May 18, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Saving Lives, One Kidney at a Time

Stuart Cohnen had given rides home from New York-area hospitals in the past.

An IT specialist who works in the city, Cohnen, 58, is also a volunteer for Darchei Chesed, a volunteer organization providing transportation to and from hospitals and physicians’ offices for those who can’t drive themselves.

It’s understood that the volunteers never ask their passengers why they were patients in the hospital.

But this time, the passenger volunteered her information. She told Cohnen that she had donated a kidney three months ago, and was here last May for her checkup. During the conversation, she referred to an organization called Renewal. By the time Cohnen dropped her off, he had made up his mind that he’d check into the Renewal website, www.renewal.org.

In a relatively short period of time after the ride, it was Cohnen who was donating a kidney through Renewal.

After checking out Renewal’s website, Cohnen met with Renewal and then went to bring shailot to his rav, clearing this with his wife and children and then moving forward. He never looked backwards, only forward.

Rabbi Josh Sturm never gets tired of these stories. As outreach director for Renewal, he works to help connect potential donors with recipients, and he tells the organization’s story with heart and compassion.

It started, he’ll tell you, when Renewal’s founder, Mendy Reiner, was sitting in a physician’s office.

“There was a gentleman sitting there who looked liked he needed help,” said Sturm. “Mendy gave him $20 and was ready to take out another $20, when the man told Mendy what he needed was a kidney. The man started to explain about dialysis. Mendy took out an ad in one of the local Jewish newspapers to see if anything would come of it. Lo and behod, they got responses. They were able to do a transplant.”

Rabbi Sturm said that Mendy figured if he could help one transplant happen a year, that would be amazing. This was in the year 2006. For 2007, two transplants happened because of Mendy’s efforts. And up to this point in 2015, Renewal has assisted in over 300 kidney transplants. Renewal has been averaging around 50 transplants a year.

“What motivates a person to donate a body part?” asked Sturm. “Time in and time out I get the same response. Someone needed it, how can I not do it?”

One donor told Sturm that he answered an advertisement that talked about a mother of three needing a kidney. The donor told Sturm, “I read the ad differently, that three children needed their mother alive.”

Sturm said the entire match of donor and recipient is a process.

He added that some donors are so motivated to give a kidney, that Renewal slows them down a little bit.

“We need them to understand that it’s not just the decision of the individual,” he said. “We ask for family support of the donor.” Indeed, Cohnen said that Renewal interviewed his wife before approving his donation.

“What pushes them initially? I don’t know. Some say it is an idea they’ve been thinking about it for some time. It just clicked and now is the time to do it.”

Some want to give back as a thank you to God, he added.

“Everyone’s own reason is a little bit different,” said Sturm. “Usually after they’ve heard about it for the first time, they digest it. It has to stew a little bit and marinate. Even the beauty of the system is developed. They can maintain anonymity all the way through the process if that’s their choice. That’s to give them the ability to back out at any point. Until they go under the knife, they can back out. We want zero pressure for them.”

The donor is typically a pretty healthy person. They are in the hospital after surgery for one to two days, and need two to three weeks of recovery at home.

Renewal will pay for the donor’s medical care and even cover any lost income up to four weeks during recovery.

For the recipient, the process understandably is more urgent. It’s not as simple, Rabbi Sturm said. It’s not as if there is a refrigerator filled with kidneys awaiting them. It simply doesn’t work that way. Renewal will strategize with recipients to help them find a donor.

“We always ask if there is a family member who might be a donor candidate,” he said. “We ask them to reach out to friends.”

It’s a spirit and urgency of what are “we” going to do to find the kidney for a loved one. Yes, the social network, including Facebook, has helped find donors. Once that recipient finds that donor, we will get the donor to the finish line.”

But there’s also the deeply personal part of all of this. Renewal will “hold the hand” of both recipient and donor throughout the process.

“Once the recipient gets registered in a hospital we work with, we don’t want there to be any obstacles for the donor,” said Sturm. We cover the donor’s transportation costs even if it’s a simple cab ride. The thing is, they think we’re helping them.”

Renewal will drive the donors to the hospital for the big day.

“I can’t think of a better way to start the day,” he said, “than to pick up a donor. They make such a little deal out of this. They don’t want the credit, and it’s mind boggling.”

More often than not the recipient and donor want to meet one another. The recipient wants to say thank you.

“Usually they meet the day of the transplant,” Sturm said. “It’s an awesome experience. I feel so fortunate to watch it take place.”

Gloria Seidman, who received Cohnen’s kidney, would agree that the experience is nothing short of awesome.

The Princeton, New Jersey, resident had begun receiving dialysis treatments when she got a call from Renewal that a match had been found. She was on the list for several years when she received a call sometime last winter. Her transplant happened on May 12.

“I consider the whole thing a miracle,” she said. “Someone came in altruistically, and it turned out I was a match with him.”

At 5-2, 115-pounds, Seidman said that her kidneys, when removed during the transplant, weighed 16 pounds, almost 10 percent of her body weight.

“I was 77 when I had the surgery, the donor was in his 60s,” she said. “When I first left Cornell Hospital, I felt like a truck hit me. It was really an ordeal. But now I feel really good.”

She and her husband Irving were spending the Labor Day extended weekend touring around Washington, D.C.

Sturm said that Renewal helps facilitate somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 to 20 percent of the nation’s altruistic kidney donations last year came through Renewal. Most of those donations came from the Orthodox part of the Jewish community.

The sad reality is that there were less than 200 altruistic transplants last year across the nation.

“We meet with people,” said Sturm. “They come in and sit down. We have to be careful that there is no expectation on the donor’s behalf of financial gain. We have to get their story and find out what is making them do this. Once they have determined that we do want to move forward, we will help the donor forward one step at a time in the process.

There are approximately 300 potential recipients on Renewal’s waiting list. The organization adds two to three new patients a week. They come from all over the U.S.

Donors, once screened, will go to a hospital for a full day of testing. There are, said Sturm, some hospitals that require testing that can take up to six weeks to complete. Renewal has arranged with a select group of area hospitals to test donors in one day.

“There is no reason why a donor should wait,” he said. “These are our heroes and the hospitals get that.”

Donors get what Sturm called a “presidential workup,” testing from head to toe. It’s not just that the kidneys are healthy, but the person must be in complete good health. Donors also go through a psychological evaluation.

“The mental health professionals at the hospital want them toto understand the potential emotional ramifications of donating,” Sturm said. “Would they be able to handle it if a kidney didn’t work (a rare, but real possibility)?”

Blood types need to be matched with recipients as well as other details involving antibodies and antigens of the blood.

“Most of these donors are donating altruistically,” said Sturm. “They usually don’t know who they are donating for. Most of the time, it is a targeted donation. The donor will see an ad or get an email from a friend. They want to donate for that person, but if they aren’t a match, they are willing to donate anyway.

“We are a Jewish organization,” added Sturm. “We have non-Jewish people on our list as well. We would never close our doors on anyone.”

Funding, he said, comes many times from kidney donors.

“The biggest regret is that they can’t do it again, but they are financially supportive.”

Renewal receive support through the generosity of people interested in saving lives.

Or as Cohnen said, “I didn’t have a euphoric feeling doing this. But I did have a feeling that I saved someone’s life.

“And with kidneys, you only get to do that once.”

To learn more about kidney donation or to make a contribution, please go to [email protected]

By Phil Jacobs

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