A bumper sticker changed her life. “It said, ‘Don’t take your organs to heaven, heaven knows we need them here,’” recalled Tara Kopman of Dix HillS, L.I.
When she got her driver’s license, she checked the box indicating that she would be an organ donor. But it wasn’t until a year or so ago that she was able to donate one of her kidneys after a friend forwarded a Facebook message from a young woman looking for a kidney for her father, George Bell. It said potential donors should contact Renewal, a nonprofit ultra-Orthodox organization that works to find kidney donors for Jews who desperately need them. She filled out the paperwork after having earlier received a medical clearance by Weill Cornell Medical Center — including a psychological assessment “to make sure you are 100 percent sound of mind to be doing this,” and waited.
Several weeks later, Kopman was informed she was a perfect match. Bell flew to New York from his home in Florida for the surgery, which was performed last year.
“I did not meet George before the transplant,” she said. “I did not want to, and I told very few people about it. I did not tell my parents or children until five days before the surgery. I didn’t want to put a kenahora — negative energy. I’m superstitious. … Our surgeries were staggered by an hour or two. I didn’t ask any questions because I said I was going to do it and whatever was going to be, was going to be.”
Kopman arrived at the hospital at 6 a.m. and the transplant was performed two hours later. She was discharged on Sunday, but not before meeting Bell, his wife and four of his six children.
“The second I walked into his room he started crying,” she recalled. “His sentiments were, ‘I hope I make you proud,’ and he said how thankful he was I did this for him. His children told me that the first thing he did after the surgery was to ask how I was. For me, all I cared about was him. I just needed to know George was OK. When I walked into his room and saw him sitting up in a chair, it was such a relief. My greatest fear was if I donated my kidney and it failed.”
Bell, 75, of Boca Raton, Fla., said he had been on dialysis for 2 ½ years.
“It’s not a life, living on dialysis,” he said, noting that he had dialysis treatments three or four times a week.
“You can’t go anywhere. We couldn’t travel or do anything. I was just lucky we found Tara because if not, I would probably still be on dialysis.”
Bell said he met Kopman’s parents and that her mother “looks just like my wife. They look like sisters. And when I saw Tara, it was like I was looking at my kid. … It’s a crazy feeling. It’s unbelievable. I feel like I knew her my whole life. She is such a great kid. People who do this are very special people. I love her parents. They are super wonderful people.”
Rabbi Josh Sturm, Renewal’s director of outreach, told The Jewish Week in an email that his organization matched 81 patients with transplanted kidneys in 2017 and that the number rose to 98 last year. He noted that the number of transplants has set new records in each of the last six years. Since Renewal started in 2006, it has overseen the transplants of 512 kidneys, and in the last five or six years has been involved in about 15 percent of all altruistic kidney donations, or donations to a stranger, in the U.S.
Despite its increasing number of transplants each year, Rabbi Sturm said Renewal has a waiting list of 400 patients, most of whom are on dialysis. He said it is difficult to say the length of time those on the list have to wait for a donor because “each patient is different, based on compatibility.
“Those patients who are proactive in their search for a kidney tend to get a kidney a lot quicker than those who are not,” he said.
Although Renewal chooses recipients on a “first come-first served basis,” Rabbi Sturm said “most kidneys come in due to patients’ campaigns [spreading their personalized flyer around, hosting awareness events]. These donors are then earmarked specifically for the patient who was responsible for bringing them in, even though most of the time the donor does not know the patient [they saw a random flyer].”
Asked about patients’ campaigns to find a donor, he said there have been about 20 this year in which a patient will ask people to gather at a particular location to have their inner cheek swabbed to determine compatibility for blood type and HLA (human leukocyte antigen), the entire set of genes that code for proteins involved in antigen presentation. The gatherings are often held in synagogues.
“At a swabbing event, individuals come to hear a presentation about living kidney donation,” Rabbi Sturm said. “Those who are interested in pursuing it further can get swabbed. Usually the number of people who get swabbed is about 10 percent of those in attendance. This is actually a very good number for us, as those who get swabbed are potentially serious candidates.”
To be able to donate a kidney through Renewal, a person must be at least 21. There have been many individuals in their 70s who received transplants and a number who were in their 80s; the oldest recipient was 83.
Although Renewal is a Jewish organization, Rabbi Sturm noted that its “doors are open and Renewal tries to help all of those who come through its doors.”
Kopman said Bell has kept in regular contact with her, and that his greeting is, “This is your kidney calling.”
Looking back, Kopman confessed that her parents weren’t happy when she told them she was about to be a kidney donor.
“My mother’s first response was, ‘Are you crazy, are you insane? Why don’t you donate one of your eyes, you only need one of them?’ My father’s response was, ‘Did you get clearance from your rabbi?’ But my brother is a very observant Jew and he said, ‘If either of you needed a kidney and no one in the family was able to donate, wouldn’t you want someone to selfishly donate one to you?’”
Kopman said she explained to her parents her philosophy of life: No one person is better than another, and any person in need is equal to another in need.
“I don’t regret doing it,” Kopman said. “The only regret I have is that I don’t have more kidneys to give.”