By Akiva Palmer
Some people still remember me as Jay Palmer. But to hundreds, maybe even thousands, I was Yaacob Akiva ben Blima. Less than a week ago, you were saying Tehillim for me and for my match, Avraham Baruch ben Tova.
It all started with an e-mail on chol ha’moed Sukkos from my shul. Kneseth Israel, the White Shul in Far Rockaway, is renowned for its TLC–Torah, learning, and chesed–spiritually guided by Rabbi Eytan Feiner, shlita, and Rabbi Motti Neuburger, shlita. Someone from our shul needed a kidney. Sometimes my mouth speaks before my brain processes, and I called right away and asked if I could be the kidney donor. After speaking with Betty Pearlman, (who together with her husband William are tremendous pillars of our community, at the forefront of the needs of the klal), who was the liaison for the recipient’s family, I knew this was the right thing to do.
I was the fourth person on the list. (And I thought I answered the e-mail right away!) After the initial basic blood test, I was found to be incompatible with this recipient. Yes, I know the old joke: “You’re so dumb, you failed your blood test!”
But maybe I would be compatible with someone else? Why should I just stop there? There must be someone out there that I am compatible with who needs a kidney. So after consulting with Rabbi Feiner, I contacted Renewal, where my journey began.
From the first call to Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, Renewal’s director, I felt I was part of a family that’s kulo chesed. Renewal’s staff and volunteers–the real heroes–dedicate themselves to making a shidduch (a donor match) and saving another life. This world-renowned organization has earned the respect and admiration of every transplant hospital and transplant team, and it’s run al pi da’as Torah, with Rabbi Oelbaum, shlita, at its helm.
What a kiddush Hashem. I never looked back or had any second thoughts.
I just needed to get my family on board. A bit nervous, I mentioned to my eishes chayil, Rochel, with a box of her favorite chocolates in my hands–just as a backup of course–that I wanted to pursue further testing to see if I would qualify as a donor and then to find a matching recipient.
My wife is a true tzaddekes. The real deal. I know what you are thinking, “He’s kind of biased. Of course he thinks his wife is a ba’alas chesed.” Perhaps the plaques from Ohel, Bikur Cholim, and other projects, and the pictures on our mantel of our foster children and now, years later, of their children attest to the type of open home we have been blessed with. She has never said no to someone in need.
The box of chocolates came in handy. But true to her pure, kind neshamah, and putting up with me and my somewhat spontaneous crazy ideas over the years, she not only gave me permission, but in the spirit of k’ish echad, b’lev echad, was extremely proud of my decision.
The testing, you ask? Oy, don’t ask. Extremely thorough. I spent a complete day in the hospital (Mount Sinai, in my case) and went from one department to another for testing–cardiology, nephrology, gastro, CAT scans, psychological testing, sonograms–you name it. So, as this serious tech was giving me a sonogram, he asked me, “Have you ever received a sonogram before?”
“No,” I told him. “Not since the last time I was pregnant.”
Don’t think he found it funny. My friends couldn’t believe that I actually passed the psych part. It was an amazing kiddush Hashem when I told them that I was not giving it to a family member or to someone I knew, what they call an altruistic or Samaritan donor, but just giving it because someone out there is dying and needs one. Once I said that and they saw that I was going through Renewal they dispensed with the rest of the standard questions, like “Why are you really doing this?” or “Did a little voice in your head tell you to do this?” Thank Gâ€‘d, I passed that test.
So after about two months of testing, I got the green light. I only had to do one repeat, and that was when the cardiologist said, “Oh, it’s probably nothing, butÂ .Â .Â .” I think at that point my heart actually did skip a beat. Seeing my obvious fright, she said, “Could be nothing but I saw something and you should come back in a month for another echocardiogram.” So how come when doctors tell you “it’s most likely nothing,” we get the most scared? Anyway, I came back and .Â .Â . it was nothing. She said maybe I had a cold or something and that was the “little” congestion she saw last time. At least my davening improved that month!
Oh, one last test. Being that it was about two months since the initial testing, they had to do a final “cross-matching” test to make sure that both the donor and recipient are still compatible. We both passed, b’H.
Throughout this whole life-changing experience, there have been many opportunities and at the same time obligations of hakarasha’tov. How can I even begin to be makirtov to Hashem, who has always watched over me and kept me b’H healthy enough to be able to perform this awesome mitzvah? My tefillos, especially a new appreciation for the simple yet miraculous tefillashoda’ah of “Asher Yatzar” has and will never be the same. The complexity of the human body and yet at the same time the seemingly natural and normal daily functions are nothing short of a miracle. (U’mafli la’asos.) As we say in Modim D’Rabbanan “Al she’anachnu modim Lach,” we even thank You, Hashem, for granting us the opportunity to thank You. That’s awesome.
So the surgery date was set. February 9, which happened to be my birthday. We invited everyone over for Shabbos on the pretext of my upcoming birthday and my delicious birthday cake. But what should we say?
We turned to the Fellers. Nesanel Feller is a kidney donor and has been my mentor, trailblazer, and adviser for everything. Nesanel impressed upon me the need to exercise, work out, eat right, etc. For the last three months and I hope iy’H to continue soon, I’ve biked, jogged, treadmilled, and b’H not only did they dismiss me from the hospital a day earlier (like parole with good behavior), I was at shul the next morning, Rosh Chodesh, and davened with a minyan that Renewal set up just for me, made up of previous kidney donors. I think between the 11 of us, there were only 12 kidneys in the whole room.
But while Nesanel gave me the physical advice, Deena Feller, Nesanel’s eisheschayil, gave me the spiritual advice. Another one of our local special tzidkaniyos, Deena advised us to present the news to the family in the same way that we ourselves felt about it. If we are upbeat and convey excitement and enthusiasm, then that is how our family would feel as well. Simplicity is always more profound. And she was right on the mark.
My tzaddekes eishes chayil took the lead and simply told our clan (while they were eating the birthday cake) that she has always been proud of me being part of Chevra Hatzalah and now this is another opportunity Hashem has given Abba to save someone’s life. For the first time in a long time, I was speechless and one could feel the nachas across the room.
Surgery? I don’t remember much. We checked in at 5:30 a.m. Renewal gathered a minyan for me. After davening, I remember changing and then telling my wife right before surgery that she should take an Uber cab and go shopping. We were in Manhattan and it would be hours until I finished surgery. She immediately told the surgeon to check my IV; I must be delirious if I’m telling her to go on a shopping spree. I guess that’s what they mean by binah yeseirah.
Next thing I remember was recovery and then my private room. Some privacy! You remember the old hospital joke that they wake you up in the middle of the night so you can take your sleeping pill? It’s true. Every 15 minutes it’s something else. But that just means they care.
The next day, you ask? Apparently, the surgical team, who saw me that morning “up and about,” snitched on me, and the head of transplant surgery, Dr. Chin, came down to “see for himself.” (We have pictures of us during Hallel.) He told me after davening, when he officially dismissed me a day earlier than expected, that he never saw such a fast recovery. I told him I have Someone special upstairs watching over me. The buzzword around the hospital for the Renewal donors is not “altruistic” or “Samaritan” but “mitzvah.” As in, “Oh, so you are doing this because it’s a mitzvah?” Mi k’amcha Yisrael goy echad ba’aretz! And that’s why when the team of surgical nurses and doctors visited me the next day, someone wished me a belated happy birthday. I said, “How did you know it was my birthday yesterday?” She told me that after they “put me under” they sang “Happy Birthday” to me.
What an amazing and talented team.
How do I feel? I’m still awed and speechless. I thought that being part of Chevra Hatzalah for over 20 years would have prepared me for almost anything. There’s no denying the exuberant feeling when working together on a code (a patient in cardiac arrest) that “bringing them back” can feel. But personally giving a part of yourself so that someone else cannot just live or survive, but regain their quality of life is a different feeling.
About 10 minutes before leaving the hospital, I received a message that my recipient, who up until now I did not know or meet, requested to see me. I was more nervous meeting him than going through the actual surgery. What kind of person was he? Would he take care of my kidney? No backsies, right?
The emotion felt in that room was indescribable. They were so grateful and could not stop thanking us. It felt like somewhere, someplace, not in this world but in a higher place, we were somehow connected and that the pieces of the puzzle of Hashem’s master plan were coming together. Deena Feller pointed out wisely that this meeting itself and the hashgachah pratis of finding a match almost immediately after the family contacted Renewal, after years of trying within the regular kidney donor system, was an extra and unplanned kiddushHashem.
Recovery? Well, chasdeiHashem and with everyone’s tefillos and a lot of siyattad’Shmaya, I have been up and around and going to shul every day and attending all my regular shiurim from my beloved rebbeim–R’Â Feiner, R’Â Neuberger, and R’Â Kanner. My wife jokes that she’s the best Uber cab around, driving me from shul to shiur many times a day. Now you understand what I mean by tzaddekes?
Once I was in shul, I saw the paper on the bimah asking everyone to be mispallel for me and my recipient. What an amazing achdus we have in the Five Towns. If seems that everyone was davening for us. I was especially touched when Rabbi Kreiger, principal of Yeshiva Ketana, came up to me and said, “You’re the one we have been saying Tehillim for?” He said Tehillim with all his boys that day.
My goal or dream was being able to walk to shul on Shabbos and still participate in all the shiurim. The White Shul is such an amazing place to learn and grow. There is a joke that if you fall or get lost anytime there you’ll land or wind up in some shiur or minyan. They treated me like a king last Shabbos. Nesanel Feller, besides being my donor mentor, happens to be the chairman of the board together with Tuvia Silverstein, who gives an awesome weekly Chumashshiur and basically runs the White Shul. So he gives me a choice of kibbudim:Shelishi or Hagba’ah. Well, that was easy! A chashuvah rebbetzin baked us a cake for Shabbos and when I called to thank her, she told me “Don’t worry–when you give the other one, I’ll bake you another.”
But even better than the kibbudim and cakes was the z’chus and opportunity to dance with Rabbi Feiner and the chevrah during a subfreezing KiddushLevanah.
I was glowing from all the warmth that emanated.
For more information about kidney donation or if you need a kidney transplant, please call 718-431-9831 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.