The statement atop Bev Saltzman Lewyn’s Facebook page reads: “Don’t kvetch. Create something better instead.”
Lewyn is receiving treatment for acute lymphocytic leukemia at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, in her hometown of Houston. Some days, she undergoes multiple rounds of chemotherapy, even while sleeping. “With this intense chemo you can barely get out of bed. Picking up a phone seemed like climbing Kilimanjaro,” she said, as we texted back-and-forth.
Lewyn could be excused for kvetching, but that’s not her style.
“I discovered the blood shortage when I was told I needed a transfusion, but the blood bank had denied me the blood because of the shortage,” Lewyn said. “It was horrifying to think that any patient there to get well couldn’t because of a shortage that wasn’t well publicized at all.”
An estimated 18 million transfusions are performed annually in the United States. In January, the American Red Cross — which supplies 40 percent of that blood — reported its worst shortage in a decade. Hospitals have been sounding an alarm for months.
If raising awareness meant doing a live interview with a Houston television station during chemotherapy infusion — her phone balanced on the pole holding the intravenous drip — Lewyn was willing. “I am getting a second chemo right now,” she told KRIV. “It’s making me a little sleepy, but otherwise all is well.”
In her texts, Lewyn explained the inspiration that came from her doctor: “Dr. K [Dr. Hagop Kantarjian, chair of the leukemia department at MD Anderson] told me that when he used to be a doctor in Lebanon, when they had a blood shortage, they would tell a family about it and the next day the family would bring out their 300-person tribe. Problem solved.”
“I told him I would bring out my tribe,” Lewyn said. And she did, starting with a Facebook post about her condition that stunned her friends.
“I was totally wowed and so moved by the incredible response, both in Houston and from my friends around the world, using their contacts to try to help,” Lewyn said. “When you are so sick, it is so uplifting to be able to see such positive activity to heal you and heal the world. It is an amazing feeling, and I am so proud of my tribe, my friends, and our broader community. There are lots of blood drives now in Houston and people are giving blood elsewhere, too. There isn’t a place in the country that doesn’t desperately need blood.”
There is a particular shortage of type O-negative blood (Lewyn’s type, found in 7 percent of the population), prized because it can be transfused into patients with other blood types.
Ironically, the 54-year-old Lewyn was handed her latest medical challenge — “my third rodeo with cancer” — as she prepared to launch a website to help others receiving difficult diagnoses, drawing on knowledge and perspective gained during her previous trials with thyroid and breast cancers.
After temporary residence at MD Anderson, she will commute to the hospital for several months from the Houston home where her parents still live.
Bev and Marc Lewyn, the parents of four daughters, celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary on March 22. Until she sent Marc home to Atlanta to recover from a cold, the financial advisor had relocated to his wife’s childhood bedroom. “Now how many hubbies get that chance of a lifetime?” Bev asked her Facebook friends.
Marc told KRIV:” It’s just amazing. She just keeps going and going, and after three cancers to be able to do that is very special.”
Bev is co-founder of the Jewish Women’s Connection of Atlanta and co-author of “On the Run in Nazi Berlin” (Chicago Review Press, 2019). The Lewyns are members of Congregation Beth Jacob, Congregation Ohr HaTorah, the New Toco Shul, “and Marc also loves to attend Chabad of Toco Hills,” his wife texted. “Each congregation brings such wonderful inspiration into our lives, each in different ways. We have always been part of multiple shuls and can’t imagine it any other way.”
Lewyn shared this message: “I would actually beg the Jewish community in Atlanta to give blood and publicize the need. It is critical to save the lives of cancer patients. Everyone has been touched by cancer. I would like to see public service campaigns better educate the public about this. I think more people would run to give if they knew cancer patients were being prevented from getting well because of the awful national blood shortage. And I would say to those whose blood type is O-negative, you are angels on earth. G-d gave you the ability to heal any human on the planet. Please, please, please, donate and then sign up to donate again, regularly. You are the only hope for patients like me.”