Pick one. Any one. You can save a life.
By: Leon Sakkal
Since 2006, one organization has been dedicated to the preservation of Jewish life. Begun nearly ten years ago, today, they are responsible for saving hundreds of lives within the Jewish community.
Called Renewal, they are a nonprofit organization assisting people suffering from various forms of kidney disease.
Get the Facts
To truly comprehend the importance of this special organization, it is necessary to understand a bit of human physiology – namely, how our kidneys function inside our bodies. Our kidneys are a pair of organs located at the back of the abdomen. They filter the blood, remove wastes to create urine, adjust the chemical and fluid balance in the body, and help to control blood pressure. Our kidneys are also involved in regulating the effects of vitamin D on the body and in stimulating bone marrow to create new red blood cells.
When the kidneys are damaged by disease, some or all of these functions can be impaired, causing one to become very ill. When the kidneys fail to function at all, a person will die without treatment. Even more troubling, kidney ailments are the ninth leading cause of death in the United States.
?Here’s the growing problem, broken down by the numbers.
· More than 661,000 Americans have kidney failure. Of these, 468,000 individuals are on dialysis.
· After one year, patients on dialysis have a 20-25% mortality rate, with a five-year mortality rate of 68%
· Kidney failure is increasing in the United States by 5% per year.
· The need for donor kidneys in the United States is rising at 8% per year.
· Potential kidney donors will often refrain due to ancillary costs (i.e. time off from work, meal prep, babysitting help).
The essential antidote for these patients is, of course, a kidney transplant -- a surgery done to replace the diseased kidney with a healthy kidney from a donor. But, before the procedure can be done, a kidney has to be secured.
According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, close to 100,000 Americans are currently waiting for a new kidney. Of these 100,000 people, fewer than 17,000 receive one each year. The staggering amount of sick people in need, coupled with the strict criteria outlining just who gets precedence should a ‘match’ become available, means that many of our Jewish brethren and fellow community members still remain on that waiting list. Assuming he is lucky enough to receive a kidney, a patient will likely wait between five and seven years before a transplant occurs.
Heeding the Call
After bearing witness to the growing number of Jewish community members on the recipient waiting list, Renewal was created by an extraordinary team of activists. Their mission is perhaps the holiest task one can hope to accomplish – to save lives.
The team at Renewal selflessly devote themselves to assisting people suffering from Chronic Kidney Disease, and to educating the public on the life-saving benefits of living kidney donations. Aside for facilitating and coordinating live donor kidney transplants, they provide professional advice, practical and financial assistance, and emotional support for both parties.
Patients abetted by Renewal will typically wait less than one year for a kidney and have ancillary costs such as time off from work, transportation, meals, babysitting, rehabilitation, and other expenses covered.
By matching those capable and willing to offer the gift of life with those who desperately need it, Renewal’s work has saved lives throughout the Jewish world, including many here in our Sephardic community.
Real People, Real Stories
Community Magazine spoke with a number of Sephardic recipients about the effect Renewal has had on their lives.
–Mr. Henry Barnathan–
About ten years ago, Henry (“Rico”) Barnathan, a well-known business owner,father and grandfather, wenton a family Bar Mitzvah trip to Israel. While walking casually along the cobblestone streets, Rico fell and broke his ankle. Hewas taken to the hospital for an x-ray, where they discovered the disturbing news. Through Henry’s blood work, doctors found that he had long been living with chronickidney disease. His kidney was already 90% damaged.
Although he exhibited no outward symptoms at the time, Rico’s kidneys continued to deteriorateand he grew increasingly fatigued. Eventually, partly dueto his failing kidneys, Rico was also diagnosed with coronary disease, and inNovember 2012, required open-heart surgery fromwhich he recovered.
In March of 2015, the severity of Rico’ssymptoms markedly increased. Hewas out of breath, lethargic,walking very slowly and could noteat, or even lie down on his own. One evening, hisblood pressure dropped to an especially low level andhis body accumulated a buildup offluid. Hatzalah was called, and he was rushed to thehospital. Doctors found his creatinine[RJ1] level to be very high, and insisted hetake a water pill to drain hiskidneys.
Thereafter, Rico was puton emergency dialysis for severalmonths in order to save his life.The dialysis immediately helped;however, Rico did not see it as a viable long-term solution. As he told us:“Dialysis is not a way of life; it is a wasted day.”
When Rico’s family learned about Renewal, His son,Eddie, placed him on the list for a live kidney donor. Eddieaffirms, “The three top guys, A.J. Gindi, Menachem Friedmanand David Schischa, immediately stepped in and put us at ease. They made us feel confident, and worked tirelessly to get a matchingdonor. They are more than family. They are angels from Hashem who do kindness and hesed.”
Within a month, Renewal found Rico a live donor, and, in June of 2015, Rico underwent the procedure at Mt. Sinaihospital with the respected Dr. Ron Shapiro. Rico praised his donor, a young Hassidic man, and all of those who volunteer to save a life:
“These donors are true believers in Hashem.There are no boundaries when helping another Jew. There isnothing more important than the true hesed of saving a life.”
Today, Rico lives a healthy life, and is cherished by his many children and grandchildren.
–Rabbi Eliyahu Azatchi–
A resident of Long Branch, NJ, Rabbi Eliyahu Azatchi enjoys his daily studies at the Sephardic Torah Center Kollel, as he has for more than thirty years. His routine came to an abrupt halt, though, when doctors discovered that his kidneys were functioning at about a 30% performance level.
“The doctor warned me about the situation,” Rabbi Azatchi says, “but he gave the impression that it was treatable with medication and changes in my lifestyle. I was concerned… but not so worried”.
For three years, Rabbi Azatchi took his prescribed medications, and carefully watched his diet and blood pressure. Unfortunately, however, there came a point when he could no longer ignore his fatigue and the lack of clarity in his thinking.
“I gained 20 pounds in one year due to water retention, the Rabbi says. “I was told that I needed a kidney transplant,”
The Rabbi knew about Renewal, and sought advice about donors. Both family members and others volunteered. After evaluation, one of his family members was indeed found to be a match but did not meet Renewal’s strict medical guidelines. In the same breath, though representative reassured the family: “Don’t worry; we have another donor for you.”
Eight months after applying to Renewal, Rabbi Azatchi had the transplant surgery and met his donor.. “A true sadeket,” he says about her, “She made me feel like I was doing her a favor by giving her the zechut to do a mitzvah. There is no way to thank her.”
Throughout his emotional journey, Rabbi Azatchi’s main concern was his children, most particularly his son’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah. “Am I going to make it?” he wondered. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Renewal, the Rabbi indeed made it to that Bar Mitzvah without ever going to dialysis.
“I am no longer fatigued or unfocussed,” he says. “I feel Hashem gave me a second chance because of my wife and children.” He gently added, “Make your time count, and appreciate your family.”
It was roughly thirteen years ago that Yaniv, a New Jersey local, was informed he had Polycystic kidney disease; a disease in which the kidneys containnoncancerous sacs containing water-like fluid, which can often grow very large. Upon discovering his patient’s condition, Yaniv’s doctor delivered the terrifying verdict: “You have ten years to live.”
To Yaniv, the news seemed surreal, and for three days, he simply could not digest the statement. After he finally ‘came to’, Yaniv found himself in an emotional frenzy.
He sought the support and guidance of Rabbi Shmuel Choueka of Congregation Ohel Simha (Park Avenue Shul), who directed him to Dr. Albert Matalon of NYU Medical Center. Until today, Yaniv remains under Dr. Matalon’s care.
As time progressed, and with his new doctor’s help, Yaniv learned to cope with his condition. He remained sound for the years that followed, and went about life rather optimistically, though never forgetting the decree of his previous doctor.
After seeing irregularities in his patient’s creatinine level, Dr. Matalon referred Yaniv to Renewal. He needed a new kidney.
From there, Yaniv met Renewal Community Advocate, A.J. Gindi, who immediately took Yaniv under his personal care. He was soon registered with Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, and put on the registry for a new kidney. Just months later, Yaniv ran in to A.J. on Purim Day and was assured that things were in development. Although the news was encouraging, days can feel like centuries while a person with failing kidneys lies in wait..
Finally, Yaniv received a call from Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. He was told to come in and meet the chief of surgery; he was scheduled for an operation on the 24th of May. At long last, things were looking up.
After meeting with the surgeon and undergoing the required bloodwork and necessary procedures, Yaniv readied himself for surgery. While donning his surgical gown, he was paid a visit by some of the men who had made it all possible. A.J. Gindi, Menachem Friedman, and David Schischa of Renewal graced his hospital room with warm wishes and blessings of success.
It was only minutes before the procedure was set to take place, and Yaniv was feeling good, except for one thing that gnawed at his heart. Up until this point, he’d remained in the dark as to who his mystery donor was. He was told the donor preferred to remain anonymous. That was, however, until everyone had left the room, and Yaniv was left alone awaiting transport.
With just five minutes to go,, in walked the donor. Yaniv was overtaken by emotion as he gazed at the stranger who would be saving his life.
“I want to give you my kidney,” the donor began “You’re going to be healthy again, and I don’t want you to worry about anything.” In a show of tears, the two embraced. Yaniv expressed his concern for his new hero, but the donor was adamant: “Don’t worry about me,” he said. “I just want you to be healthy”.
Weeks later, Yaniv is home recovering from the procedure. He tells us he’s feeling better and stronger every day. Now, Yaniv looks towards the future and hopes to find the right girl and get married.
He vows to never forget what Renewal has done for him.
Jack Shemueli is the owner of Sara’s Tent, and a father of four from Deal, NJ. Just two years ago, Jack was given the frightening news: After years of closely managing his diabetes, he was unfortunately in need of a new kidney. Initially, Jack was adamant about not having his children evaluated for donation, but after substantial pressure from his children, and friend A.J. Gindi, he relented. His son, Avi was found to be a perfect match.
After undergoing the required testing and bloodwork, father and son were given a scheduled date for the operation – but it would soon be canceled. Much to the family’s surprise, a final x-ray revealed a less-than-perfect photograph of Avi’s kidneys; an additional three months of testing was required to rule out any concern. This meant Jack would have to begin dialysis in the interim.
Ultimately doctors concluded that although Avi was healthy, and a perfect genetic match, a few nonmalignant spots on his kidneys were enough to disqualify him as his father’s donor. It was back to square one for Jack.
Meanwhile, Izzy, an attorney and father of five from Flatbush, reached out to Renewal around the very same time. He had joined a minyan in Mount Sinai Hospital while visiting a friend that had donated a kidney. He was inspired by his friend’s tremendous act of hesed and decided right then and there that he wanted to donate his kidney.
After living life on dialysis for several months, Jack knew this was no way to live, and turned to Renewal in the hopes that they could find him a match. Just two months from the day he placed that call, Renewal coordinated the transplant between Jack and Izzy - two total strangers -- giving Jack what he calls “a new lease on life”.
To round off our story, we sat down to interview Renewal’s community advocate A.J. Gindi, himself a kidney donor.
CM:So, A.J., how did your relationship with Renewal Begin?
AJ:In February 2013, I became an altruistic kidney donor --- meaning I donated my kidney without knowing or meeting my recipient until the day of transplant. Before that, Renewal received various requests from other community members in need of a transplant, and facilitated a few. In February 2014, they asked if I would serve as the Community Advocate because they felt the need for someone who knew the Sephardic culture and ‘language’.
CM:We have noticed that many transplants have taken place in the past few months. Why do you feel there is such a sudden need for kidneys?
AJ:I think the need was always there. People just never knew where to go. In the past, people would register with the hospital and wait years hoping for a phone call that a kidney had become available. Every few days they would go to the dialysis center for treatment, and many would pass away while on the machines. Renewal has given people new hope.
CM:What is dialysis?
AJ:Dialysis is a process in which the toxins in the blood are filtered through a machine. Since a person’s kidneys have failed, there is no way to relieve the body of those toxins other than dialysis. The average patient will visit the dialysis center three days a week for four hours at a time.
CM:What is the main cause of kidney failure and at what age does it most commonly happen?
AJ:According to the National Kidney Center, the main causes of kidney disease are diabetes, high blood pressure, and, in some cases, medication. The Kidney Center asserts that some over-the-counter medicines can be poisonous to your kidneys if taken regularly over a long period of time. Products that combine aspirin, acetaminophen, and other medicines like ibuprofen have been found to be the most dangerous to the kidneys. If you take painkillers regularly, check with your doctor. Another factor is Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD), which is hereditary.
CM:By what age should one be concerned about Gd forbid developing kidney ailments?
AJ: As far as age is concerned, kidney disease knows no boundaries. Male, female, young or old, all can be affected. Renewal has facilitated transplants in children as young as two years old and adults as old as 83. This horrific disease can affect anyone.
CM:How many people are currently on Renewal’s waiting list?
CM:Does that mean if you had 300 donors it would clear up the list?
AJ:I’m sorry to say - not even close. Only 30% of the people that want to donate their kidney will actually be able to pass all of the testing required to become a donor. After that, there is blood matching, cross tissue matching, and antibodies to deal with. Renewal also does not solicit donors. Our goal is to educate people about kidney donations and explain the aspects of becoming a donor. Through this awareness process, people step forward for testing.
CM:If there is one thing you could wish for, what would it be?
AJ:That’s a simple question that any kidney donor could answer: We all wish we had another kidney to help save another life.
Since its inception, Renewal has been involved in hundreds of transplants. In the last year alone they were responsible for 60%-70% of all the altruistic transplants performed in the state of New York. Their dedication has saved hundreds.
Renewal invites our community to take part in its efforts to save the lives of those kidney patients in desperate need of a transplant.
To contribute to Renewal, or for more information about how you can get involved in its life-saving work, please visit www.life-renewal.org. Each and every one of us can save a life.
*The cases mentioned in this article have been changed for the protection of the patients.