Last week, Avi Shafar, a 40-year-old man from Teaneck, New Jersey, went to Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx and donated his kidney to someone he had never met. Immediately after transplantation, within seconds, the kidney was functioning, just as it should, for Ariane Mann, a 42-year-old woman from Los Angeles who had suffered from renal failure as a result of type 1 diabetes. The next day, Shafar was fully mobile, ready and waiting to go home, but his doctors kept him a second night in the hospital just to play it safe. Mann was expected to stay in the hospital a little less than a week.
The day after Shafar’s and Mann’s surgery, they each spoke to The Jewish Link separately about their experiences, several floors away from one another in the same hospital. Shafar spoke about setting an example for his community and his family. “We need to be there for one another; there are different ways to do that,” said Shafar. “You can give money, you can give of your time. This is just another way to help someone. This is about helping people. We all have an achrayut (responsibility) to be there for one another,” he said.
“I am hoping to heal, and I am hoping to help Renewal, somehow,” said Mann. She described sitting in front of a piece of paper, trying to write words of thanks to her donor, but so far the words had not come. “It’s not easy for me to ask people for anything. I’m not that kind of person,” she said.
“I don’t know how to thank him,” she said.
Shafar, who works in finance and is a married father of four, took a swab test this past November at the Renewal community gala, which was held for his community rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Adler, who was celebrating a year of recovery following a kidney transplant that was coordinated through Renewal. Rabbi Adler’s kidney was donated by his son, Zvi, who is a close friend of Shafar. Eighty-nine other people swabbed that night, and dozens matched people in the Renewal database. While not all of them will ultimately be able to donate, a number of these matches are moving forward. While Rabbi Josh Sturm, Renewal’s director of outreach, said this was not the biggest event Renewal has ever held, this was the first time they “ran out of swabbing kits.”
Jewish people may have a better chance of matching one another based on ethnic backgrounds, which was the original impetus for Renewal’s founding, but in the case of Shafar and Mann, it hardly seems to have been a factor. Shafar is of Ukrainian descent (Ashkenazi) and Mann is Lebanese (Sephardi). Regardless, when they were told of the quality of the match, they were told they were so similar they could be brother and sister.
“Renewal is an amazing organization,” said Shafar. “While most of us are in the business of living life, they’re in the business of saving lives. This would never have happened without them. We need to spread the word and make as many people aware of this life-saving organization as possible. They receive a lot of interest from people looking for a kidney and not nearly enough interest from would-be donors,” he said.
Mann, a fashion buyer, was told by her doctors that her kidneys were failing after she had her two sons, but until this past year she felt okay. To keep “feeling okay” she would need a kidney transplant if she expected to keep up her level of activity; she was facing the need to begin dialysis while also parenting two young boys and traveling often for work. Her brother, it turned out, matched her, and was prepared to give his kidney to her, though she experienced guilt that she needed to ask for her brother’s kidney. However, it wasn’t to be.
Several weeks before her brother was set to donate his kidney to Mann, he was severely injured in a skiing accident, breaking his spine in three places. “It was crazy. He’s a professional skier,” said Mann. He was just taking his kids on the bunny slopes and tripped over something,” she added.
Mann’s brother, while he is expected to fully recover, would not be able to donate his kidney for some time, if ever. In the meantime, Mann had started to feel “not so okay.” A friend put her in touch with Renewal several months ago and she registered with the organization. She made videos, many of which went viral, in which she entreated the public to call Renewal to see if they were a match for her or others who needed a kidney.
Shafar, meanwhile, was generally aware before of altruistic kidney donation because his cousin had donated a kidney to a stranger, through Renewal, several years earlier, but explained that while he went to the Renewal event in Teaneck to support his friend Zvi, and his rav, he described getting “caught up in the moment” and deciding to swab.
“About a month after getting swabbed at the Renewal event, I received a call that there was a mother of two young children facing dialysis without a new kidney, and that’s really all I needed to hear. I called Esty (my wife) and said, ‘This seems like a no-brainer’; we need to do this. She was very supportive. And that was it. There was no agonizing over it. It was actually a very easy decision,” said Shafar.
Many people who donate kidneys say it’s one of the best decisions they’ve ever made. “I’m so glad I did it. Besides for marrying the most incredible woman I’ve ever known and having four amazing children, it’s the greatest thing I’ve ever done. It’s amazing. I feel fortunate to have been the person to have given an incredible young woman her life back, two children their mother, a husband his wife, brothers their sister and parents their daughter back,” Shafar said.
Altruistic kidney donation is not exactly common, but Renewal, is working to make it more commonplace. Founded in 2006 in Brooklyn, Renewal was responsible for close to 15 percent of the total number of transplants to strangers in America last year. In 2016, Renewal facilitated 68 donations. In 2017, 81. This year, by the end of January, Renewal had already facilitated nine donations.
Renewal provides comprehensive resources and assistance to those who need a kidney and covers all costs to those who donate, including lost wages and transportation. Testing and hospital fees are generally covered by the recipient’s insurance.
Deciding to get tested to be a match seems to be the overarching quality that donors have over other people. It’s that simple. “Renewal needs help spreading the word about living kidney donation,” said Rabbi Sturm. “Each donor helps to further normalize the idea of kidney donation as something that regular people are doing. The opportunity to save a life is tremendous.”
Anyone interested in finding out more about kidney donation should contact Renewal at [email protected] Anyone interested in helping to organize an awareness event in their community to help spread the word should contact [email protected].
By Elizabeth Kratz