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AN UNCOMMON ACT OF KINDNESS: Strangers share faith, temple, life-saving kidney transplant

By Intern, Morgan Pilz | Aug 03, 2017
Photo by: Morgan Pilz Kidney recipient Ilene Silverman, left, is joined by Rabbi Susan Warshaw, center, and Rachel White, who donated a kidney through Paired Exchange, a national kidney registry, at Temple Bat Yam in Berlin last week. Through the Paired Exchange process, White’s kidney was transported to the University of Minnesota, which sent a kidney to Colorado, and from there, a 25-year-old male’s kidney was transported to Maryland for Silverman.

(Aug. 4, 2017) Few people would be willing to donate a kidney to a stranger, but that was the case for Salisbury resident Rachel White, who donated one of her kidneys through Paired Exchange, a national kidney registry, in June.

When members of Temple Bat Yam congregation in Berlin received an email written by Ilene Silverman and forwarded by Rabbi Susan Warshaw in January asking if anyone was willing to donate a kidney to her, White knew she needed to help.

“For those who’ve known me for a long time, you may or may not remember that I’ve lived my entire life with one kidney,” Silverman said in her letter. “And that one kidney has served me well. In 2005, I was extremely ill with an abdominal blockage, so ill and so much time wasted before a proper diagnosis, my organs (primarily the kidney) had started to shut down! Luckily for me, I was saved in time, surgically repaired and have lived to tell about that experience! However, I do think my strong kidney took a beating!

“Here is the good news: People only need one kidney to survive and live a “normal life,”” she continued in the letter. “It is a relatively risk-free endeavor for the donor. Donors go on to live completely normal lives after donation.”

Silverman, 67 of Georgetown, Maryland, is married with two children and four grandchildren. She was born with three kidneys, with only one functioning normally, while the other was a double kidney. The double kidney became infected and was removed when she was four months old.

At age 55, 12 years ago, she fell ill, but was unable to determine the cause. In 2015, Silverman’s doctor told her she had kidney disease and would need a transplant in the next five years.

Silverman’s family and friends were not compatible matches, so she turned to her summer congregation, Temple Bat Yam, for help.

“Rabbi Warshaw offered to put my letter in the bulletin,” Silverman said. “And I finally got [Rachel’s] email. She had already done the online registration for Georgetown (Georgetown University Hospital), she already did her bloodwork, she was considered a match and she already had an appointment scheduled to do the seven- to 10-hour testing and evaluation at Georgetown.”

White, a married 56-year-old social worker with two daughters, not only knew it was the right thing to do, but had a personal connection.

“My mother had needed dialysis, and she never told us that she needed it until it was much too late,” White said. “She was never going to have it, so I knew I wouldn’t want anybody to go through that if there was something I could do.

“I got the email with the letter,” White added. “I was at work and I paid attention to it. I said, ‘Well, I bet they’d like to have my kidney.’ I’m healthy, I don’t take any medications, so right away I clicked on the link and filled it out.”

Both women are members of Temple Bat Yam, yet had never met. The two finally did meet on April 11 during the Passover Seder, which is held the second night of the holiday.

“When I met her for the first time, I gave her [a] necklace,” Silverman said. “The necklace was two little girls smiling and hugging. When I met her at the Passover Seder, I said, ‘I’m going to cry.’”

Rabbi Warshaw gave her blessing for anyone in the congregation who was interested in offering help to Silverman, which further encouraged White to go through with the donation.

For Jewish families, organ transplants can be a controversial topic. The concern is whether it is ethical for a person to voluntarily risk his or her life through surgery to save an ill person in need of particular organs. This is a critical question for traditional Judaism and why many Rabbis condemn transplants.

Heart transplants from brain-dead patients are just as difficult, because Jewish law condemns taking vital organs from still-living people.

“It’s important for people to know that, that’s the right thing to do,” Rabbi Warshaw said. “It’s the biggest gift you could give. This is such a good thing to encourage other people to do. The essence of this story [is] let’s get more people to realize it is a possibility and that they can do this great gift.”

On June 13, White donated one of her kidneys through Paired Exchange. She could have given her kidney directly to Silverman, but wanted multiple people to benefit from her donation.

“When I was meeting with the nephrologist, she said that I had really good blood work, and that I should do the Paired Exchange because up to 17 people could get kidneys that day and she explained how it worked with the exchange,” White said.

On the national kidney registry, when a donor and a potential recipient are a match, it makes them a compatible pair. That makes it easier for other kidney matches to happen as a result.

Most of the pairs in the national program are matched with a donor who cannot give directly to the recipient because of different blood types, or different antibodies present that make it impossible to give to that recipient. The goal of joining the national kidney registry is to swap donors and recipients so everyone gets a transplant, even if it was not from the intended donor.

“And so, my husband and I were like, ‘Well how could you not do that?’” White continued. “But I said I wanted to make sure Ilene had a kidney. That was my priority. If this all didn’t work out … I would just direct donate [to her].”

The date of Silverman’s and White’s surgery was a significant number in Judaism, because 6/13 is how many mitzvahs there are. Mitzvah is Hebrew for good deeds that follow the commandment.

“What happens with a pair like this, even though she was able to give directly, if a compatible pair goes into the registry, it can make a lot of other kidney transplants happen,” said Dr. Jennifer Verbesey, coordinator of the Paired Exchange Program, who works in Medstar Georgetown University Hospital and performed White’s surgery. “Because they’re not difficult to match, they’re just offering to be a part of it.

“[Potential donors] can donate within the context of the national kidney registry, which is a national program,” Dr. Verbesey added. “Most of the pairs in the national program are paired with a donor who can’t give directly to the recipient. They go into this big pool of patients and the goal is to basically swap donors and recipients. You may not get the donor you come in with but everyone still gets a transplant.”

Through the Paired Exchange process, White’s kidney was transported to the University of Minnesota, which sent a kidney to Colorado, and from there, a 25-year-old male’s kidney was transported to Maryland for Silverman.

“It was a miracle,” Silverman said. “I mean, this was the answer to my prayers, and I just can’t believe that there’s some good people left in this world. I just thank God every day for [Rachel] and I’m indebted to [her] for life. I just can’t believe that [she’s] so selfless. I’m very lucky and I know how blessed I am.”

Both women want to recommend more people, regardless of their religion, to become donors.

“I think organ shortage and kidney shortage is a real problem in the field of transplant, and we are trying to find every possible way to perform living donor transplants, which is the best outcome,” said Dr. Seyed Ghasemian, a transplant surgeon at Georgetown University Hospital and the surgeon in charge of Silverman’s surgery.

“The operation is minimally invasive,” Dr. Ghasemian added. “They stay one or two nights in the hospital, they can go back to work maybe two weeks after that and everything should be perfectly back to normal within three to four weeks.

“Living donations have been happening for close to 60 years and the reason that the medical society, communities and institutions are allowing us to do that [is] because the possibilities of having serious complications even right after surgery, 25 years after surgery are very, very low. It’s definitely successful and 100 percent saves lives.”

According to Donor Leave Laws, Maryland donors who work in federal or state government may receive 30 days leave (paid or unpaid) for serving as a living donor and seven days leave for bone marrow donation. This leave is not taken from annual or sick leave the donor may already have accumulated. Interested donors who work in the private sector are encouraged to look up donor laws for their company.

“The donor bills and the cost of the donor surgery is paid by the recipient’s insurance,” Dr. Verbesey said. “There’s multiple [private] donor assistance programs too, that if people qualify for we can offer for them to do that as well. The donor assistance are not through insurance.”

Both women have fully recovered from the operation, and say they will continue to be friends.

“We’re going to be bonded for life,” Silverman said.

“I just feel blessed that I was in the right place at the right time and was able to do something that could help other people, especially Ilene,” White said. “She has a beautiful family. I don’t feel like it was any big deal really. It’s just something that I was very easily able to do.”

 

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