At age 62 I had the privilege to donate a kidney to a complete stranger. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.
A person suffering from kidney failure has three available treatment options: dialysis, a transplanted cadaver kidney or a transplant from a living donor. Dialysis itself is only a temporary solution. While it is certainly true that people can remain on dialysis for many years, it is an extremely time-consuming procedure and is not a cure. The number of available cadaver kidneys falls far short of demand. Here in Israel over 700 people are on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. Obtaining an organ from a live donor is a way to remedy the shortfall.
The kidneys' main task is to filter toxins and remove excess water from the bloodstream. Healthy people have four to five times the kidney capacity needed for this, so even with one remaining kidney there is still plenty of spare function and one can live a perfectly normal life.
Why did God give us two kidneys? So you would have an extra one to donate.
Live donors are generally close family members. In cases of incompatibility or where there are no suitable or available family members the kidney failure sufferer must look elsewhere, often by means of advertising. In this case it is termed an "altruistic" donation.
Two years ago my younger son told me about Rabbi Avraham Ravitz zt"l, a member of the Knesset who needed a kidney. All 12 of his children volunteered to donate, and Rabbi Ravitz subsequently promoted a law in the Knesset designed to encourage kidney donations in Israel. I started researching the issue and discovered Chaya Lipschutz and her marvelous website, KidneyMitzvah.com. Chaya is an altruistic kidney donor who now voluntarily tries to help as many people as possible, of all races and religions, who are in need of a kidney. She is what you'd call a "kidney matchmaker," facilitating quite another type of shidduch.
I also came across a great article on Aish.com written by Lori Palatnik, another altruistic kidney donor (through a match made by Chaya Lipschutz). Lori made me feel that I was somehow losing out if I could not donate. She writes:
God runs the world, and when presented with a mitzvah, an opportunity to save someone's life, grab it. It may not come again. To hold back and live in a world of "What if...?" could cost lives… How can I not give away my kidney, just because it's for someone I don't know? Somebody knows them. They are someone's wife, sister, friend and daughter.
Shari Kaufman, another kidney donor, wrote in her moving article on Aish.com:
For me personally, to say it was a special time is an understatement. I was scared, which is normal, but the Almighty held my hand every step of the way, encouraging me and coaxing me at this unique opportunity…. I have never felt this kind of joy before. How wonderful that the Almighty gave me a spare kidney, so I could relish this incredible experience. The connection I've had with God these past few months is something to strive for the rest of my life. I had pushed through my fears and anxieties and placed my trust in the Almighty. I gave the gift of life, and got an equally tremendous gift in return.
Having type A blood, I learned that I had a 70% chance that I could be a compatible donor to a fellow group A.
The Search Is On
I contacted Chaya Lipschutz by email. She asked me a few questions and told me that my BMI should be under 30 and that I should lose weight. Based in the United States, she did not at that time know of anyone suitable for me in Israel. In the meantime our rabbi (Rabbi Dovid Stein of Kehillat Beit Chatam in Rehovot) told me that although I was under no obligation to do so, it is a very big mitzvah. I was hooked on the idea.
It is a very big mitzvah. I was hooked on the idea.
I started losing weight and looked periodically in Yated Ne'eman, a religious Hebrew newspaper that in the past had adverts placed by people looking for a kidney donor. Of course when you look for something you don't find it. All the adverts were for the wrong blood group or specified only up to age 45. Then one day last summer I saw that a young man needed a kidney, blood group A or O, no age limit stated! The contact information was for an organization I had never heard of: Matnat Chaim – Gift of Life. The organization was founded by Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Heber, a remarkable man who received a kidney two years previously and now spends all his time and energy (when not teaching in yeshiva) trying to make matches for other people. I was to become his 48th "altruistic" donor.
Due to the passing of my mother, of blessed memory, and the subsequent holidays, it took me a few months finally to make the call. Rabbi Heber told me that they had found a donor for the young man, but he had so many other people on his list. If I was still interested, I should do some initial basic blood and urine work and a pelvic ultrasound, and then get back to him. He would in the meantime see for whom on his list I would be most suitable.
During subsequent conversations Rabbi Heber suggested that I be tested for two sisters, both in their 40's, both on dialysis, both mothers of large families. The results of my pelvic ultrasound were somewhat problematic, and Rabbi Heber's medical advisors advised me to do more investigations before continuing. These further tests thank God came back fine, and finally one day Rabbi Heber informed me that I had an appointment for compatibility testing at Beilinson Hospital, in Petach Tikva, where 70% of all the transplants are performed in Israel.
Early one morning last Chanukah five women met in the outpatient department of Beilinson Hospital – the two delightful sisters, their mother (a charming lady just slightly older than myself), another potential kidney donor (a most special lady who has since become a friend) and myself. We discovered that we had so much in common – we were all English-speaking, all immigrants, all religious. I felt some kind of magic in the air. The mother emailed me afterwards: "I think that yesterday morning was very special. There was a marvelous 'chemistry' in the relationships and for us it was a significant experience. Somehow, I feel that we are finally on our way and that we are not alone."
After blood was drawn for cross-matching and tissue-matching, we all trooped up to the Department of Transplantation where both potential donors and potential recipients had to meet separately with the transplantation coordinator and with the doctor who heads up the kidney transplant service. Now officially entered into the system as a potential kidney donor, I was given lists of more tests and investigations. If you successfully perform a whole bunch of tests, you "graduate" to more expensive and difficult ones. If any test comes back with an issue (e.g. a number outwith the normal range), then that has to be separately followed-up and investigated. This happened to me four times.
When the compatibility tests came back it turned out that I was a match for the younger sister, aged 42, a mother of nine children, whom I'll call Aviva. Aviva had endured five years of three-times-a-week dialysis, three hours each time. So now I knew the brave woman for whom I was carrying out all these tests! My fellow donor proved to be a match for the older sister.
Why Do You Want to Do This?
In America a prospective donor is generally interviewed by a psychologist, social worker or psychiatrist. In Israel I was sent to all three! The psychologist performed a full psychological examination with ink-blot tests and with a variety of other psycho-diagnostic instruments. For all these interviews (except with the psychologist) the unfortunate potential recipient also has to turn up, be separately interviewed and produce all the necessary papers.
The atmosphere was reminiscent of a court room with me on trial.
Aviva and I were summoned to appear before the Transplantation Committee of the Ministry of Health. It was quite an ordeal. After a long wait I was called and told that it is forbidden to take anything with me into the committee room, with the exception of the original advert which they had told me to bring along. I was ushered into a room containing an enormous table surrounded by several strangers who all introduced themselves – a medical professor, a psychologist, a social worker, a lawyer, a representative of the Ministry of Health, a representative of the public, and others I don’t recall, and all in the presence of a stenographer taking down every last word. They each had a thick file before them, presumably containing all the results of my myriad investigations and assessments. The atmosphere was reminiscent of a court room with me on trial.
The professor was the chairman and he adopted an aggressive approach. Why do you want to do this? It doesn't make sense! I just don't understand! Then they all took turns firing questions at me. They all kept referring to my age and the number of my grandchildren as if no one of my age or with my quota of grandchildren should even be thinking of doing such a thing. Rabbi Heber had advised me to remain firm and betray no uncertainty, and that is what I tried to do.
Shortly before the transplant I met Dr. Evgeny Solomonov, the surgeon. He explained to me the entire procedure and I have great gratitude to this doctor for his surgical skills that undoubtedly contributed to my swift and almost painless recovery.
Two weeks after Purim we finally got the clearance from the Ministry of Health, and a date was set for the following week, which was just one week before Passover. We had to go in to the hospital on the Saturday evening. Just before my husband and I left home, our rabbi came and gave me a beautiful blessing. He also told me that he knew we had been keeping the potential transplant confidential, but he advised me that afterwards I should talk about it freely so that others might be encouraged to follow my example.
Sunday afternoon Aviva and all the nurses gave me a great send-off from the ward. I had requested that I be given sedation before going into the O.R. and I was very grateful for that. My husband, who accompanied me as far as the door of the O.R., looked as if he too could do with some sedation. Aviva was due to go down later and was supposed to be anesthetized in an adjoining O.R. to await direct transfer of my kidney. But my own surgery went so smoothly and quickly that Aviva was still in the ward when she was called. She later told me that they literally ran with her on her bed to the elevator, down to the O.R.
"It must be working – without dialysis I would be crawling on the floor by now."
When I woke up I felt great and had no pain; apparently they leave slow-release anesthetic inside which lasts for two days. My husband was with me when I was later taken back to the ward. In the evening my older son came and spent the night and next day looking after me as my husband had to go to work (and my daughters were busy preparing for Passover). After spending the night in the recovery room, Aviva was brought back up the next day and we shared a room until my release on Wednesday. For the first day or so there was some concern if the transplanted kidney was working properly, but on Wednesday morning, as we awaited the results of more tests, Aviva turned to me and said: "It must be working – I last had dialysis on Sunday morning and normally without dialysis I would be crawling on the floor by now." Indeed the blood tests later showed that her creatinine, the key marker of kidney function, was way down, approaching normal levels.
Writing this four weeks later, Aviva was released from the hospital in time for Seder. She has not needed any further dialysis and God willing she will remain in good health for many years to come. She phones me periodically to report on her progress and to hear how I am doing; her mother says we have become extended family.
The saga has been a most amazing experience for me – of a similar level of joy and wonder as giving birth. I prayed throughout that I would have the merit to pass all the hurdles and to be allowed to be a kidney donor; I am just so grateful to the Almighty that I was indeed able to do this mitzvah.
A postscript: The other day my older daughter phoned me and told me she had just had a most unusual dream. She dreamed that I had told her that I was about to donate a chamber of my heart! She said it was too soon after the kidney surgery, and I said that's no problem – I can recuperate from both surgeries together. My daughter was very worried because this was all taking place within one day including the Ministry of Health hearing and she knew that for the kidney transplant I had researched the issue for months.
When Aviva heard the above story she said to me that I really did give her a piece of my heart.