One day in 2009, Rabbi Yeshayahu Heber felt so ill that he went to the Hadassah University Medical Center emergency room. There he was shocked to be told that both his kidneys had just about stopped functioning and he had to begin immediate dialysis in an attempt to ward off the almost imminent threat to his life. Dialysis is a treatment that filters and purifies the blood and is very painful and time consuming, with most patients sitting three times a week, anywhere from three to five hours. It is not a cure, so finding a kidney donor is vital.
During his treatments, the rabbi met 19-year-old Pinchas who, as an infant, had already received a kidney that saved his life. It had served him well over the years until age 15, when his brother was killed by terrorists while in the army. During the seven days of mourning that followed, Pinchas forgot to take the medicines necessary to keep his body from rejecting that long-ago transplanted kidney. As a result, he went into kidney failure and was put on immediate dialysis. Four years into his treatment, he met another patient also on dialysis – Heber. The two became fast friends despite their difference in age.
In those days, there was no official organization to go to for help and it was very rare for anyone outside of family to donate one of their kidneys. Luckily, a friend offered Heber one of his kidneys and it was a perfect match.
After getting back on his feet, the rabbi vowed to find a kidney for Pinchas. He went up and down his Jerusalem neighborhood looking for people who were willing to donate a kidney, not giving up when people told him he was out of his mind. His persistence paid off and the rabbi found a donor who was a match for his young friend, but tragically, Pinchas died two weeks before the scheduled transplant surgery that would have saved his life. Pinchas’ fight for life had been lost because of the near impossibility of finding a donor. His parents had to sit shiva for another son.
After Pinchas’ funeral, Heber decided to leave his job as an elementary school principal and teacher and dedicate his life to finding kidney donors. There was already a nationally sponsored data bank for organ transplants
– Adi – but these donations came only from the deceased. According to some interpretations of Jewish law, a donation from a deceased donor is forbidden, but those from a living person are “kosher,” so Matnat Chaim (The Gift of Life) was born. It functions as a voluntary not-for-profit organization based on altruistic donations of kidneys for children, teens and adults. There is no money involved.
In its first year, 2009, the rabbi found four donors. In the second year, he found seven. Today they are up to nearly 600 donors – that’s 600 lives saved! Most of the donors are religious, but the recipients are a mix that reflects Israeli society. The heroes of this particular story (besides Heber) are two donors, both modern Orthodox. The recipients are both secular.
JUDY SINGER, 56, made aliyah from Kansas City in the early 1980s.
“Even though everything was going well in my life, I felt like I needed some sort of life upgrade. By chance, I had come across an article written by an old acquaintance who, while visiting in Israel, had donated a kidney to a stranger. I was mesmerized. I did research and found out about Matnat Chaim and met with them several times. After a year of thinking about it, I decided to go for it. I passed all the medical and psychological testing required. My husband and three daughters were very supportive all along the way, a ‘must’ for this type of journey. I was 51. My kidney went to Rena, a 50-year-old cosmetician from Haifa, who has two boys who are almost the same age as my kids. She received her transplant just before she would have had to go on dialysis, thank God. We had never met before, but now we’re close and have a very special relationship.
“I was in the hospital for three days after surgery, at home for about two and a half weeks and then back to work. I take no medicine, have no special diet and no restrictions of any kind. I think I’m actually healthier than before because I exercise more, drink more water and make sure to have an annual checkup. The experience was profoundly moving, meaningful, relatively easy and unbelievably satisfying.”
ECHOING THESE sentiments is Shalom Ashkenazi, the CEO of the Kibbutz Lavi Hotel, who, three years ago, decided he wanted to do something good for someone less fortunate.
“I was 40 years old, healthy, active and the father of seven wonderful children, including two sets of twins. I did some serious soul searching and decided that since God had given me so much, the least I could do was give something back.”
He approached his wife with the idea of donating a kidney
. His kids were shocked at first but then very proud and supportive. The next step was to go to Matnat Chaim.
After being guided through the process there, Ashkenazi was sent to Rambam Medical Center in Haifa for tests, and when it was found that he had met all the requirements necessary, a match was found and a date set for his surgery. The recipient was a 44-year-old man from Karmiel, Sa’ar Nachmani, a building project manager and father of three who had been on dialysis for three long years. Ashkenazi visited Nachmani while he was recuperating, the first time they had met. The two men formed an immediate kinship which, according to both, will last forever.
The above surgeries were both done in Rambam.
After a hospital stay of seven days, Nachmani was back home, returning to work after four months and feeling better than he had in years.
“Dialysis is not a cure, but it kept me alive and I hoped and prayed that I’d get that kidney. But you know, there are some diseases that have no cure, so when you put it that way, I’m a lucky man… there’s a cure for what I have but it depends on the kindness and generosity of strangers, and in my case, Shalom was that stranger. Thanks to him, I’m a new man! I have my life back and the sky’s the limit!”
As for Ashkenazi, being a kidney donor has had a tremendous effect on his life, so much so that he regularly gives lectures on the subject to his visiting Christian and Jewish guests, in English and in Hebrew, with the hope that his message will inspire at least one other person to give the gift of life.
Like Singer, living with one kidney has not had any lasting physical effects on Ashkenazi. He still runs and exercises five times a week, swims and competes in the Jerusalem Marathon on the Matnat Chaim team.
“I feel absolutely fine. Recovery from the surgery was easy and the only thing I have to do is drink lots of water. I’m not on any medication… my life has continued the way it did before with only one huge exception: the immense satisfaction I have gotten from donating a kidney and knowing that I saved another person’s life.”
Singer and Ashkenazi don’t consider themselves to be “heroes.” As Ashkenazi says, “The heroes are the patients who spend years undergoing dialysis and the medical staff that treat them and operate. And of course, Rabbi Heber.”
“Some people told me that I was a very brave person for donating one of my kidneys,” says Singer. “I replied that it had nothing to do with ‘bravery,’ but being fortunate enough to help someone in need. Frankly, I’d do it again if I could.” For more information about kidney donations: (02) 500-0755 or www.kilya.org.il/en
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