In 2011, just one year into Jeff’s retirement from forty-two successful years in sales, his wife received a phone call from New York. Her brother, Michael, had been diagnosed with kidney disease.
“Honestly,” said Jeff, “neither one of us knew a lot about it other than to say we knew it wasn’t good.”
Over the next few months several people volunteered to be tested as potential kidney donors. None of them matched. In 2012, Michael started dialysis while he continued to search for a donor. In the meantime, his condition deteriorated.
“One day,” recalls Jeff, “I walked into the room and saw my wife brushing away tears, which is extremely unusual. I asked what was wrong and of course the answer was Michael’s illness. That’s when I said I’d get tested.”
For the next four months, Jeff endured what he calls “significant” testing. At one point, the transplant staff almost eliminated his donor candidacy.
“I met with the head of donor advocacy, and he expressed concerns about my blood pressure. I told him it was white coat hypertension, but he didn’t buy it. He put me on a twenty-four hour blood pressure monitor.
“We didn’t tell Michael about the hold-up. It was the first negative thing that had happened during the process, and we didn’t see any reason to heighten his anxiety over what might turn out to be nothing.”
Thankfully, the donor advocate eventually reached a reasonable comfort level with the blood pressure tests. Shortly afterwards, the transplant staff approved Jeff as a living kidney donor.
In the last part of 2012, nearly a year after Michael’s initial diagnosis, Jeff and his wife traveled from their home in south Florida to New York City where they spent a few days sightseeing as they prepared for the operation. On December 6, 2012, Jeff became the oldest living kidney donor in the fifty years that New York Presbyterian has operated their transplant program. He was seventy-two years old.
“I never had any moments of pause about donating. I never once Googled kidney donation. I only started doing that after the fact. I felt really good on the day of the surgery, no nerves.”
Jeff describes his first day of recovery as similar to having the flu, but after the first twenty-four hours, he says his recovery progressed quickly and without complications. Michael, too, recovered well, and nearly four years later, both men are in excellent health.
“When I first decided to get tested, I did it for my wife and her brother, but the experience really did change my life. It took a good year and half after the surgery, but I suddenly became aware that I’d done something spectacular for someone else. That’s when my approach to life changed. I thought about what I could do to continue giving back.”
To this day, Jeff continues to do just that as a living donation advocate. A couple of times a month, Jeff speaks throughout Broward and Dade counties, sharing his experience with others.
“In my presentations, I hit hard on the waiting list and how it grows larger every year because there aren’t enough living donors. It’s unfortunate that when faced with the question of whether or not to be a living donor, everyone’s answer isn’t simply ‘yes.’
“If there’s ever a time in your life that you’re called upon to do the right thing, and if doing the right thing saves someone’s life, how simple is that decision?”
Many donors, myself included, experience the same difficulty accepting spectacular thing they’ve done the same way Jeff did. We tend to think of heroism more like superheroism, fighting evil in the name of good and all that. But true heroics happen at many different levels, from intervening in a fight to pulling a drowning person ashore to donating an organ to save someone’s life. You don’t need superpowers to be a hero–just good intentions and a willing heart. (And all those significant tests, of course.)
Jeff’s ongoing advocacy for living donation speaks further to his heroism. A lot of the stories I’ve heard follow similar trajectories–people who hadn’t given donation much thought to begin with and then become voices for a cause too often forgotten about. It’s difficult, maybe even impossible, to separate yourself from the significance of saving a life, which may explain why so many people who never expected to become donors end up remaining involved in the fight against kidney disease long after the transplant. By advocating for living donation, those who volunteer are helping to raise up other heroes like Jeff who’d never considered donation. If even one donor comes from advocacy activities, then every minute spent on presentations, pamphlets, PowerPoints, and public speaking is 100% worth it.
Do you have a story about kidney donation you’d like to share? Contact me and I’ll get in touch with you within a few days!