Joy of giving a kidney

"What can I say to someone who saved my life?" he asks. "I can’t ever thank you enough."

ESTI AND husband Hanan visiting the recipient. (photo credit: HADASSAH UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER)
ESTI AND husband Hanan visiting the recipient.
‘I’m so happy, it feels like my wedding day,” says Esti Lerer. The petite, hazel-eyed hassidic mother of three is joyful because she has succeeded in giving away one of her healthy kidneys. “It’s hard to express the elation and ebullience of knowing that I am so fortunate to be able to give away less than 200 grams of my body and to save a life.”
At 28, Lerer is among Israel’s youngest altruistic kidney donors, a person without a familial connection to the recipient. Donating a kidney was her childhood dream, but she had to overcome formidable opposition. To donate a kidney in Israel, you have to be at least 23 years old. Although Lerer was already 27 when she registered, she was rejected, discouraged and her sanity was questioned.
“Along the way I was repeatedly told I was nuts. I should come back at 40.”
“She’s not nuts, she just has her own original ideas,” testifies Lerer’s mom, Yafit Tzukart, who has come from Safed to be with her daughter, recovering at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem. “When she was 19, our son suggested his friend Hanan as a possible husband for Esti. But before they met, my husband warned Hanan that Esti has a big heart but she’s unconventional. Hanan said that was exactly what he was looking for.”
Still, when they discussed life goals on a first date and Lerer told him she wanted to donate a kidney, he said he’d need time to think about it. They were both 19.
Lerer grew up, the sixth of eight children, in the Negev development town of Ofakim, where she often delivered food to needy families. The father of her best friend and next-door neighbor, Tali, suffered for years from kidney disease. He died when Lerer was 16.
“It was the eve of Passover,” she says. “I promised myself then that one day I would donate my kidney to save someone like Tali’s dad.”
She learned about the age limit and the wariness of accepting a kidney from a woman who hadn’t given birth, but she wasn’t discouraged.
“On every date with Hanan I brought it up,” she said. “It wasn’t something you could just wave away.”
Three months after they met, they were engaged.
Esti works as a counselor for youth at risk, and the couple owns a corner market. Their children are seven, five and two.
“I was encouraged by the stories publicized by the Matnat Chaim (Gift of Life) organization of men and women who donated kidneys,” she says. “The founder, Rabbi Yeshayahu Heber, is a kidney transplant recipient himself. I liked the idea that a kidney can go to anyone – men, women, Jewish, non-Jewish. I knew that God would direct my kidney to the person who needed it most.”
When her youngest was a year old, she phoned Matnat Chaim. She recites the number aloud by heart: “(02)500- 0755. I called them a lot,” she laughs. “They warned me that I might be considered too young, but said they would send me the forms for the blood screening, and they would help me.”
Hanan kept his promise and also offered his backing. Her mother was scared, but respected her daughter’s choice. “I told her she’d have all my help and prayers.”
The approval process had many setbacks. The worst was having her papers torn up by a nephrologist. “I told the doctor that I was of age, a healthy woman, and determined to save a life. She had no right to stop me. I’d find another hospital that would take me.”
The most frequently asked question from those who wanted to dissuade her? “Who will watch over your children if something happens to you?” “I told them, ‘the One who watches over them now.’”
Her rabbi said that if she was accepted she should see it as a sign of Divine approval, and that if not, she should make peace with it for the same reason. He conferred his blessing for her success.
Despite the skepticism and barriers, Lerer moved through the many physical and mental health examinations. Warned that the Health Ministry’s screening board would be the toughest, she asked to address it first, and spoke like an advocate. When it finished its inquiries, she hurried home from Tel Aviv to Neveh Daniel in Gush Etzion to pick up her children.
“When I got there, my phone rang. It was a woman from Matnat Chaim telling me I’d been accepted as a donor! I was shaking so hard I had to put down my toddler to make sure I’d heard her right.”
Soon she was talking to the transplant coordinator at Hadassah. There was a perfect match for her kidney. “A young man.”
She prepared her children, printing diagrams of kidneys from the Internet. Her five-year-old son was so moved he asked if he could give a sick child a kidney, too.
She told her employer she’d be out for a week or two.
She called her parents, who organized a prayer network of family, students and friends for both her and the recipient.
She checked into the hospital.
“When my sister accompanied me down the corridor to the operating room, I thought of my feeling of walking to the huppah,” she said. “I was excited but not at all scared. The doctors and nurses put me at my ease. Donating a kidney requires surgery but rarely impacts the donor’s long-term health.”
And then came the moment when the surgeon at her bedside whispered that she was fine and that her kidney was already helping the recipient.
“I wanted to shout with joy, but was afraid I’d scare the staff,” she said.
THE RECIPIENT, 23, from Lod is the youngest of seven children, He made aliyah from Ethiopia with his widowed mother when he was a toddler. Hoping to volunteer for an elite IDF unit, he began a pre-army yeshiva for extra training. One day he felt sick. What was first misdiagnosed as gastroenteritis turned out to be kidney disease. His condition deteriorated. For three years he’s been on a restricted diet and water intake and undergoing dialysis three times a week.
Soon after surgery, Lerer went to visit him. Her children have brought him get-well balloons.
Leaning on Hanan’s arm, they take the elevator down 10 floors to the recovery room.
“What can I say to someone who saved my life?” he asks. “I can’t ever thank you enough.”
“All I gave you was a kidney,” said Lerer, a smile lighting her eyes. “You’ve raised me to a whole new sphere of joy and meaning. Just get better fast.”
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.