a country which lacks laws on a par with Israel's. Michael Glov, an organ transplant broker who worked extensively in the Philippines, said that there were no other legal options for Israelis searching kidneys. "In places like Kosovo kidney transplants are performed clandestinely," said Glov. "But there is the constant danger of getting caught and facing imprisonment." Glov said that he doubted the new legislation that went into effect his month would encourage Israelis to donate kidneys. "There is simply no economic incentive to do it," said Glov. "But what might happen is that people authorized by the state to donate their kidneys will get paid under the table. Only time will tell."