To Save A Life

May 8, 2009

7 min read


This week in Jerusalem, a grove of trees was planted in honor of Ron Johnson, the British janitor who donated his lung to try to save a life.

A million dollars is a lot of money to raise. But that's what was needed to give Lisa Ostrovsky a chance to live. Ilia and Valentina Ostrovsky, Russian Jews who moved to Israel eight years ago, had a 10-year-old daughter named Lisa who suffered from cystic fibrosis. Unless she received a double lung transplant -- at a cost of a million dollars -- her short life would come to an end.

Ilia left no stone unturned. He contacted every wealthy man he could find, every corporation, every organization -- and virtually every door was politely shut in his face. "There are so many who suffer," he was told. "We cannot start by helping you."

In desperation, Ilia turned to the Internet. For up to eighteen hours a day he would search out Jewish organizations and individuals active on the net, and send them a one-page plea for help. This plea was verified to make sure it was not a scam and then forwarded to the Shabbat Shalom Internet Edition (, from where it was sent to subscribers all over the world.

Amazing things began to happen. One tzaddik offered to underwrite the difference between the medical costs of the operation after what was raised. Laurie Berman in Toronto raised over $100,000. Ian Lasky in California set up a web site to mobilize support.


Along with the fund-raising came an even more critical search -- a quest to find a contributor of something more precious than cash. Lisa needed a lung lobe, a piece of a lung taken from a living donor. When the number of applications of potential lung lobe donors reached twenty, I received a request from Ilia to thank my readers and have them hold back from sending in more applications.

Ron Johnson lived in England. He didn't know Lisa Ostrovsky. But when he read about her condition, and her life-and-death need, he knew what he had to do. I'll let Ron tell his own story:

"I heard about Lisa in the London Jewish News. I am not Jewish but find the paper interesting. The article was seeking funds in order to get Lisa to America for an operation. I am not well off, so I wondered if I could help another way. Lisa's blood group was mentioned in the article, and when I got home I checked my blood donor card and found that my group was the same... I was told the operation had a one in a hundred chance of being fatal for me and that the prognosis for Lisa, even if the operation was a success, was not good...

"They took me in to see Lisa the evening before the operation, and I learned a little bit of Hebrew so I could speak to her. I asked her if I could be her uncle. She said yes, and we hugged and kissed. It was one of the most wonderful moments of my life..."

Lisa fought courageously as infection and complications set in. Her tenacity, her fight for life, surprised even the doctors. However, her little body was too weak. She passed away on January 1, 2000.


After Lisa's death, Ron was overwhelmed by letters from people all over the world, people who'd been following the drama and praying for the health of the little girl. Ron penned the following letter to all his friends and well-wishers. Its honesty and poignancy make it something worth sharing:

To all the lovely people out there:

Back in November I had the honor of donating part of my lung to 10-year-old Lisa Ostrovsky who was dying of cystic fibrosis. She was the daughter my wife and I never had, and we loved her as if she was ours.

Sadly, we lost her when God called her to His heaven. I can only imagine how her wonderful parents, Ilia and Valentina, felt at the loss of their angel.

No one will ever know the millions of tears that were shed across the world for Lisa. In the moments after her death, I looked up at the sky and knew she would be well now and that she would be able to breathe properly in her new home.

The nagging doubt that will remain with me forever is that my lung was not good enough for her. I could have done more -- I should have stayed with Ilia and Valentina in America to help them whilst Lisa was in intensive care. I should have held her hand and talked to her more often than I did after the operation. I should have believed in prayer and spoken to God every day. Many things I could have done, but at least I had done something.

After returning from Israel after Lisa's funeral, I opened my email and found, to my astonishment, over eight hundred e-mails from all over the world. All these wonderfully kind people had taken time out to write to me with messages of condolence. I have no doubt that you were one of these people. Your emails kept me from feeling sorry for myself and gave me the courage to understand why Lisa had died. The surgeons, with their amazing talents, and the nursing staff, with their incredible hard work and compassion, would all learn from her bravery and her willingness to undergo such radical treatment. I am sure the next operation will be easier, and the child will live.

I am sure you will understand I cannot reply personally to all of you, but, believe me, I will never forget your kindness, and I will print out and keep each and every message.

I have made many good friends both here and in America, but especially in Israel -- a country I have grown to love. I would be honored if you would like to keep in touch, and I promise to do my best to reply to all of you that do so.

Once again, thank you, from the bottom of my heart. You have all been instrumental in my speedy return to good health.

Bless you all,

Ron Johnson

An article in the Jerusalem Post reported on last week's tree-planting ceremony in the forests of Jerusalem, marking what is going to be a grove of trees in Johnson's honor:

"What Ron did for us - at a danger to his own health - is almost impossible to express," said Ostrovsky's father Ilya, nearly in tears. "I just want to say, 'thank you, brother.'"

"What gave us the power to continue is people like you, whose goodness serves as a paragon for us all," added Ostrovsky's mother, Valentina.

"You say thank you to someone who holds the door open for you, but what do you say to a person who gives up part of his own body to try to save a human life?" asked Aish HaTorah's Rabbi Kalman Packouz.

The yeshiva, which played a crucial role in the financial and moral support of the Russian immigrant Ostrovsky family, is hosting Johnson on his third visit to Israel. Readers of Rabbi Packouz's weekly Bible column on the Internet devised the idea of planting a forest, to be located near Kibbutz Lahav, in Johnson's honor.

From such a tragedy so many positive things have happened," Johnson said. "This story has changed my whole life. It has given me something to aim for in life."


Article courtesy of "Horizons" magazine, a division of Targum Press (


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