Today I have a lot for which to be thankful. I have been blessed in so many ways: an amazing wife, incredible kids, excellent friends, a fulfilling career, a wonderful community, and good health.
I am also grateful that this past year I was able to successfully give the “gift of life” by donating my left kidney to someone with advanced kidney disease. I have worked hard over the last couple of decades to eat right, exercise, get plenty of rest, and practice other forms of self-care. It has paid off. I have always said that one of the best motivations for being physically active and eating right is in order to be healthy enough to help those around you–sort of like the message of the air masks that fall during an unlikely cabin depressurization; I have helped myself first, and then assisted others around me. This has been the focus of my career as a rabbi and now as a personal trainer as well. I never imagined, though, that I would be able to donate an organ (at least, while I was alive)–especially at the age of 58–but all those years of watching what I eat and going to the gym helped make it possible–not only for me, but for the two people and their loved ones who benefited from my donation.
A couple of weeks ago we had a 6-month Kidney-versary dinner here in Cleveland (pictured above). It was great to get the three donors and three recipients and their spouses together. It was even better to see everyone doing so well. I hope that we will continue to get-together as we are able to give thanks for the miracles of modern medicine that make it all possible–along with the outstanding doctors, nurses, and other caregivers. We are now all tied together by a very special bond.
For the first time this year, I feel like I am truly thankful not only for what I have, but for what I am able to give. I look forward to more opportunities to continue on this path…but I do plan to keep my other kidney!
Wishing everyone a happy and healthy Thanksgiving!
Wednesday was a big day. The Cleveland Clinic arranged for all three donors and all three recipients in our “daisy chain” to meet each other in person.
I had already met Papa Phil; he was the person for whom I donated even though we were not a match; because of my donation, he got a kidney from another donor. Where the kidney that I donated had gone was a mystery to me…until yesterday.
I got to meet Norman. And he got to meet me.
It was an emotional moment for both of us. Almost overwhelming. An amazing embrace of two strangers who now share something very special.
And it was all caught on tape! The Cleveland Clinic had brought us all together to film a kind of “promo” for the transplant program. Not only was it amazing to meet the guy who got the kidney that had been with me for 58 years, I got to meet the other two donors and the third recipient as well.
The time was brief because I had to run to teach a fitness class. On the way home, my wife read a letter from Norman and a card that his mother had written to me. Although I did not really get a chance to talk with either of them, I could tell that I was going to like them both.
Later in the day, we met at a local restaurant for dinner–all the donors, recipients, relatives, and Dr. Wee, the surgeon who made it all possible!
It was an unbelievable gathering as we all got to know each other. Not everyone was from Cleveland. We are a diverse group as well. We all come from different walks of life. And now, for as long as we live, we will be connected to each other by whatever forces brought us together and by a little organ that weighs less than half a pound.
I will never forget June 30, 2021. For Norman and me, it is the beginning of a relationship. We are now KBs (Kidney brothers). To paraphrase Jewish liturgy: I am grateful to God who brought me into life, sustained me, and allowed me to experience this sacred moment.
During the months leading up to my kidney donor surgery, one of the questions that I was asked over and over again (in many different forms) was: “Why are you doing this?”
The simple answer was that if I had the opportunity to save someone’s life, I wanted to try to do it. But, of course, there are no simple answers…and the question still honestly puzzles me.
Most of the time the answer I gave centered around an incident that happened more than five years ago. I was serving as a rabbi at a large congregation in Columbus and had a member of my congregation who was in need of a kidney. He had placed a sign on the back of his car that said “Got Kidney? I Need One,” along with his phone number. Someone eventually called the number and was a match. I had gone to the OSU Medical Center to sit with the family during the surgery; I went into the immense surgical waiting area and made my way to the check-in desk. I asked for the family of so-and-so, and a moment later a woman (who must have overheard my question) jumped up and asked if I knew that family. HIPAA-be-damned, I told her I was the rabbi from the family’s congregation. She informed me that her daughter was in surgery at that moment donating her kidney to him. I was there when the two families met and it was one of the most incredible moments of my 20+ as a congregational rabbi. I remember saying to myself that if one day I was able to do something like this woman’s daughter had, I should not let the opportunity pass.
The truth was that I had already let it pass a bunch of times. Over the years, the congregation had done text study about organ donation (spoiler: Judaism supports it). I am sure that I had preached about it over the years. Undoubtedly there were Organ Donation Sabbaths too. It had just never occurred to me that this was something I could do (because of my medical history, or because I was raising a family, or because I was too busy, or because this was something that only “heroes” and “angels” do, or because….) And those of you who read my last blog post know, I am still surprised that it actually happened.
So, back to the original question: why did I respond to that FB post for someone I did not know at all?
Growing up, I was always taught how important it was to save a life; in Judaism, one can violate almost any law in order to preserve it. We were also taught that whoever saves one life, it is as if s/he had saved an entire world. I knew this was an important thing but there was still a disconnect for nearly 58 years.
Maybe my response this time was due to a nagging guilt on my part for having talked-the-talk about saving lives without ever really having walked-the-walk. Maybe part of it was that I was fairly certain there was no way I would get approved so I was not really risking anything. (Would I get “brownie points” just for trying?)
Like so much of what we study in our lives, we can learn about it, but when do we really get a chance to put it into action? In this regard, unless we are medical professionals (doctors, nurses, therapists, technicians, etc.), how often are we able to save a life? The opportunities are out there, but sometimes it is not so easy. How many of us donate blood to the Red Cross? (BTW, under doctor’s orders I am not allowed to do that; kidney=yes, blood=no!) How many of us have been swabbed for a possible match for a bone-marrow donation? Are we willing to take time out of our days to be inconvenienced to help others who need our help, whose lives we may not be physically saving but whose quality of life we may be enhancing? Do we stick out our necks when we see someone being harassed? Are we willing to stand up for what is right through more than just a social media post?
We cannot do it all. Pirkei Avot teaches us: Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibatel mimena, “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to not do your part.” The needs in this world are overwhelming–even paralyzing. We must, however, find what speaks to us and do it because we know the price of doing nothing. In the last century, so few people took risks to save victims of the Holocaust while the vast majority simply sat by and did nothing–which is all that was need for evil to triumph.
In the final analysis, I am still not exactly sure why I stepped up this time. It could be that something in the photograph on the FB page reminded me of my own family; if I were in their position, would I not want someone to step forward? It could be that I wanted to prove something to myself: that this almost 58-year-old guy who was sick as a child and got picked last for sports teams, who had decided to get healthy and fit, was now capable of using his body to save someone else. It could be that as I am aging I want to convince myself that I am young enough to do something like this. Perhaps I am trying to assuage feelings that I have not really accomplished anything of significance or made a big enough difference in the world (I know it is not true, but many feel that way at times). I certainly was not doing it for any health or financial benefit. (To be completely transparent, I did get a cool Kidney Donor T-Shirt, pillow, water bottle and tote bag!)
There is an expression in Judaism: Ma sheh-lo lishmah, ba lishmah. Roughly translated, it means that something that you do for the wrong reason, in the end you will come to do for the right reason. Often this refers to people who give money so that they will get their name on a plaque or get some other recognition; charitable giving should be done modestly, but better for the person to give for the plaque than not at all…because eventually they will do it even without the plaque.
Whatever my motivations might have been to get into this whole kidney donation thing, I am not sure that it really matters. In the final analysis, because of my actions Papa Phil got a new kidney, and so did two other people. Does it really matter why I did this? What matters is that I did…when it would have been much easier not to.
I know this has been kind of preachy, but what do you expect from a rabbi? I have learned a lot from this experience, and know that I will continue to do so. My biggest takeaway: we should never assume that we cannot make a difference. I never would have believed that I would be qualified to donate a kidney, but here we are. Of course, making a difference rarely calls for something this drastic. Even the smallest of actions can have a tremendous impact, and it is never too late.
I know that I cannot complete the work; I cannot solve every problem out there in our world. I am grateful to have had the opportunity this time to do my part.
A week ago today (May 25) I underwent a “donor nephrectomy,” which is to say that I donated my left kidney to someone with serious kidney disease through the Cleveland Clinic. I have been home since Thursday and am slowly recovering, every day feeling a little bit stronger.
The process began several months ago when I saw a Facebook post about a guy in the Detroit-area (we’ll call him Papa Phil) who was looking for a kidney. He had launched a campaign on social media and somehow it ended up on my FB feed. I still am not sure where I saw it because we don’t have any FB friends in common; I thought I saw it on a Cleveland Jewish FB Group but cannot find the post anywhere.
I sent a message to his son as directed by the post; he told me to contact the Kidney Donor Office at the Cleveland Clinic which I did. They asked me a few questions and sent me an on-line questionnaire…which I figured, given my medical history, would be the end of it. To my surprise, I was not disqualified right off the bat. After a subsequent phone call with a nurse in the Transplant Center, I still was not disqualified.
What we did find out, however, was that Papa Phil and I were not a match; our blood types are different. I had a choice: either I could walk away at this point, or I could stay in the process and be part of a swap; this means that a yet-to-be-determine John/Jane Doe who matched Papa Phil would give him a kidney, and my kidney would go to John/Jane’s intended recipient with whom they were not a match. I figured that once the kidney was out it did not really matter to me as long as Papa Phil would get a kidney when all was said and done.
Within 24 hours I got a call from the Cleveland Clinic and we were setting up times for me to go to the Main Campus for a full work-up (top to bottom, inside and out). During this time, I was intermittently in touch with Papa Phil’s son; we had a nice line of communication–not bad for a Buckeye fan and a Michigan fan!–but I understood well that Papa Phil probably had dozens of others who were already in process…and further ahead of me too. I decided that from here on in I would not contact the family; partially, I did not want to put a “jinx” on things, but I also did not want to allow myself or him and his family to get too excited by the progress when I knew that well over 100 people had already been disqualified or had backed out.
In mid-April, shortly after Passover I went in for my first day of testing. The day did not start well. First stop was the lab where I was to have a blood draw…30 tubes actually–which if they had told me in advance might have been the end of the whole thing! They got the blood but I nearly passed out. Luckily the rest of the day was easier. I came back a week later for the second round: a full day of meeting with doctors, surgeons, and others. It was the day of the all-important GFR test to determine my kidney function levels; in order to give away one kidney, there must be enough function in the remaining one to allow me to still be in the “normal” range. The hope was that after that second day of testing, they would be able to present my case to the transplant team that Friday. Due to a few tests that came back a little concerning (although ultimately not problematic), I had to do some follow-up tests; the coming week I had also been scheduled for a routine colonoscopy (unrelated to the kidney surgery) and the team wanted to wait for those results as well; everything got pushed back a week.
By this point, I was filled with a mix of emotions. On the one hand, I had gone through so much testing that I was hoping I would qualify to donate just so it would not have been a waste of time. I also know that Papa Phil had come very close to getting a kidney from a posthumous donation, but that had fallen through. I was really committed to this and wanted it to happen. On the other hand, no one was more shocked and surprised than me that I was still in the running. I reasoned that either they were really desperate for kidneys…or I was in much better shape than I thought.
The day of the Transplant Team’s meeting came and went and I heard nothing. I, of course, assumed that this was a “no,” and they just did not want to ruin my weekend. Saturday came and went with no notice on My Chart either. But the phone rang on Monday morning at 7:30 am with the news that I was qualified to donate. No one was more shocked and elated than I.
The next day I got a text from Papa Phil’s son simply stating that he had received an interesting call from the Cleveland Clinic. I responded with a text asking: “Will he be busy on May 25?” The phone rang and we shared our relief and joy together; it turns out that due to privacy laws they had no idea what my status was. They were not even sure it was me that had been qualified.
After that, things moved rather quickly. The same day I was told that surgery would be in 3 weeks, May 25–the day after my 58th birthday! We would be part of a three-way swap; within the span of a couple of days, three people would donate (including me) and three people would receive (including Papa Phil)–all of us part of a daisy chain of mismatches willing to match for others.
I won’t get into the details of all the preparation that needed to take place in 3 short weeks, but it was a mad dash for me to tell people who needed to know, arrange for substitutes for clients, and get legal stuff in order like a living will (signed at 4 pm the day before surgery!).
On May 23, I went with my wife down to Columbus to see my kids to celebrate my birthday a day early. My daughter baked an amazing cake, which luckily did not say “Farewell, Dad!”–although we did joke about it. On the way out of Cleveland, we stopped in to meet Papa Phil and his wife face-to-face. It was a short visit–maybe 15 minutes but I’ll remember it as long as I live. What an amazing feeling to make this connection.
You all know that I am a religious guy. I still cannot figure out how I saw this post on Facebook. I see so many requests for help on social media; why was I moved to act this time? That will be the subject of an upcoming blog post, but I definitely think there has been some divine intervention in this whole process. I have a few more thoughts on this subject, so stay tuned and thank you for sticking with this way-longer-than-usual post.
I am doing OK here, better every day. Best of all, Papa Phil is doing great!!! And we are both looking forward to the blessings that life ahead has to offer.