By Mrs. Sharon Mintz
We all have heroes. Some come from beloved childhood stories or embody special family members like a parent or grandparent. Our heroes may be people we’ve never met, extraordinary individuals who struggle to selflessly improve our world or make vital scientific discoveries; they may be great leaders of nations.
But my hero is Jeffrey Greenberg, an ordinary but extraordinary Jewish American man in his mid-thirties. He is my hero because he voluntarily gave a vital part of himself to a stranger, and as a result, he saved my husband’s life. There are no words to express my gratitude to him. Because of Jeffrey’s initiative, courage, and generosity, our dark clouds have been lifted and the sun is now shining through.
Enough time has passed since Arlan’s kidney transplant surgery to allow me to finally focus on writing the story of our journey. The next few months will bring many occasions for gratitude and thanks. As we move through this season of thankfulness and harvest, I find myself so grateful for the kindness of others; friends, family, and especially strangers. The actions of these extraordinary people have enriched our lives and made me grateful for what we have accomplished so far and for what we will continue to accomplish because of their caring and assistance.
Passover of April 2014 now seems so long ago yet also so recent in my memory. It was then that Arlan told me about his latest medical tests indicating that his creatinine levels were becoming critical, and that he was considered to be in end-stage renal failure. His kidneys had deteriorated so quickly that he was unlikely to survive the waiting list of several years for a cadaver donor. His only hope of survival was to find a live kidney donor–and quickly.
Intellectually, I always knew that difficult day would come. Arlan has PKD–a genetic disorder of the kidneys that he inherited from his late father–and since the first time I heard him utter those words to me I knew that one day he would need a kidney transplant.
But Arlan had always been so healthy and fit, and, until then, totally asymptomatic for PKD. It was easy to “forget” the disease that was lurking just beneath the surface. We had always pushed such thoughts aside and resolved to live our lives. However, in the back of my mind, that day always hung like a dark cloud ready to break into storm at any moment.
Still, most people are never “ready” for bad news, especially when it comes to health matters. Initially, I was in shock. My next emotion was devastation, and my third was pure panic. Oh my Gâ€‘d .Â .Â . we need to find a live kidney for Arlan and we need to find one now! I already knew that I was not a match as my blood type was wrong for him, so we needed to look elsewhere.
Arlan is a private person and his chosen profession of neurosurgery requires discretion, so he was reluctant to create a Facebook page or make an appeal via social media. Therefore, my quest for a live kidney donor would be a quiet but persistent whisper, rather than the loud roar that was my original instinct. As there were no good matches available in our families, we had to get creative. I realized that you can’t just call up even close friends and ask for their kidney, but you can share why you are so desperate for a live kidney donor, why dialysis isn’t an option in certain cases, and educate them about how to discreetly network in the hopes that someone they know might know of someone else who would be willing to be tested as a potential donor.
Looking back, it all sounds a little crazy. But I was desperate to get the word out, and this was the only way to do so while still respecting Arlan’s need for confidentiality. We entered a new world, learning about those who traveled to Sri Lanka, China, even Israel (before its donor system changed) for private transplants. Some had happy endings, others did not. But the risks seemed considerable, and the ethics questionable.
But as the days passed, I was faced with doubts. Who would actually consider becoming an “altruistic” donor? Altruistic donation means that donor and recipient have no connection, and are essentially complete strangers. The donor decides completely on free will and an altruistic desire to save an anonymous life. It is also illegal to compensate a donor monetarily for an organ, and the surgery is considered major, can involve considerable pain in the early stages, and requires time off work for rest and recuperation afterward. Wasn’t this asking too much from a total stranger?
I took a real “all hands on deck” approach. I wanted everyone I contacted, especially family members, to reach out to at least four people each day and tell them our story. Just simply and casually share the story about our need for a live kidney donor in the hopes that this would miraculously generate the one response we needed.
In a short period of time, several people started coming forward, willing to go through the long and tiring medical process to see if they were a match for Arlan. Courageous and selfless people simply wanting to help him. It still brings tears to my eyes when I think about these extraordinary, exceptional, and truly amazing people who were willing to donate one of their kidneys to Arlan. Every time the phone would ring from another person offering to help, I would drop to my knees and cry. It was such a humbling experience. Words just aren’t enough to truly express my feelings.
Despite the encouraging feedback, the process, and the waiting that comes along with it, was excruciatingly long. Medical testing to determine the compatibility of potential donors can take up to four weeks. If a donor had a matching blood type, a long and time-consuming medical screening was performed to ascertain if they were an all-around match for Arlan. Blood type is only the first step; a host of other markers determine compatibility and it can take weeks to confirm the match and the health of the potential donor. To me this meant that we had to keep on looking.
Even as Arlan underwent his own tests to prepare him for transplant, it seemed there were delays and problems everywhere, and every step seemed to take forever. He needed to be ready for surgery at a moment’s notice. The problem was that we were running out of moments. We still didn’t know if any of the potential donors would match.
Eventually it was determined that, unfortunately, just like with Arlan’s brother who might have been the best possible match, none of the potential donors were good enough matches to qualify as a donor. Regardless, every single one of these people that came forward with the intent to donate their kidney is extraordinary and I will be forever grateful to each one for trying.
Both of our families continued searching. Back in Toronto, Arlan’s mother’s rabbi told her about an organization that might be a good resource for us. With offices in Brooklyn and Toronto, Renewal is a nonprofit organization that helps support kidney recipients in critical need and assists in the search for voluntary live kidney donors of any religious background or creed. Many are altruistic or “angel” donors, strangers who heroically offer a kidney to save another stranger’s life. Renewal promotes the mitzvah of kidney transplants through presentations in the greater community. Along with raising awareness through this information campaign and running an informative website, they guide the matching and transplant process in a multitude of ways, offering emotional support and mentorship for donors and recipients.
Furthermore, Renewal promotes awareness of kidney transplant and the difficulties of dialysis. They also provide support and mentorship for the donor and the recipient along with a host of important factors involved in the matching process. The Renewal team comprises a group of hardworking, dedicated, driven, and highly knowledgeable individuals who are recognized and highly respected within the medical community as a comprehensive resource for both the kidney donor and recipient. The Renewal team saves lives and supports families and communities every day.
At the time, we knew little about Renewal but were determined not to leave any stone unturned. On Monday, May 26, 2014, Memorial Day, we ventured out to Brooklyn to meet with the Renewal team. Although Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz and Menachem Friedman could not have been kinder, more compassionate, or better informed, I was skeptical.
Renewal’s average wait time, though much shorter than the national wait time of roughly seven years, is approximately one year. When you or your loved one is the one waiting, one year can seem like eternity, especially when dialysis is imminent. Regardless, we listened as they continued to welcome us and provide us with proven statistics that supported their track record. Although they have a waiting list of about 200 people, they were responsible for roughly 35 out of 145 altruistic donations, which is about 25% per year. The donor and recipient are complete strangers; the donor donates of his or her own free will.
All they asked from us was to have faith in them. There was no fee, and no pressure to donate or embrace additional religious beliefs. In turn, they promised that, Gâ€‘d willing, they would do their best to find a donor for Arlan. What more could we ask for? We added Arlan’s name to the list of 200+ kidney-recipients-in-waiting.
After more handshakes and kind smiles, we drove back to Philadelphia, thinking that these wonderful people did worthwhile work, but agreeing that this would probably go nowhere for us. We believed that it was a long shot, that we would never hear from them again, but at that point we had to consider all options. We were experiencing a crisis and time was quickly running out.
Several more weeks passed without news from Renewal. These were dark and difficult times. We were approaching crisis, and Arlan’s time was starting to run out.
At the time we were newcomers to Philadelphia and, adding to our stress, were in the midst of a major renovation to our new home when Arlan got the bad news. I had not gotten around to hanging a mezuzah on our new front door. My mother was reminding me regularly to “please put up the mezuzah!” and stressing that “it’s important; you must hang the mezuzah now!” She even purchased a scroll and new mezuzah for us when she last visited.
On June 25, I resolved to finally hang our new mezuzah; less than 24 hours later, Arlan received a call from the donor coordinator of Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. She was calling to advise that she’d received news from Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of Renewal that Arlan’s donor match had been found! The donor had already been cleared for someone else, but the intended recipient found an even better match. So this donor was ready and eager–and apparently a very good match for Arlan.
Renewal stores all of the recipient’s medical information so as not to waste time or build up false hopes before placing that call to the transplant team. Renewal had confirmed recipient and donor compatibility well beyond blood type and ensured the proposed donor felt “ready to go.” We later learned that Renewal’s skill and reputation for success is so renowned that when a Renewal team member calls a transplant coordinator, both parties already know that the match will qualify.
We also learned that so as not to interfere with or influence the altruistic donor, Renewal prohibits contact between recipient and donor and their families from the time of the match until the day of surgery. Only if the donor agrees to contact is any connection made, either on the day of surgery or thereafter. At that point, we knew only that our “angel” was a healthy male in his mid-thirties, living close to the New York City area. But more importantly, we knew that he was a proper match, ready and willing to give Arlan the greatest gift–life–by donating his kidney.
Surgery was scheduled for Thursday, August 21 at New York’s Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center with Arlan’s preferred surgical team led by Dr. Sandip Kapur. Since the donation is based on the donor’s free will, we were never sure until the day of surgery whether the donor would actually show up.
Before sunrise on the appointed day, Arlan and I huddled in the pre-surgical waiting room with family members and a close friend. Would the surgery proceed as planned or would there be more delays and disappointments? Then, at 5:45 a.m. sharp, in walked our donor. How did I know he was our donor? It was easy. He was the one with the bright halo of light radiating around his face. Seriously. Just one look and I just knew that he was our angel sent from heaven. He walked into the pre-operative waiting room accompanied by his good friend Jessie Katz, David Schischa from Renewal, and another former donor from Renewal. We learned his name: Jeffrey Greenberg. Just the whisper of his name brings tears to my eyes.
Jeffrey told me that he wanted to donate his kidney to someone who would put it to good use. Speaking as Arlan’s wife, I know that he will not disappoint. The torch that our hero kindled on August 21, 2014, will stay lit, and the goal of “paying it forward” by continuing to help others is already in motion. Arlan will now be able to return to his lifework of improving and saving many lives each year through his specialized form of neurosurgery.
I realize as well that Arlan has always practiced the value of tikkunolam, or saving the world, even if he doesn’t call it that. His lifetime love for animals and respect for their habitats, as well as his underwater and nature photography, will continue, using this wonderful gift that Jeffrey has given him.
For me personally, this experience has had a profound and spiritual effect. It has strengthened my belief in Hashem. It has made me feel more connected to the Jewish community, as brothers and sisters living under the covenant of Judaism, put on Earth to help each other. It has restored my faith in humanity and renewed my appreciation of how blessed I am to be Jewish. I feel a strong sense of Jewish unity and don’t want to ever break the chain. I have even started to observe some traditions of Shabbat in our home, lighting the candles at sundown on Friday nights to welcome the Shabbat, to respect and enjoy this gift and to stay connected to the Jewish community, and to bless not only our own family and friends, but our newest family member and my hero: Jeffrey Greenberg.