The Human Spirit: Kidney give-away

Judith Abrahams can't pinpoint exactly when she decided to give away her kidney, but she can tell you about the wonder and joy of it.

By
June 24, 2011 16:10
Surgeons preparing organ transplant (illustrative)

organdonation311. (photo credit: Michael Ainsworth/Dallas Morning News/MCT)

Judith Abrahams of Rehovot can’t pinpoint the moment she decided to give away her kidney.

When she describes the process, she mentions the story of the late MK Rabbi Avraham Ravitz receiving a kidney donation. But Ravitz’s surgery took place in 2000. Only about two years ago did Abrahams start surfing the Web and contacting sites that deal with transplants.

She began perusing the ads placed in the religious newspaper Yated Ne’eman seeking donors to save the lives of individual patients suffering from end-stage renal disease: men, women, young, middle-aged, single, parents, and some, like Abrahams herself, grandparents.

All 12 of Ravitz’s children had volunteered their kidneys to their father, but for those in the ads, no willing family member or friend was a match. They were relying on the kindness of strangers, not only to attain freedom from a life of dialysis, but for life itself.

Abrahams and her husband Alan, a physician, grew up in Scotland, and over three decades ago, after becoming more religiously observant, they moved to Israel, where they have worked and brought up their family. Even though statistics minimize the risk of injury or death to the donor, Alan was not enthusiastic about his wife undergoing surgery. Their rabbi, Dovid Stein of Kehillat Beit Chatam in Rehovot, said that while donating was a mitzva, she was under no obligation to to do it. The American woman who runs the website called KidneyMitzvah.com told Abrahams that if she was indeed serious about donating, she should go on a diet.

Losing weight was never easy for Abrahams, who likes to cook and entertain, but she joined an exercise/diet group at the Community Center and began working out and cutting calories. A year later she weighed 13 kilos less and could jog up stairs. Still, all of the advertisements in the paper were seeking a younger donor.

Then she saw it: an ad for a young man who needed a kidney, blood group A or O. No age limit. Abrahams is type A.

The contact number in the newspaper wasn’t for the young man himself, but for an organization she’d never heard of. Indeed, Matnat Chaim – Gift of Life is a new organization run by Rabbi Yeshayahu Heber, a former school principal from Jerusalem. Heber has given up his day job to promote live transplants, making matches for kidney disease patients and donors.

He knows the need from inside: Three years ago, at age 45, he received a kidney from a friend. Eager to pay back the good deed, Heber took a night job teaching in yeshiva to give him the time to promote altruistic donations.

According to Heber, the official figures of 750 patients in Israel waiting for transplants doesn’t count those in the process of getting on the list. “The number is really twice as high, and many won’t survive on dialysis before they get a kidney,” he says.

Before Abrahams could call Heber, her mother passed away. When she did get in touch, Heber had already succeeded in finding a donor match for the man whose ad she’d read in the paper.

“I was disappointed, but he assured me that there were others waiting,” she says.

He told her about two sisters, both mothers of large families. They both suffered from hereditary kidney disease and were on dialysis. Abrahams began the process of medical examination: blood tests, pelvic exams, compatibility checks. More blood tests, pelvic exams, compatibility checks. X-rays, EKG’s, CT scans. As the medical obstacle-course lengthened, her husband proved to be helpful and supportive.

Then Abrahams, a mother of four and double-digit grandma who is an experienced intellectual property counsel for a biotech company, had to undergo her first-ever psychological testing. She was grilled as to her motives, guilty until proven innocent. She had earned a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Glasgow, but confronting the examiners on the Health Ministry’s Transplantation Committee was harder than defending her thesis. The panel of experts included a professor of medicine, a psychologist, a social worker, a lawyer, and representatives of the ministry and the public. A stenographer recorded every word.

“They kept asking why I wanted to do this, insisting it didn’t make sense. They kept referring to my age, and wondered why anyone with so many grandchildren, baruch Hashem, would want to do such a thing,” she recalls.

At last, Abrahams received government approval to give away her kidney. Her recipient would be the younger of the two sisters, 42 and a mother of nine.

Abrahams is 62.

HEBER SAYS that kidney transplantation has unfairly gained a bad reputation: “There are all those urban legends about someone traveling abroad waking up missing a kidney in a bathtub filled with ice. There are also profiteers making money on kidney sales. With more public awareness, I’m sure many more people would donate.”

He has made over 50 successful matches in the last two years.

One of the professionals who screened Abrahams told her that many of the altruistic donors were ba’alei teshuva, Jews who have become Orthodox. Chaya Lipschutz of New York, the kidney donor who runs KidneyMitzvah.

com, confirms this, at least for her Israeli contacts.

“Six of the seven Israeli transplants I’ve been involved with received kidneys from returnees to the faith,” she says.

Heber says he never asks his religious donors if they were born into religious families or not. “But I can tell you that many come from English-speaking countries,” he adds. “They are far more than their percentage in the population.”

Several high-profile members of Jewish outreach movements, notably Chabad Rabbi Ephraim Simon and Aish HaTorah lecturer Lori Palatnik, have donated their kidneys to strangers.

The much-anticipated day of Abrahams’s surgery arrived in April, a week before Pessah. Despite her determination, Abrahams took a sedative to overcome lastmoment anxiety. “My husband looked as if he could use one, too,” she adds. She said good-bye to him at the door of the operating room.

The surgeon made four small incisions, and using laparoscopic methods removed one kidney.

When she woke up about four hours later, her husband was there by her side.

He had arranged for them to go to a hotel for Pessah.

Her recovery was quick and uneventful.

The recipient of Abrahams’s kidney has also fully recovered. She’s now a healthy wife and mom. Heber found a donor for her older sister, too, and now she has a new kidney as well.

I met Abrahams on her lunch break recently in Jerusalem’s Har Hotzvim hi-tech/biotech industrial area. The day before, she had attended a conference of the Haredi Women Professionals’ Network. She’s back to exercising and feels spry.

No, Judith Abrahams can’t pinpoint the exact moment she decided to give away her kidney. Nor can she tell you exactly why she felt compelled to do it.

She can only compare passing on her kidney to the wonder and joy of having a baby. Whether bringing forth new life or donating a part of herself, she feels blessed to be among the givers.

To donate a kidney, contact Rabbi Yeshayahu Heber of Matnat Chaim: www.kilya.org.il, or (050) 411-7014. Chaya Lipschutz in the US can be reached through www.kidneymitzvah.com

The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.


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