Gene and Marlene Epstein follow a simple mantra in their lives. Learn, earn, and return. Simply put — they're driven to make things better for people around them in any way they can.
In spring of 1986, Gene learned that his brother Wesley, who had eight heart attacks over the years, needed a heart transplant.
Gene spoke with a number of doctors around the country, and no one was willing to do the transplant. Many surgeons deemed Wesley “too old” at 63. And they expected Gene to accept the fact that he may soon lose his brother.
But the Epstein family doesn’t give up easily.
“He’s my brother,” said Gene. “I’m going to do everything I can.”
Gene contacted the late Stanford University heart transplant pioneer Norman Shumway, MD. He performed the first successful heart transplant in the United States in 1968.
Dr. Shumway referred Wesley to UPMC’s former Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery, Bartley Griffith, MD. After consulting with the Epstein family, Dr. Griffith felt confident that the transplant team at UPMC could do the surgery.
The Epsteins got Wesley to Pittsburgh. The very next day, he received a new heart, extending his life for 12 years.
After the transplant, the Epsteins felt compelled to do something to help others who were still waiting for transplants.
Gene founded and continues to push Congress for an organ transplant program. “Project Donor, A Commitment for Life” is a plan to offer life insurance policies for people who agree to be organ donors.
He also gave $50,000 to UPMC to aid transplant recipients who couldn’t afford to pay their insurance deductible. The initiative raised more than $270,000. Ultimately, another organ recipient ended up funding the program in perpetuity.
When Gene’s mother later started having health issues, the Epsteins knew where to turn — UPMC. Doctors referred them to neurosurgeon L. Dade Lunsford, MD.
They quickly found out that she had an irregular heartbeat and needed a pacemaker — despite hearing otherwise for years.
Doctors implanted the pacemaker right away, and his mother lived for nearly 20 more years. She passed away at age 104.
The Epsteins continued to come back to UPMC doctors for a second look at other health conditions within their family.
In 2019, the Epsteins made a bequest of $250,000 to UPMC in honor of Dr. Lunsford and in memory of Wesley.
“I felt that I needed to do all I could for UPMC,” Gene said when asked what compelled him to give back. “I wanted to make my donation permanent and irrevocable in my will — dispersed before anything else.”
He hopes this gift inspires others to include UPMC in their will if they can’t donate now.
The Epsteins’ belief is simple. When they had enough money to take care of their family and expenses, anything above that should go towards helping others.
“I feel good that we’ve been able to change someone’s life. Whether it's for an hour, a day, a week, or forever,” Gene said. “It’s our reason to be.”