On a cool November evening, the Avrech family — Robert, Karen, and Ariel — sit within the cozy confines of their Pico-Robertson home, where an Emmy Award that Robert won for his 1999 Holocaust-themed drama, “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” graces the mantle.
But this is not your typical family scene. Ariel, Robert and Karen’s 21-year-old son, breathes with the assistance of an oxygen tank.
“There are good days and there are bad days,” Ariel said of his lung condition, which, while stabilized via steroids, produces emotional and physical highs and lows.
Unfortunately, this is not Ariel’s first brush with a life-threatening disease. At 14, he endured massive chemotherapy to eradicate a brain tumor. The procedure worked. However, this past spring, the Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles graduate was walking up a hill at Baltimore’s Ner Yisroel campus, where he was continuing his education, when he experienced difficulty breathing.
“At first, I didn’t think anything was wrong,” Ariel said.
In May, doctors diagnosed his condition; the chemotherapy that conquered his cancer left him with severe pulmonary fibrosis.
Now Ariel is in dire need of a living lobar lung transplant. With his family disqualified as suitable donors, a worldwide search for two willing, healthy males is underway.
“We’re reaching out to all communities, not just the Jewish communities,” said Rabbi Heshey Ten, director of Jewish Healthcare Foundation Avraham Moshe & Yehudis Bikur Cholim, which is facilitating the search. “We need to find two people to donate one of their five lobes to Ariel. The best intervention would be a living lobe transplant or a cadaveric transplant” (the latter option, for which Ariel is on a national donor list, is not being handled through Bikur Cholim).
According to the Lung Transplant Program at USC, lobar lung transplantation is an alternative for those patients who are too critically ill to survive the waiting list for cadaveric donors.
“I have a rabbi at YULA [Yeshiva University of Los Angeles] who has a list of people he would like to be cadaveric candidates,” joked Robert, screenwriter of “A Stranger Among Us.”
Humor is only one way that the Avrech family — including Ariel’s sisters, Leda, 17, and Aliza, 14 — is coping. The Avrechs have also relied on faith, one another and community to get through these trying years. As members of the Young Israel of Century City, they have received much support from the Orthodox community.
“Ariel has made a lot of personal connections,” said Karen, a school psychologist. “In his quiet way, he has a magnetism that attracts many people.”
Both Robert and Karen, who have known each other since the third grade, hail from the same Orthodox community in Bensonhurst, N.Y., a neighborhood in Brooklyn, where Karen’s father was a rabbi. Karen has great admiration for her son’s fortitude. During the seventh grade, Ariel grew bored with his school and wanted to attend Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles
“That determination is getting him through his illness,” Karen said. “He’s very hard on himself but doesn’t wallow in self-pity.” Ariel says that Torah study is crucial to his positive mental state. While on sick leave from the yeshivah, he learns with a study partner.
“When I go for a day without it, I feel like I’m not living a real life,” Ariel said. “It’s very frustrating when I’m sick and can’t study as much.”
Although 47 candidates have been tested to become Ariel’s living lobar donor, none have been suitable matches. Yet Robert and Karen remain hopeful that a match will come forward. “Many people think if they’re Jewish, they’re not allowed to donate organs, but that’s not true,” Karen said.
According to the Halachic Organ Donor Society (www.hods.org), organ donation has been a controversial topic in the Jewish community because, on the surface, the medical practice contradicts certain biblical commandments concerning the handling of a cadaver. For example, the precept of “nivul hamet” forbids the needless mutilation of a cadaver. But rabbis across all denominations have, over time, come to agree that pikuach nefesh (“saving a life”) supersedes the observance of such corporeal biblical prohibitions.
Ariel offered a message to prospective living lobar donors:
“Anyone who does this will become a partner with me, a partner in my life,” he said. “I’m going to accomplish a lot and he’ll have a portion of those good things. It’s an opportunity for him as well.
“My parents love me, God loves me, and I have the strength to make it happen,” he added. “All these things, I have no doubt that they will come together.”
For information on how to help, contact Jewish Healthcare Foundation Avraham Moshe & Yehudis Bikur Cholim at (323) 852-1900 or visit www.bikurcholimonline.org/ariel.htm .