Leukemia survivor: Giving blood is ‘definition of a mitzvah’

Leukemia survivor: Giving blood is ‘definition of a mitzvah’

Michael Leviton now works to boost donations

Michael Leviton, at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, said many people “don’t realize how important donating blood is.” Photo by Jennifer Altmann
Michael Leviton, at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, said many people “don’t realize how important donating blood is.” Photo by Jennifer Altmann

When Michael Leviton was 23, he learned he had leukemia. Over the next year, he went through agonizing treatments and long stays in the hospital, including seven days of intensive radiation and chemotherapy — wiping out his immune system — to prepare his body for a bone marrow transplant. During his treatment, he also received more than 100 units of blood and platelet products.

His leukemia has been in remission for 20 years.

“I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t received all those blood transfusions,” said Leviton, who works out of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick.

Today, Leviton spends much of his time talking about the importance of donating blood in his role as business development manager at RWJ Blood Services. He estimates that 1,000 people had to donate to gather the blood products he needed; that’s because he received plasma, a component within blood, and it takes donations from about 20 people to produce one unit of plasma.

He said that experts claim that fewer than 3 percent of those who are eligible have made a donation, and one out of three people will need a blood transfusion in their lifetime.

“People don’t think about it until there’s someone in their family with a need. It’s not your tragedy today, but one day it might be yours,” said Leviton, who lives in Freehold with his wife, Melissa, and their two small children.

Blood transfusions are used in numerous medical situations, including for premature babies, victims of car accidents, and cancer patients. In the United States, someone needs a blood donation every three seconds. But if a family member needs blood right away, relatives usually cannot help; donated blood must be run through numerous tests before it can be used, and that typically takes two days.

The need is especially acute in the summer, when there are chronic shortages in the supply, said Leviton. With schools closed and people on vacation, there are fewer blood drives held, and fewer people think about donating. All blood donations made at RWJ’s donor center are kept for the hospital system’s patients, Leviton said.

When Leviton needed a bone marrow transfusion to fight his leukemia, finding a match was difficult. In fact, there were no matches in the United States registry, which had about eight million people in its listings. But doctors located a match on a registry in England — where Leviton has roots — and when contacted, the person agreed to make the donation, which required an overnight hospital stay. A courier took the donated bone marrow straight from the hospital to the airport in London, where it was put aboard a plane to New York City and brought to the Manhattan hospital where Leviton was waiting — all in 16 hours.

It took another year of recovery and transfusions before Leviton could resume his normal life. During that time, he received get-well cards sent to the hospital from his donor. “He contacted the hospital for a few years to make sure I was doing okay,” said Leviton. Earlier this year, Leviton finally connected with his donor via email after Leviton reached out to the registry in England. “I thanked him for saving my life,” said Leviton, who hopes to visit with the donor in person one day.

Leviton grew up in Brooklyn and worshiped at the Flatbush Park Jewish Center. It was one of his grandfathers who came from England, immigrating to the United States from Leeds in 1915. His other grandfather, Nathan Zeitlin, was, as it happens, a devoted blood donor, first giving in 1943, during World War II, when the idea was gaining currency. “He was walking down the street in Manhattan, and a nurse was approaching people, saying, ‘We have this new thing called blood donation.’ And people were running the other way,” Leviton said.

But his grandfather told the nurse he wanted to give. He went on to serve in the military during World War II, taking part in the fighting in France and the Philippines. After returning to Brooklyn, he donated blood regularly for five decades before his death at 97. Leviton still has several of his grandfather’s donor cards. “I think it’s bashert,” he said, meaning meant to be.

Though about 35 percent of the population is eligible to donate, most do not. Some people are scared, others just don’t have information about it, said Leviton, who makes presentations at churches, synagogues, businesses, and chambers of commerce. “The No. 1 reason people give for not donating is that no one has ever asked them,” he said. “Many people just don’t realize how important donating blood is.” The process takes 45 minutes to an hour; the actual time of taking the blood usually lasts five to 10 minutes.

Leviton said that by working to spread the word about the critical nature of blood donation, he hopes to increase the number of donors — including in the Jewish community. “Giving blood is the definition of a mitzvah,” he said. “It’s giving without expecting anything in return.”

To find a blood drive near you, visit rwjuhdonorclub.org.

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