My Kidney, with Love

by Shellie Berman-Grafstein

Why would I give my kidney to a total stranger?

Why not? The answer may sound flippant, but if you knew my family background, you would understand where I am coming from. I grew up in a family immersed in giving. While I didn’t grow up religious at all, my parents lived by two mottos. One was “What would G-d say?” and the other was “How would I (my child, my parent) like to be treated”. My parents gave of their money, their time, their expertise, their patience, their love, their lives. Because of that, my siblings and I grew up with a strong sense of giving running through our blood. I like to say that I was nursed on a steady diet of chesed (even though I was bottle fed!).

In 2001, I was coerced to go to a synagogue luncheon, something I am loath to do. I was seated at a table of total strangers and was planning a quick getaway, when a woman was introduced to me as “This is my friend so and so, she donated her kidney to a stranger in New York last year”. I had never heard of something so wonderful and was totally flabbergasted – giving a body part to someone you don’t know. Now that was giving!! What a wonderful way to say thank you to Hashem for the incredible life He has given me. I asked my Rabbi and he told me I was crazy. I had a 4 month old baby and was planning on going to Israel for the year with my family in two months. I filed the idea away in my mind and went about living my life.

About eight years later, I read on about Rebbetzen Lori Palatnick giving her kidney to a stranger. I was friends with Lori when she was a rebbetzen in Toronto. Lori’s act reignited my desire to donate a kidney and so again, I asked my Rav. I had made aliyah to Israel a few years before and it had been heart wrenching for me and my family. Additionally my marriage was falling apart. My Rav said unequivocally NO! It was not the right time at all. I knew he was right.

This past January (in 2013) my 20 year old daughter and I were reading a local magazine, when we spotted a teeny ad that said only “53 year old woman needs a kidney”. I am 53 years old and I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to help out someone who is my age. Both my daughter and I applied to the ad after getting my Rabbi’s blessings. My daughter was immediately rejected. In Israel, women are not allowed to donate to strangers unless they have had a family first. My other four children told me that they too would like to be donors when they are old enough, and they have been unbelievably supportive of me through the entire process.

I was hooked up with an amazing organization called Matnat Chaim, which helped me every step of the journey. I met my potential recipient on the way to the hospital for the first test. There were three of us in the cab, me, the recipient and her best friend. We were to find out if either of us was a match for her. The recipient, Leeba, had an additional complication. She had extremely high antibodies, which meant that her blood would likely destroy a transplanted kidney. I was told by Matnat Chaim that they expected to test 100 people to find a match for her (later in the hospital, she told me of someone she knew who had 300 people tested to be a match). Without this antibody condition, it is usually very easy to find a match. Baruch Hashem, I was a perfect match – the second person tested.

The testing process here in Israel is very long and thorough. They want to make sure that the donor is fit emotionally and physically and they put you through a million tests. I used to joke with my mentor at Matnat Chaim that I was sure the goal was to actually kill me so that could get both kidneys! Even though I was now divorced and supporting 5 children, with the incredible help of my brother and sister, I passed all the hurdles with flying colors.

Finally, almost six months after I began the process, I received a date for the transplant. Leeba and I had become quite close, as we travelled to many of the appointments together and kept in touch by phone and email. We went together to Beilinson Hospital in Petach Tikvah (it is the main kidney transplant center in Israel), along with her husband and son-in-law. Altruistic donors (as we are called here in Israel) are given the red carpet treatment, and I was treated no less than a queen in the hospital. The staff, all of them, were absolutely phenomenal. We arrived the night before surgery and were prepped for surgery the following day. I was so excited. When they came to wheel me down to surgery, the doctor wanted to give me a relaxant and I fought with him that I was totally calm. He won by squirting it in my mouth as I was protesting!! The surgeon had gifted hands and the surgery was completed in around 2 hours.

My wonderful sister-in-law and brother-in law (she was married to my brother who passed away) were waiting for me in the recovery room and were with me for hours after surgery. Leeba had one of her daughters stay in the room with me overnight. The next morning I was walking around and the following morning, 40 hours after surgery, I asked to be discharged. My discharge papers were signed immediately.

I felt really amazing. I didn’t even have to take a single pain killer. While I was healing remarkably well, Leeba wasn’t faring the same. My kidney was not functioning properly in her body. Her diseased kidneys had been disconnected so her life depended on my kidney to work. I fell into depression and sobbed basically non-stop for 2 straight days. I sent out requests around the world for people to pray.

Thank G-d, slowly, slowly, Leeba bas Hadassah’s new kidney began to function. She was released from hospital a few days later, on Tisha B’Av and is now on the road to recovery, baruch Hashem.

Donating my kidney was a marvelous thing to do. It really saves a life. But for me, it wasn’t really a matter of choice; it was what G-d would want me to do. Just for the record, there are over 700 people in Israel alone, waiting for a kidney donor.