The Secret Journey of an Anonymous Kidney Donor

Shvat 5777. The man collecting his luggage at Ben Gurion airport has covered his face with a wide scarf. He tries to remain unnoticed, and keeps his back turned to his fellow passengers. All he needs now is to be recognized by someone who knows him and endure an unwanted questioning. Within the upcoming 24 hours he is to donate a kidney to a recipient who is in urgent need of a transplant. The recipient must not know his identity. Even his closest family, parents, and friends do not know that he is now on his way to Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv for surgery.

Pinny (a pseudonym) serves as a Chabad shliach in one of the hundreds of Chabad Houses around the world. He has temporarily left his post as shliach, in order to fulfill the shlichus of a lifetime: to save one life.

He now sneaks towards the Tel Aviv bound train, which he will later trade for a bus that will bring him to the hospital. The journey is spent praying that none of his many friends or acquaintances recognize him and blow his cover that he is trying so hard to hide. He wants to give, yet stubbornly chooses to do so anonymously. Not a single soul aside for his wife; not his friends, parents, siblings or children would imagine that he is donating his kidney. The recipient too; her husband, children, and extended family cannot guess who their anonymous benefactor is. At first, the donor adamantly refused to speak with us, but after he understood how crucial it is to raise public awareness to the issue of kidney donors, he agreed on condition of full anonymity.

Now, as evening settles, he stands alone, waiting to be admitted to the hospital. The strong smell of medication, and the quiet hustle of uniformed doctors and nurses surround him, sharpening his sense of loneliness. He is alone as he receives his hospital gown, his room, and his registration bracelet. Alone with his fears, his worries, and his prayers for the success of this operation.

Donating a kidney, aside for the complex personal feelings this may arouse, is also no simple medical procedure. It is surgery under full anesthesia, with all of the medical risks that this entails. It includes hospitalization, and the donor may require physical and emotional assistance during the rehabilitation period from those around him. But for Pinny, being the benefactor, and doing so anonymously, is far more important than any support or assistance that his friends or relatives may have given him. He has been waiting a long time for this day. The day when he would merit to save the life of a stranger. The seeds that led to this day had been planted many years ago in his mind, and had slowly but surely begun to sprout.

Thank G-d I am the Donor

“There was a time when many would come to our country for kidney transplants, and as the local Chabad shliach, I would often have the opportunity to help out the patients and their families during the period of the transplant. I felt how hard it was for them, and it caused me to think a lot about this issue. A few years ago I saw an advertisement for the Matnat Chaim organization in Israel” he tells me now, as he is still getting back to himself almost two months after his surgery. “I began thinking about it. It would flit in and out of my consciousness. One day I shared my thoughts with my wife. She was actually familiar with this issue as she used to volunteer with dialysis patients before our marriage. And yet, it was not easy for her to hear that I wish to donate my kidney. She knows how active I am, and she was wary of the medical procedures”, Pinny reveals.

But the thought would not leave Pinny alone. He felt a deep, inner desire to donate. He credits this to his parents who raised him in a home full of giving to others. “My parents are chassidim of giving”. People whose entire existence is all about helping others without waiting for anything in return. I too, merited to help others by giving through my shlichus. I felt that all this is great, but I want to do something deeper than that. Donating a kidney felt to me like the utmost act of selfless giving. Giving that never stops. If there is someone out there who can now live a happy life, and not just short term, because of me, then that is the ultimate act of giving.”

Despite this, Pinny still had to face his family. It all worked out in the end, as our sages teach us, that when one really wants something, he is guided to it from above. It happened on Lag Baomer last year when he was in Miron together with his wife. Out of the blue, she suddenly turned to him and gave him full permission to donate his kidney. He immediately got in touch with his Mashpia, who also gave him his permission and blessing.

Upon returning home, Pinny immediately emailed the Matnat Chaim organization. In reply, he received a long list of medical tests he must undergo in order to be deemed fit to donate. “During the medical tests I was thinking to myself that not anyone my age can donate”, he recounts. “One must be physically and emotionally healthy, receive permission from their family, and undergo rigorous testing. The fact that I am fit to do all this is already a sign for me that I must do it”.

Then began the process where Pinny had to leave his work and travel to Israel 5-6 times for more tests and clinical evaluations. During the tests he was asked whom he would prefer to donate his kidney to. Pinny immediately answered: To a Jew. Man or woman, doesn’t matter from what country, community or religious background. “at first I thought I prefer that it be an observant Jew, but then I thought to myself, what right do I have to mix into G-d’s decisions? Who am I to decide which of G-d’s children is better? Is it my choice at all??? Here I have the opportunity to fulfill the commandment of loving my fellow Jew in its purest form” Pinny explains his decision.

A Message from Heaven

During that time Pinny still did not know who would receive his kidney. All he knew is that he would be matched up with a Jew who would need it to save their life. One of his medical tests was scheduled for a Sunday morning. Pinny decided that he would come to his parents for Shabbos, without disclosing the reason for his arrival. That Friday he landed in Israel. On Shabbos morning, as he was sipping his morning coffee before going to shul, his mother mentioned to him in passing about a family acquaintance of theirs who is on dialysis and in dire need of a working kidney.

“My heart began pounding wildly”, Pinny recalls. “I was worried that maybe my mother suspected something, but then I understood that she had said it quite innocently and surely did not know a thing. She just mentioned it in passing. But it was clear to me that this was tremendous hashgacha pratis, and there was a clear message here for me. I changed the topic and continued the conversation casually” Pinny shares excitedly.

From that moment on, Pinny turned into an undercover detective. Since he didn’t have too many details about the family acquaintance in need of a transplant, but he didn’t want to arouse suspicion by asking his mother too many questions, he began “feeling around” with the few details that he did know. He turned to the Matnat Chaim organization for help. Within a few days they called him back with all the details.

It turned out that this woman was on full dialysis and in desperate need of a kidney transplant. Additionally, she suffered from a rare condition which made the dialysis extremely difficult for her and she needed the kidney more desperately than other dialysis patients.

Donor or recipient?

As Pinny continued medical testing, he found out that he is blood type O, which is suitable for everyone. “I remember one of the evaluations when the psychiatrist asked me ‘are you the recipient or the donor?’ I answered him “Baruch Hashem I am the donor”. That moment I had an epiphany. Within a moment, anyone can turn into a recipient in need of a transplant. The hospitals are full of ill people who are forced to be recipients, and here I am, a healthy man who can give to others. In my eyes, this is a priceless gift.”  When Pinny returned to the hospital for repeated tests, he insisted on retaining his anonymity, and with the help of the doctors and medical staff, took great measures to sneak in and out of the hospital through the back doors so as not to bump into any of the recipient’s family members.

After the last of the medical tests, surgery was to be scheduled for one of three possible dates. “It was difficult for me to choose, but after speaking to my Mashpia, he helped me decide on the last of the three possibilities. Later on I saw that it was the exact date on which last year I saw an open miracle in some legal matters that I was dealing with the local government in my country of shlichus!”

Pinny recalls another amazing hashgacha pratis. It’s a well known fact that kidney donors must drink at least two liters of water every day. “I was not very good at that until quite recently, and would usually drink lots of sugary drinks” Pinny says. “I have always suffered from excess dryness throughout my life. I would always need various creams and moisturizers. And then, one day someone told me to make sure I drink plenty of water daily. I immediately noticed a difference. The dryness and flaking disappeared. Since then I have stopped drinking sugary drinks, and make sure to drink a few litres of water daily, without any connection to being a kidney donor. This actually was a great preparation for me. I know that many other donors have a difficult time getting used to drinking a lot, but Hashem made sure to get me started on proper drinking habits in advance.”

The biggest “hashgacha pratis surprise” was yet to come. About a month before the surgery was scheduled, a community member approached him with an irresistible offer: to join him on a trip to the Rebbe in NY, all expenses paid! “I felt that the Rebbe was calling me to him. This trip was a gift from heaven so that I can daven at the Ohel for the surgery to be successful. Truly, after davening at the Ohel, I felt a sense of peace and calm settle over me in anticipation of the big day”.

“Like During Neila Prayer”

The date for surgery arrived, and just as was described above, Pinny landed discreetly in Israel, with the intention of quietly donating a kidney and just as quickly and quietly leaving back to his place of shlichus. All this time Pinny is adamant that his identity not be revealed to the recipient or her family members, who couldn’t have imagined in their wildest dreams that the donor was a family acquaintance. Thanks to the intervention of Rabbi Heber, Matnat Chaim’s founder and director, Pinny was given special permission to be hospitalized in a different ward, on a different floor – just so that the donor and recipient should not meet. “I was so happy to hear from Rabbi Heber that the recipient and her family were very grateful when they learned that their donor wished to remain anonymous, for they felt at a loss as how to even begin to repay him for such a gift” recalls Pinny.

At this point Pinny continues steadfastly in his decision not to share this with anyone aside for his wife. Not even his parents. “I once again asked the advice of my Mashpia, and he explained to me that it is better not to tell them at this point so as not to cause them additional worry about these medical procedures” he shares.

That evening he arrives at the hospital. He draws the curtain surrounding his bed and calls Rabbi Heber. Pinny requests that Rabbi Heber not add his name in the list of people he publicizes to daven for, lest someone from his friends or family recognize him. “I woke up early, davened shacharis in the hospital’s shul, and I felt like during Neila on Yom Kippur. It was a moving and cleansing experience. I am walking amidst so many sick people, and I know that I am the only one among them who is here for better reasons. At about 7 am I was to enter surgery. I had hoped to complete chitas and Rambam, but I made a calculation that if surgery is expected to take about 4 hours, then I have more than enough time to make up my daily shiurim before mincha. How naïve I was”.

Meanwhile Pinny’s wife lands in Israel and hurries to the hospital. Pinny dons the hospital gown, and is wheeled down the hallways while a curtain surrounds his bed. At exactly the same time, the recipient is also being wheeled to the fateful surgery in which she will receive Pinny’s healthy kidney. He sees the ceiling whizzing by as doctors and nurses in hospital scrubs disappear from his field of vision. He whispers the names of his loved ones and davens for them. He is wheeled into the operating room. Machines are buzzing and beeping on all sides, various screens are lit up. The place is in high gear. Pinny is hooked up to various tubes and machines, and an oxygen mask fitted to his face. Throughout the long hours of surgery, Pinny’s wife waits alone in a secluded room. She wants to make sure that the recipient’s family members who are waiting in the adjacent room as their loved one is undergoing surgery, do not see or recognize her. She sits alone and says Tehillim, as she can’t even share this difficult time with a single soul.

Pinny is placed on the operating table, fluorescent lights are lit above him as he waits alone for his surgery to begin. At that moment something bursts inside of him, and he begins to weep uncontrollably. Pinny described those moments with a shiver. “It was a cleansing, purifying cry. Something I hadn’t felt in about 30 years. The nurses thought I was just afraid, but I was crying emotionally from the great zchus I felt at that moment”.

“I Thank You for the Zchus to Donate”

“I awoke in the recovery room, and felt completely crazy. I remember someone yelling my name from within a foggy haze and telling me to press the morphine button. I was in unbearable pain. Again they told me to press the morphine button. I see shadows flitting across the room and feel utterly lost and confused. My head is searing with pain. For the first time I felt what it means to wake up from general anesthesia after surgery. After I understood where I am, I ask “how is the recipient?” and my dear wife replies that she is doing well. I calm down, and suddenly I look at the window and see that the sun is setting. I realize that I hadn’t yet learned my daily chitas and Rambam, and I haven’t davened mincha! I feel terribly confused”.

Gradually, Pinny feels better and is wheeled to his hospital room. “And then I see Rabbi Heber”, he recalls excitedly. Mustering all his strength, Pinny tries to sit up in his bed and says “thank you! I am so grateful to you for allowing me this amazing opportunity. Without you this would never have happened!” Worriedly he asks Rabbi Heber what to do regarding mincha and maariv. “I remember Rabbi Heber telling me ‘right now you are potur from everything. Just make sure to put on tefillin tomorrow and you are potur from everything.’ This soothed me a bit. He gave me a booklet and small gift that all donors are given, as well as a few tips from his rich experience”.

“The night was not easy. The next day my wife flew back home to be with our children for Shabbos. I suddenly remembered that every Friday I call my parents to wish them good Shabbos and I can’t call from an Israeli number now without arousing their suspicion. It was a bit complicated, but in the end I figured out how to do it. I didn’t want to speak for more than a few minutes so that my voice shouldn’t give away how I was feeling. Parents can be super sensitive in that way.” Pinny was still suffering from strong pains, but the knowledge that his kidney had given someone a new lease on life, suffused him with energy. “I had terrible pains, but I remember when I asked the nurse how the recipient is doing, and she told me that she is sitting up in bed and happily chatting with her children, I felt such happiness and it filled me with strength.”

“On Friday a volunteer by the name of Reb Yoel Friedlander came to visit me. He was very supportive and encouraging” Pinny tells us of his Shabbos spent alone without any family, while still in pain in the hospital. “At 2:00 am I told myself: ‘get up and walk a little’. I take hold of my IV pole, and drag myself to the corridor. I start to slowly, painfully make my way forward, when I see the recipient’s father walking straight towards me. Baruch Hashem he didn’t recognize me in the hospital gown, cowering behind my IV pole. I understood that I must be more careful in hiding, and as I dragged myself back to my room, I made a decision that I would not leave my room until Shabbos is over.”

After Shabbos, the Matnat Chaim organization arranged for Pinny’s wife to come and visit him again.

“On Monday I was transferred to a different hospital room that was close to the recipient’s room. I was nervous, and sneaked my way to go visit another patient, a dear Yid by the name of Reb Yair Krief who had also donated his kidney on Sunday. Today I know that thanks to my surgery I made many wonderful new friends. I didn’t leave his room the entire day”.

“On Tuesday morning, I announced to the hospital staff that I am leaving” Pinny recounts. “I was told that I may not yet fly back home, and so I booked a small hotel room in Yerushalaim. During that weekend I felt that I finally need to tell my parents about what I had done. I discussed this with my Mashpia who felt that it was a good idea. I knew that I am not looking to arouse their pity, rather, I want to give them nachas and make them proud. I knew that they would be proud of what I had done” Pinny emphasizes.

Pinny calls his parents and tells them that he arrived in Israel for some business, but since he now has a break in his schedule he would be happy to meet them in his hotel. That evening his parents arrived at the hotel. Pinny had finally removed the hospital gown and was wearing regular clothing. Still weak and shaky, Pinny sat down across from his parents in the hotel lobby and spilled the beans before them: “I want to tell you something” he says. “The truth is that I have been in Israel for the past week, and the truth is that I was hospitalized until today”, and to his parents’ shock and amazement he adds “I donated my kidney”.

Pinny’s mother jumps up from her place. She immediately makes the connection to that family acquaintance that she had told him about not so long ago, and begins to cry. “My father was in total shock. I remember him mumbling to himself ‘mesirus nefesh, mesirus nefesh…’ Their reaction caught me by surprise. I was sure that they would rebuke me at least a bit for not telling them until now, for not asking their advice, but I was very pleasantly surprised. I think that that is the ultimate character test, will the person think just of himself, what was shared with him and what wasn’t, or all he really cares about is the act of giving first and foremost, and truly loves their child first and not themselves.”

On motzei Shabbos, his parents wrote him a very emotional letter. Here are just a few lines from it: “How can we express the feelings overflowing from our hearts, when you have gone so far with true mesirus nefesh to save the life of another person. We have merited that Hakadosh Baruch Hu has gifted us with such a pure and lofty soul, who strives only to help others in a modest and unassuming manner, and brings great nachas to the Rebbe”.

Pinny senses true satisfaction from donating his kidney. “Every once in a while, when the pain returns, I remind myself that there is someone out there who is happy and laughing, and living just like a regular person” Pinny says emotionally. “This gives me tremendous strength and immediately eases the pain. If there is anything that makes it all worthwhile, it is the knowledge that I gave someone the gift of life”.

“Being that I speak to my parents every Friday, it’s almost like I get weekly regards from my kidney. When my mother heard that our family acquaintance now has my kidney, a physical part of me, she stepped in with great enthusiasm to help. She comes to visit her and help her with her children, or whatever else she needs. The recipient obviously has no idea that it has to do with the origin of her new kidney, but my mother says that  the least she can do in order to be part of my special mitzva is to take good care of the woman who is now “hosting” a part of her son!”

A few months ago the story came full circle:

Pinny tells us excitedly “Amongst the shluchim in our country there is a raffle for a ticket to the Rebbe. This has been going on for many years. And suddenly, I am notified that I won the raffle and will be flying to the Rebbe”.

“In a way, I was not even surprised” Pinny reveals: “Just as the Rebbe called me to him before the surgery in order to ease my fears, he is now calling me again.”

3 Comments

  • 3. Lubavitcher wrote:

    I spoke to rabbi Heber and he mentioned this story (he wouldn’t divulge to me the name, only that he’s a Shliach) and he said that he told the Shliach, you have just established a new Chabad House but this time in someone’s body.

    Reply

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