One man's story of receiving a new kidney and a new life

In this wild time of coronavirus, Chaim still managed to receive a "new used" kidney.

Ilan Chaim (photo credit: COURTESY OF ILAN CHAIM)
Ilan Chaim
(photo credit: COURTESY OF ILAN CHAIM)
 
Taking a toke on the vaporizer, chilling while listening to Tom Petty and alternatively getting updates on the coronavirus on CNN, I recline on my nifty electric hospital bed, welcoming this blessed Shabbat with my new used kidney.
Two years of waiting, the last of which spent getting dialysis three times a week, four hours each time. Keeping track as a dedicated journalist: 132 sessions X 2 big-gauge needles = 236 holes in my left arm. Limited on the hottest Jerusalem summer’s day to one and half liters of liquid for everything: juice, cereal, soup, coffee, milk, or water.
A kidney-friendly diet strictly limiting everything; just one hotdog, for example, or no avocados. No diet Coke or Pepsi, because of the potassium, just non-cola like Sprite. Five to seven slices of white bread a day, no whole wheat. I lost 56 pounds.
After taking 31 tests and medical procedures, including the extraction of two infected molars, there’s the regular stress test and the stress of the colonoscopy. Every system must be examined to be infection-free before surgery. 
The long hunt for an altruistic donor, scattering leaflets in supermarkets and synagogues, appeals on the internet. Then one day a donor answers my son’s post and I am about to get a kidney from Facebook!
We go separately, not being allowed to know one another’s name beforehand, to the National Transplant Board. I pass, but he is rejected. Back to the search.
Two months later, three days ago, I am summoned to Hadassah for an urgent blood test in the midst of the sudden manifestation of the coronavirus. There was a donor in Tel Aviv and they needed to rush a sample of my blood to Tel Hashomer for possible tissue matching. 
I was instantly elated and conflicted at the same time, for my comforting rationalization at the loss of my donor was the knowledge that a transplant is accompanied by a sudden loss of the body’s natural immunity, due to the drugs must take to protect against rejection. A plague is not a good time for that.
But the lockdown meant that no transplants from live donors were allowed, only from cadavers. Live donors are considered preferable, but none could be available until after the plague, and who knows how much longer this 70-year-old can wait. The clock was ticking. A cadaver kidney was available, and it had my name on it.
It was a clear instantiation of bashert, Yiddish for destiny. A man was brain dead from complications from Parkinson’s. His kidney was extracted at 2 a.m. Wednesday at Sheba in Ramat Gan and inserted in me eight hours later at Hadassah in Ein Kerem.
Now for what makes destiny really interesting. It turns out that knew my donor. He was by brother-in-law’s brother. And we were a perfect match. He died willing his body to saving lives, and his wonderful family thought of me. On the week of my miracle, eight posthumous donors saved the lives of 25 fellow Israelis. I am one of them.
Recovering from surgery, with mixed emotion I called my brother-in-law to express my condolences and my inestimable gratitude. Joy and sadness. We both wept. Now that I have been blessed with an Iraqi kidney, we have become blood brothers.
He was born in Basra, also 70 years ago, before fleeing persecution in Iraq with his parents and brother. I was born in Pittsburgh, after my grandparents fled Ukraine for similar reasons. After living in Israel for 49 years, my growing clan originates from Iraq in the East to Kiev in the North, to Tunis in the South, to Montreal in the West 
During this ingathering of the exiles, my wonderful wife and I have accumulated 11 grandchildren – so far – the latest of whom was born three weeks ago. The lockdown permits us to blow kisses and read stories over WhatsApp. But I would not have been allowed to cuddle with them for a while following a transplant anyway, due to the loss of my immune system to prevent rejection of the kidney.
I won’t be allowed to go swimming for several months either for the same reason, but it looks like nobody else will be, too. Misery doesn’t love company, but this is a small price to pay in the cost-benefit calculus. Maybe I’ll start pedaling a bicycle when we’re allowed to go further than 100 meters.
Anyway, I’ve been working at home for years.
The important thing is that I can now continue doing so for many years to come. My bashert is to receive the gift of life, and it is a mitzvah that is fortunately being observed more and more in Israel, with one peculiarly dangerous tendency.
Rabbi Avraham Heber, the founder of the Matnat Chaim (Gift of Life) NFO, told me that, while there has been a steady increase in the live-donor pool, for some inexplicable reason most would-be donors wish to give their kidneys to a younger person, not to a grandfather aged 70. They think a younger person has their whole life ahead of them, while an older person somehow has less to look forward to.

This is an absurd, immoral calculus. Given the average survival rate of some 20 years for a kidney transplant, and barring unforeseen complications, I could enjoy my donated kidney into my 90s. My 11 grandchildren and their future siblings would undoubtedly benefit from this, as would I while watching them grow. I would also like to continue into my 90s for the simple pleasures of watching myself grow. 

How can someone presume that the rest of my life is somehow worth less than that of someone younger? I assert my right to keep writing, singing, and playing music, scuba diving and riding a motorcycle; celebrating wedding anniversaries and grandchildren’s birthdays. Seventy might not really be the new 60, but it still bears a certain optimism for the future. The quality of life ultimately depends on the quantity of life.

Judaism teaches that saving a life is like saving an entire world. The mitzvah is not saving a younger life, but life itself.

The writer is a former chief copy editor and editorial writer of The Jerusalem Post.