Richard Epstein has always admired his younger brother Alan’s caring nature. The two grew up in the Bronx, where they loved climbing trees at a nearby park, playing baseball in the street and fishing — strictly catch-and-release.
Alan would often come home with a stray cat, a lost dog or, on one occasion, a seagull with a broken wing. “My mother would go bananas,” Richard recounted. “It would drive her crazy. Nonetheless, she indulged him.”
Richard recalled Alan’s dismay after he begged his family to take the seagull to a veterinarian to be treated, only to be told that it wouldn’t survive.
“One of the jobs of a little brother is to annoy the big brother until he explodes,” said Richard, who’s now 73 and lives in East Meadow with his wife, Adele. “But one of the jobs of the big brother is to protect the little brother. And nothing has changed . . . It’s bringing a tear to my eyes to talk about it, so I’m gonna stop.”
Alan, 70, who lives in Hewitt, N.J., was diagnosed with liver cancer in the winter of 2017. Now Richard is helping him search for a living donor, for a transplant that could save his life. Alan is being treated at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital in Washington Heights, where his name is one of roughly 500 on the New York region’s waiting list.
There are 11 regions of the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network in the U.S., with about 75,000 people in need of organ donations. Only 8,000 people register as organ donors each year, however, and 20 people on waiting lists die every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So, Alan is seeking a living donor for a partial transplant. Because the liver is the body’s only internal regenerative organ, Alan’s doctors could remove his liver and replace it with a small section of a healthy liver that would grow into a complete organ in roughly nine months.
For the donor, the surgery is laparoscopic, meaning that it’s minimally invasive and low-risk. Doctors make a small incision, insert a tube into the donor’s body and extract a piece of the liver. To be a match, however, a donor must not only have a healthy liver, but one that is the same shape and blood type as the recipient. As it happens, Alan’s blood is Type O, which means that he can donate to anybody of any blood type, but can receive from only a person with Type O blood.
“No one in the family meets the right criteria,” Richard said. “Otherwise it would have been done already.”
Alan undergoes an MRI every three months as part of “maintenance treatment,” and chemotherapy or radiation when cancerous tumors are spotted. “But it’s really a waiting game more than anything else,” he said. “The real objective is to get a liver as soon as possible.”
Richard has been spreading the word around East Meadow, putting up flyers to find potential donors at the library and the Fire Department. “Hopefully someone will read this and find the passion to donate,” he said.
Alan’s health began declining in 2012, forcing him to retire from his 30-year career with the state, working with psychiatric patients. He helped rehabilitate patients at the South Beach Psychiatric Center in Staten Island, the Bronx Psychiatric Center and the Mid-Hudson Psychiatric Center in New Hampton. His clients ranged from veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder to mentally unstable former criminals, whom he helped reintegrate into society.
“Sometimes you’d just say hello to a patient or do something kind, like bring them donuts, and the appreciation they showed was worth it,” he recalled.
He met Kathy Murphy while working there — at the time, she was his supervisor. They married in 1984, and moved to Hewitt to start a family in 1986.
Richard admired the work Alan did and the stories he would tell him. “He spent his entire life helping people,” Richard said. “The irony is, now he needs help.”
These days, Alan spends time listening to music on his vintage stereo, fishing, bird watching and beekeeping in his backyard. His son Matt, 28, served in the U.S. Marine Corps for six years, and helps treat people with mental illnesses, developmental disabilities and substance use disorders at the Capitol Care Inc. “Like me and like my wife,” Alan said, “he likes to feel that he’s helping people and making a difference in their life.”
Now Matt is hoping to become a police officer, and is studying criminal justice at the New Jersey State Police Academy. Alan has two other children, Nicole, 24, who just earned a degree in architecture from the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and Daniel, 21, who is helping to care for his father and planning to go back to school.
“I think I still have a lot of life left in me,” Alan said. “I still have a lot to live for.”
If you or someone you know has Type O blood and is interested in being Alan’s liver donor, you can contact the Epstein family at email@example.com.