My brother’s keepers

When life is bad—natural disasters, families losing homes or jobs, an attack on our country, health crises–people come together and do things that are inspiringly good. 

After the recent earthquake tragedy in Haiti, people all over the world jumped in quickly to help in any way they could.  Among them, a dozen New Jersey doctors, nurses and other caregivers from Cooper Hospital left for Haiti in a matter of days.  That team, led by my friend and emergency medical doctor, Anthony Mazzarelli, put their own lives on hold for two weeks and faced the risks of an unstable situation to do good. Anthony told me that they saw overwhelming pain and tragedy but also saw exceptional human kindness, love and an endless supply of good deeds in Haiti.

Recently, I have seen extraordinary goodness up close.  Last summer, my younger brother, Allan, went into sudden and complete kidney failure.  He has a genetic kidney disease, which was not expected to impact his life until he was much older.  According to his doctor, he just ‘crashed’, as can happen with polycystic kidney disease and he would need a transplant to save his life. 

Because we share the same disease, I was useless as a donor.  And so, I sat at his bedside in Pittsburgh feeling frustrated and scared while he was hooked up to the dialysis machine that was doing the work his kidneys no longer could.  I managed to get a pained laugh out of him when I mentioned that I thought there were some rabbis back in New Jersey that might be able to help.

It should not have surprised me that people, six of them, immediately stepped up and offered to donate their own kidney to Allan.  But it did. And, I continue to find that fact amazing. 

My brother is one of those people that seem to glow with love.  To me, he embodies the Yiddish word ‘mensch’, loosely translated as a person of integrity and honor, a particularly good person.  Allan is doctor, an electrophysiologist, who implants devices, like defibrillators and pacemakers, and spends his days and nights saving other’s lives by performing needed heart surgery.  He is a warm and loving husband to his gorgeous and funny wife, Anna.  He is a gentle, adoring father to his preternaturally smart eleven-year-old, Gabriella.  He is a fantastic brother, a doting son to our mother and a reliable, loyal friend to many.   

Waiting for a donor kidney is a treacherous and sometimes futile prospect.  More than 26 million Americans have chronic kidney disease. That number is growing while the number of available donors has stayed stable.  Today, more than 80,000 people are on the national list awaiting a kidney.  For many, it may be years of living a life constricted by dialysis waiting for a donor.  Too many others on that list will die waiting. On average, 12 people a day will not make it.  A living kidney donor provides the best chance for success but for many reasons they are hard to come by.

The politics of transplants in America is complex but this isn’t about politics. It is about the generosity of six altruistic people who offered to put themselves through surgery to save my brother’s life.  I find that mind-blowing.

First up to the plate was Joe, one of Allan’s best friends.  Joe is a former football player, with a giant laugh and a great heart. An athlete still, he knew that surgery would mean some risks, and that he would miss the workouts he loves and the work that pays the bills for many weeks. He didn’t blink.  But after enduring months of rigorous testing, the doctors on the transplant team ruled him out.   Joe was not relieved as some of us might expect.  Instead, the big guy broke down crying when they told him no. 

Next, an extraordinary married couple, Allison and Steve, both volunteered.   Allison, who is one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever met, did not match.  Her husband Steve, a young cardiologist matched and the testing began anew.  Throughout the fall months, Allan updated me on Steve’s progress through the transplant testing protocol. Everything was going well and a surgery date was discussed. 

Shockingly, a final test revealed that Steve himself had renal cancer.  Since renal cancer rarely has symptoms until it has metastasized, discovery is often a death sentence.  The weekend before Thanksgiving, Steve went through the same surgery he would have undergone if he had been able to be a donor. The surgery was successful and his prognosis is excellent.  Steve’s doctor told him plainly that his decision to donate a kidney to Allan had saved his own life. 

Allan was worried about Steve’s health and feeling dejected about his own prospects. Then his close friend, and nurse, Lisa stepped in.  During the lengthy testing process, the doctors discovered a spot on Lisa’s liver and her lungs.  We were now worried about Lisa’s health and assumed that meant she would be ruled out as a donor.   Not to be deterred, Lisa put herself through surgery to repair her lung and insisted on moving forward as a donor.   Phenomenal.

The other two volunteer donors were my brother’s wife Anna and a complete stranger, named Terry, who had tragically lost his own daughter after she suffered a lifetime of transplant surgeries.  He knew of my brother through Allison and wanted to “give something back.”

Last night, my brother called to give me the good news that there was a date set for his transplant surgery, later this month, with Lisa as the donor.   He sounded choked up and said, “The goodness in people is amazing.  The goodness in the families that support them is so remarkable, too.  I never knew there could be such selflessness in the world. Where does it come from?”   A look in the mirror would have given him an answer.  

It is with immense reverence that I say thank you to that munificent stranger Terry, to Anna, to Anthony, to Joe, to Allison, to Steve, and to Lisa for your inspirational goodness. My brother’s keepers