Why I Gave My Kidney to a Stranger

Nov 26, 2013 at 10pm

By Karen Zuercher

The email wasn’t a guilt trip, despite the subject line: “Support us in saving the life of a young congregant.”

The message, which asked me to be tested as a kidney donor to a person I didn’t know, came from the temple where my family belongs. Let me say up front, before you decide that I’m some super-religious do-gooder, that I’m not especially Jewy. I’m proud of my religion, but not much of a traditionalist. I really love bacon.

The plea told the story of Simon, then 18, who’d had his first kidney transplant (from his mom) at age 9. A virus had damaged that kidney and it was no longer working well enough for the long term. Simon’s family had been looking for a new donor match for a year. My first thought was: What a crappy thing for a kid to go through. My second thought was: I could do that.

I forwarded the email to my husband.

“May I offer to be tested? We can discuss later if need be.” 

“Of course,” he answered. Yes, that’s all he said. He has a warm heart, and he’s not easily freaked out.

This was on March 12. Three months later, Simon and I had surgery at UCSF.

Lots of people read the same email, including my doctor and my favorite server at our neighborhood café. (Our temple serves over 2,100 households in San Francisco.) Why had I acted on it? Why would a 44-year-old happily married mother of two with a full-time job put her life at risk for a stranger?

The answer starts with a little geeking out.

Once I’d offered to be tested as a match, Simon’s dad sent me a medical-history questionnaire, some hospital brochures explaining kidney donation, and a 23-minute video called The Gift of Life.

My husband and I watched and read and did research of our own. We came to the same conclusion: Even though this was major surgery that would have a huge impact on Simon’s life, it wouldn’t be that hard for me.

First, I’m not squeamish about medical stuff. I give blood regularly. I can pee in a cup. Hell, I’ve had two babies. And the donor surgery is arthroscopic, meaning no cutting through muscle to get the kidney out. Finally, I’d be in the hospital for only a few days, on full leave for a week, then work from home for a month. 

Long term, my prognosis was 100 percent recovery. I couldn’t take Advil ever again, but otherwise being a donor wouldn’t shorten my life, make me prone to kidney disease, or prevent me from drinking. (Give up bourbon at girls’ night out? I think not.) If by an unlikely twist of fate I needed a kidney donation myself someday, I’d go to the top of the list. 

But really, why did I say yes?

The simple answer is: because I could.

The selfish answer is: because I would want someone to do it for my kid.

The Jewish answer is: because it’s a mitzvah, not just a good deed but also a moral commandment.

The true answer is: because we don’t get many chances to do something really meaningful in our lives.

It’s like when you hear those stories about people who stop on the freeway to yank a crash victim out of a burning car, jump onto a subway track to pull someone off, or catch a baby falling from a third-floor window – and you wonder what you’d do if you were faced with that choice.

I didn’t want to wait and find out the worst about myself. Here was an opportunity.

That said, I do not, for one second, consider myself a hero. What I did is on the continuum of good deeds I see my friends, family, and coworkers doing all the time. They take meals to new parents and to friends who’ve had surgery; foster and adopt children; run to fund charities; and donate their time, money, and talents to myriad causes. Which is the best good act? The one that actually takes place.

A lot happened in the three months between filling out the questionnaire and waking up from surgery.

The hospital gave me a series of tests, mostly medical. I had to collect my urine in a big red rubber container for 24 hours. “Going somewhere?” a work colleague asked when he saw me waiting outside the office bathroom with my backpack. I told him he didn’t want to know.

I had a chest X-ray, a CT scan, an ultrasound, an EKG, a gazillion blood draws, and more. In fact, the biggest hassle was making the time to get those tests done – once, while I was with my family at Disneyland. Still, the tests confirm whether you’re healthy enough to withstand the surgery, live with one kidney, and offer a clean organ. I knew there were other volunteers being tested, but I never knew how many or where I was in the queue. I only knew when I passed.

The doctors also wanted to know if I was crazy enough to donate but not too crazy to survive the procedure, so there were psychological tests as well. I met with a social worker, who asked what I expected from the recipient and his family. I told her I only wanted to hear how Simon was doing. “What if they want to be your best friends?” she said. I laughed. I’m no slouch at saying no, I told her. Just ask my kids.

I also met with a psychiatrist, who asked whether I was doing this for my parents’ approval. I told her my mom didn’t entirely approve – or rather, that she was scared. “What if she tells you not to go through with it?” the doc asked. I explained that my husband and children were the only ones who could put a stop to the process. If they said no at any point, I’d be done. They never did. I’m not sure why.

Along the way I told the rest of my family, my friends, and my coworkers. Their reactions ran the gamut from grossed out to grateful.

One colleague grimaced as if I’d just described a decapitation. Another cried and told me she loved me. Many told me about their own or their loved ones’ struggles with kidney disease. 

The night before surgery, I asked my eight-year-old son if he had any questions. I’d been open with him and his little sister about what I was doing. “Could you get really hurt doing this?” he asked. I told him yes, but this hospital is very good at what they do. He looked stricken. “Could you die doing this?” I took a deep breath. “Yes,” I said, “but of all the people who’ve done this at this hospital over the years, no one has ever died.” I asked him to believe that I wouldn’t be the first. Then I left his room and cried – not for my own fear, but for his. 

I went to the hospital on Friday morning. I went home on Monday at noon. Simon and I had adjoining operating rooms, but we recovered on different floors. We never saw each other. I am what’s called an “altruistic donor,” one who doesn’t know her recipient. At least, I didn’t then.

I met the new owner of my kidney a month after surgery.

Simon’s family and mine got together and talked about school and work and life. It was a regular, friendly conversation, remarkably unweird considering that the kid next to me with the shaggy dark hair and the thousand-watt smile had a part of my body inside him.

Simon’s mom gave me a cloisonné pin of a kidney. “Now you’re part of the O.K. Club,” she told me. “One kidney.” Simon perked up. “I’m not a member anymore!” He still had his mom’s kidney and now, mine.

Today my recovery is pretty much complete. I have five fading scars: four tiny ones where the surgeon inserted the instruments and a four-inch one just above my bikini line (not that I ever wear a bikini) where he took my left kidney out. I don’t have any pain or take any medications. Only one friend has asked to see my scars, and she has lots of tattoos, so I wasn’t surprised.

Simon, meanwhile, is finishing high school – taking calculus and honors physics, no less – and applying to colleges. He has had setbacks, including five days in the hospital, but those are to be expected when you take immunosuppressive drugs. (He’ll take them for the rest of his life, because the body never stops trying to reject the foreign organ.)

Am I different today because of this act? Yes and no.

I’m not a better person. I still swear at other cars when I drive, yell at my children, make snide judgments about strangers, and eat bacon. But I’m more satisfied on a fundamental level.

When we met, Simon gave me a letter. “Read this when you get home,”  he said, waving it in my face like a warning. I won’t quote it out of respect for his privacy, but I will say that it’s remarkably eloquent for a teenage boy. I like to imagine that the little piece of me in him is whispering suggestions and encouragement, telling him how proud I am.

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