A 41-year-old mother from Lakewood, Chaya Kugler, donated her kidney to a stranger: Allen Bodenheim of Monsey.
“We were blown away by the willingness of the donor,” says Rabbi Baruch Bodenheim, the son of the kidney recipient (and a Jewish Link columnist). “She just wanted to help another person and give him a gift of life. She was overjoyed at the opportunity. There’s still a recovery process ahead, but it’s something that b’ezrat Hashem will give him many many more years of life.”
Kugler has four children between the ages of 6-16. She’d thought about donating a kidney for many years, but until now, she hadn’t been ready to act.
Earlier this year, her interest was kindled anew when someone she knew needed a kidney. The same day Kugler had been planning to call Renewal (the Jewish organization that helps people find a match) and ask about kidney donation, she woke up to a forwarded message on her phone:
“Urgent: If you’re an O blood type, please call Renewal!”
“As an O blood type,” Kugler says, “I felt that this message was talking to me.”
She signed up with Renewal and the second person on the list she was a good match for was Allen Bodenheim.
How did her kids feel about the idea? “At first, my kids were concerned,” Kugler says, “but I explained to them there is someone ill and I have a chance of giving them life and a chance at many more years with their family. That helped them like the idea.”
She knew she’d succeeded when she overheard her 9-year-old say about her donation, “Anything I do to help my mother is part of the chesed.”
“I couldn’t be happier with my decision,” Kugler added. “The most rewarding feeling is knowing that Mr. Bodenheim is doing well, and I hope he continues to do well for many many more years.”
Bodenheim shared the story of how the lifesaving kidney transplant came about. “My kidney function was declining, but I was terrified of doing such an invasive procedure—the most invasive since I had my tonsils removed when I was seven!
“But my father was on dialysis for his last eight years, and each year he got worse. His main occupation was going to dialysis and back. I didn’t want that to happen to me.
“My daughter-in-law, when she was single, donated a kidney through Renewal, and she encouraged me to go.
“In August, I went there with my wife and my son for an interview and a blood test. I figured it would be years away. And then in March I got a call from Renewal and they said they have a match for me.
“We scheduled a date for April 12. I had to work on myself to be very positive and go in full steam ahead. I was scheduled for surgery at 9 a.m.
“I told my doctor, ‘if I’m late, you can start without me.’ But he didn’t go for that.
“Rabbi Moshe Gewirtz of Renewal came on site to give me chizuk and encouragement. He asked me to make a statement on camera, and I thanked Renewal and the donor for being so selfless—she is the real heroine here for being willing to do this.
“Shortly after this I went into surgery and came out a number of hours later in the recovery room.I had my own room, with wonderful care.The nurses and doctors were all wonderful, caring, cheerful, and friendly; there wasn’t anything they wouldn’t do for me.
“By the time I was out of surgery, we were getting so many phone calls from everyone in the community asking how I was and wishing me a refuah sheleima. I was really impressed by how many people were davening for me.
“I was in a hospital bed for a week. On Friday I was released. Renewal stayed in touch with me, sent a Shabbat basket and other goodies, and called me to check how I was doing. And now I’m home, recuperating.”
Both father and son couldn’t say enough words of praise for Renewal.“They’re really dedicated, really caring, just superb, special people,” says Rabbi Bodenheim.“They help the recipient and the donor through the whole process and provide support along the way.”
Rabbi Josh Sturm, Renewal’s director of outreach, says, “Every donor is incredible, but especially in a case like this it’s really an awesome thing. We’ve [facilitated] over 750 transplants now and it’s definitely less common for mothers of young children to donate as they have so much to juggle.”
He added that “donors have been slower to volunteer during COVID, but there are more people in need. It’s definitely a challenge but hopefully things will start to pick up.”
The success rate for a living donor after one year is about 98%, and after 3 years is 93%. “It’s phenomenally high and we’re really happy about that.” It is definitely a fact that should encourage potential donors and reassure recipients.
Bodenheim says about Kugler, “She is an exceptional woman. And when [some people] heard about her donation, they decided they also wanted to sign up to donate a kidney—so sharing my story already had a bigger impact.”
“If there is anybody out there that wants to consider donating a kidney,” says Kugler, “don’t get scared off, it’s not a big deal as you think it is. You need your family to be on board with you; that’s crucial. But it’s not as intimidating as you might think. There are many people waiting for kidney donors and if just a few more people step on board, we could save so many lives. Anyone can reach out to me. I’d be happy to talk to anyone that wants to consider donating a kidney.”
When Kugler came into Bodenheim’s hospital room after the surgery, they spoke for a while. “It’s hard to thank someone for that,” Bodenheim said. “You don’t know where to start.”
“My children, they’re very much thankful to her for giving their father a new lease on life.
“And she was so happy to do it. Mi K’amcha Yisrael.”
By Leah Gottheim