When Iris Lurie was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer in 2001, the Marlboro resident was referred to oncologist Dr. Michael Nissenblatt.
That relationship went from doctor-patient to partners, resulting in the Michael J. Nissenblatt Partners in Healing Foundation, whose aim is to help patients caught between cancer and financial hardship.
Nissenblatt, associate director of medical oncology at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, also runs a private practice, the Central Jersey Oncology Center.
Nissenblatt, said Lurie, “helped me through a terrible crisis and I am cured. Three years ago my husband Barry and I wanted to do something. I called Dr. Nissenblatt and told him we’d like him to use our donation to help others.”
In response, Nissenblatt, no stranger to setting up charitable foundations, arranged a meeting with the couple that also included his attorney, Richard Anslow, and his wife, Rena, also of Marlboro.
This latest endeavor was established in December 2009 to financially support families suffering the devastating effects of serious illness during these harsh economic times.
Both couples sit on the foundation’s board and Barry Lurie, the financial secretary at Marlboro Jewish Center, is charged with vetting applicants.
“We just wanted to give back,” said Iris Lurie, her voice breaking with emotion. “We just thank God every day we are able to help. I just get choked up every time I talk about Michael Nissenblatt…. They really broke the mold when they made him.”
Throughout his medical career, Nissenblatt said, he has always been guided by the Jewish values instilled in him by his parents. “My parents taught me about the mitzva of charity and the importance of giving back,” he said.
Through the East Brunswick resident’s many years treating cancer sufferers, he has launched many initiatives and foundations — and, along the way, distributed thousands of loaves of hallah to bring hope to people with life-threatening illnesses.
Partners in Healing “will cover pretty much anything but vet bills,” said Nissenblatt in a phone interview with NJJN. He listed some of the foundation’s achievements. “It has thus far funded a major construction on the home of a paraplegic man, paid for essential car repairs for a woman who had just been widowed because of her husband’s lung cancer, and funded transportation costs for many patients receiving radiation therapy and chemotherapy,” he said.
It has also funded costly copayments for critical medications used in cancer treatments and paid the dental expenses of other cancer patients. The foundation will also help with mortgages, rent, or credit card payments.
“I have personally solicited the funding for the foundation and selected the recipients of the monetary awards,” said Nissenblatt. “I do this because I love people and I love my patients.”
Nissenblatt and his wife, Marlene, have also cochaired the American Cancer Society of Middlesex County’s annual Night of Wines and Roses for the last 15 years; the chapter’s top fund-raising event has brought in between $150,000 and $250,000 each of those years. Both also serve as society spokespersons and board members.
They established the Dr. Michael and Marlene Nissenblatt Scholarship with the East Brunswick Regional Chamber of Commerce Charitable Foundation, awarding three to four annual scholarships — about 20 to date — to post-graduate students of Western medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture, and/or herbology “who embrace and bring the human touch and human spirit to healthcare.”
And those Shabbat loaves? Nissenblatt’s Challah Foundation, since its creation in 1994, has given out more than 150,000 loaves, referred to as “the bread of hope,” each Friday to cancer patients at RWJ, using a team of 10 volunteers from diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds. Nissenblatt himself joins in the weekly distribution.
The hallah distribution, “given to patients of all ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds, seems to bring a sense of harmony, restoration, and hope to people with life-threatening illnesses,” he explained. “I create each week’s list of recipients. We stop to talk with them for five minutes. They are handed a large loaf of kosher hallah by an anonymous person. It is a noble gift.”
Nissenblatt has also run the New York City marathon for the last 14 years and seven years ago joined Fred’s Team, which pays the bills of children with leukemia being treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center through money donated to marathon runners. To date, his efforts have raised $180,000, consistently placing Nissenblatt among the top 10 fund-raisers.
Nissenblatt has received many honors for his work, including from his synagogue, Temple B’nai Shalom in East Brunswick.
“My goal as a physician has been to employ modern technology and science with the compassionate touch of traditional medicine,” said Nissenblatt. “I believe in developing close relationships with patients and in accompanying them on their paths in life.”