By Rabbi Miriam Cotzin Burg
I never knew what it meant to fulfill the mitzvah of saving a life until now.
On April 20, my cousin, Dr. Richard Levitan, published a piece in The New York Times about his experience treating coronavirus patients in the emergency room of Bellevue Hospital in New York — and about a critically important observation he made while there. Many people were dying in the hospital and at home as a result of a condition called “silent hypoxia,” severe oxygen deprivation that often has no outward symptoms until it is too late.
Amid the race to find treatments and cures and vaccines, he realized that we were overlooking a life-threatening condition that could be diagnosed and treated before the need for ventilators, something that could prevent many people from getting so sick in the first place. And here is the most incredible part of this story: decreasing levels of oxygen saturation in the blood can be detected at home using a simple, inexpensive, easy-to-use medical device called a fingertip pulse oximeter. You put your finger in it and within about ten seconds you have a reading of your blood oxygen level. (Decreasing oxygen saturation levels are only one possible symptom of COVID-19. Consult your doctor with any concerns.)
This means that if people were to have these devices at home and self-monitor — especially those who are high risk and those who are recovering from coronavirus — they could notice if their oxygen saturation was starting to drop, go to the hospital, get oxygen, and interrupt the process of deterioration that often leads to death.
Why then don’t we all have these devices that can usually be purchased for $35 at a pharmacy? Well, once my cousin’s article was published and his observation began being picked up by more and more news outlets, pulse oximeters became very hard to find and very expensive. And I became worried about another problem.
I live in Baltimore City, and I am acutely aware of the disproportionate way communities of color are being affected by this virus. According to statistics from the Baltimore Sun on April 9, Maryland’s population is about 30% African American but African Americans accounted for 49.4% of the infections and 53% of the deaths (where race was known). This is reflective of greater problems of systemic racism as it relates to health care, and is a particularly acute crisis in this moment.
Since the onset of the pandemic I have been trying to find ways to help beyond staying home and calling people who are lonely, important as those things are. I am motivated by the commandment to pursue justice and wanted to do more than avoid harm. And so, I launched my first ever GoFundMe campaign with a goal of raising money to purchase and distribute pulse oximeters to vulnerable and underserved populations.
When our daughter became a bat mitzvah a few years ago, we started a donor advised fund for her and asked that people make donations to it in lieu of gifts. We wanted to teach her that becoming a bat mitzvah meant becoming a responsible citizen of the Jewish people and the world. With that in mind, she offered a $1000 matching gift from those funds to encourage more giving. And our son helped to distribute the devices to clinics around the city and to people in our neighborhood. It became a family affair.
To our amazement, we quickly reached our fundraising goal with donations from people all over the country — and so we set the goalpost higher. The more money we could raise, the more devices we could buy, the more lives we might be able to save. We have been humbled and amazed by the generosity of so many people.
I have been thinking about what I want my children to be able to say to their children about all of this when, perhaps decades from now, they are asked about it: that they protected others by staying home, that they cared about the stranger, that they helped to feed the hungry and ease loneliness (which they have). And now they will be also be able to tell the story of these pulse oximeters. The Mishna teaches that if you save a single life it is as if you saved a whole world (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5). We will never know how many lives have been or will be saved by our efforts, but the possibility of saving even one fills me with awe.
Rabbi Miriam Cotzin Burg is a Jewish educator who devotes herself to helping people discover innovative ways to integrate Jewish learning with Jewish living.