A (not so) ordinary hero

Giving someone the gift of life

By Chandrea Serebro

The tried and tested marketing Rule of Seven says you will have to leave no less than seven impressions for people to even notice you. In the same way, Matnat Chaim, the organisation in Israel that facilitates altruistic kidney donations, wormed its way into Shaul Behr’s consciousness until he found himself being prepped for theatre to donate a kidney. But it wasn’t exactly an ‘impulse buy’. Even though all he kept hearing was how safe and relatively pain-free kidney donation is, it wasn’t a decision Shaul took lightly, giving away a vital organ. Like the hero in any good tale, Shaul had to be taken into the folds of his do-good-adventure book slowly, but very soon it proved to be unputdownable.

“The other day, I bumped into a friend while I was out and about, quite randomly, and he asked me how my kidney was doing. My automatic response was to ask him, ‘which one?’ I chuckled at that, because it was soon after I had donated my kidney to someone named Rom who began as a complete stranger to me, and there is nothing like a little bit of post-kidney donation humour. After all, who doesn’t want to ‘kid(ney)’ around.” But actually, Shaul was amazed because at that moment, he realised with a force that he wasn’t expecting that, jokes aside, he really did still believe he had two kidneys. “One just happens to be in Rom’s body, giving him life afresh every day, while the other is in my body giving me life. And he isn’t a stranger anymore. Our lives are intertwined now, as we share a pair of kidneys.”

Once the idea of donating a kidney had taken shape in Shaul’s mind, his world began to be shaped by the notion at every turn, like any good marketing campaign. Everywhere he looked, Shaul was being drawn into its story. He had had a friend who had received a kidney (from a deceased donor), and he now recalled him describing his life on dialysis and how having his own kidney completely changed his life. Shaul began to hear more and more stories about people who received a kidney and how it changed their lives. The next pamphlet that Matnat Chaim published showed a group of people, all of whom were donors, and Shaul recognised two people from his community.

“I was completely blown away by the fact that these people had donated a kidney. If they could do it, why couldn’t I? I called one of them up and spoke to him, told him that I was considering doing it myself, and he was very encouraging, talking me through it. I realised then how ‘little’ it takes to do such a great mitzvah.” Suddenly, he saw more clearly how the loss to him would be nowhere near the gain for the recipient. “Of course, I looked into the halachic process, and I don’t think there is a posek in the world that would say it is forbidden – the risk to the donor is so small, and you are literally saving a life, pikuach nefesh.”

While it sounds pithy, the function and importance of our kidney is a truth we don’t even realise and which we gloss over every day of our lives. “To live with renal impairment is not a life. Dialysis is just a holding pattern, and while people can live for a long time on dialysis, there is no quality of life. It is an exhausting process that takes time, effort, suffering, and pain.”

One of the people that Shaul looks up to as an example of this kind of altruistic force is Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, who himself previously donated a kidney. Rabbi Soloveitchik became for Shaul a shining example of how one cannot shy away from saving a life, and it was this idea that Shaul took to his family for their consideration. “My children were very respectful about it. The younger ones were more cautious, but the older ones who understood the gravitas were very encouraging, and the fact that I was confident and keen helped them see the light.” But most importantly, says Shaul, was the fact that his wife supported the idea, and luckily for him she did from the moment it first sprouted. It may even have been her machinations that gave him the final push that he needed to go ahead. Whether she was truly spring cleaning or getting him to spring into action when she brought Shaul all the information he had collected on the process and asked if she could toss it or if he was indeed intending to pursue it, Shaul realised that he had to take action.

“I figured that it would be a long process from which I’d be able to pull out whenever I wanted, so I went ahead and applied for the forms.” Shaul began his due diligence, ascertaining the risks, the changes in lifestyle, and all the factors involved. “My parents and siblings were more concerned, being older and somewhat wiser than me,” and he laughs, frankly quite “attached” to him. “I let everyone know I am aware of the risks. But I believe in G-d. If He wanted to take me, He wouldn’t need to wait until I went under the knife to donate a kidney. Statistically speaking, one has more chance of getting in a car accident.”

Soon, Shaul had been matched for a donation, but with the Corona crisis, he received notice from his work (a small start-up) that they were letting him go. “It was such a pity, but I had to cancel the donation to begin looking for a new job,” needing his full energy and focus to find a new job. “Sadly, the would-be recipient at that time was not to be my match, but thankfully they did manage to find him a new donor.” After finding himself a new job, settling-in, and reaching a point where he could once again contemplate the kidney donation only six months later, Shaul contacted Matnat again, ready to donate, and they found him a new recipient match. And with that, it seemed as if Shaul was finally going to get the chance to live up to his story…and make another chapter in Rom’s possible.

Rom was a very difficult case. He was born with congenital heart defects, and experienced surgery after surgery and multiple blood transfusions to try and correct it, which eventually succeeded. But, at 19, he contracted a viral infection that damaged his kidneys irreparably and he was forced to survive on dialysis from that time on. None of his family proved to be a match because of the antibodies that his body had developed over time in order to protect itself, and their organs would have been rejected outright. While his family was in shock and despair, Rom refused to allow his condition to rule his life, being the positive, go-getting person who could survive what life had thrown his way and still keep up his belief that his life might change. And this hope went a long way toward finding him a new life. “Rom, of Iraqi Sephardic descent finds a Litvishe Ashkenazi Jew from South Africa. A perfect match.” Shaul, randomly matched to Rom because Rom moved his file to Tel Hashomer, believes that Rom’s optimism brought them together, that it was pre-written into the story, and the convergence of their lives would be the pinnacle of the tale.

“I will admit. I was scared.” Two days after Sukkot, while prepping for surgery, Shaul found himself having to submit himself to a higher purpose. “Knowing I was about to lay myself down in submission for the removal of a vital part of my body allowed no room for anything else other than to accept that this was all for Hashem – to do His mitzvot, and to succeed at carrying out this scary mitzvah for a higher purpose. The fear and the pain afterwards are temporary. The joy of knowing that I have saved someone’s life and continue to save his life every moment is an unbelievable feeling. This experience allowed me to become a true ‘baal chesed’ and has brought into my life an opportunity to do kindness second to none.”

Thank G-d it was a very successful operation, and within hours of the transplant Rom began seeing the benefits of the kidney which was almost immediately functional. And, says Shaul, naturally Rom too found himself changed in more ways than just the obvious physical relief that he gained. “Of course, now he can do all the things he never could, but he has a strong will to make his life mean something. And that has been the overriding message of his journey. When I met him, I asked him to say ‘asher yatzar’, the blessing we say after using the bathroom, something we mumble through a few times every day. But for him, now that he had been given the gift of life, the words had acquired such a deep and special meaning. He truly understood what it meant, and he recites it now with the greatest sense of meaning and feeling that anyone could ever have.”

“I would do it again, over and over, and if you qualify, I advise anyone to do it. It is so worth it, such a small sacrifice to make, for so massive an impact on someone else’s life.” It is every everyday hero’s challenge to take up the mantle of his own story and star in the role of his life. And just like Shaul, anyone can do it.

Matnat Chaim is an Israeli non-profit that recruits and supports healthy volunteers who donate kidneys to patients who require a transplant. The kidney donors receive no monetary compensation for their donation and the recipients do not pay for their transplants. All kidney donations are done on a voluntary and altruistic basis, and the sole motivation of the organisation and the kidney donors is the desire to help others and save lives.

It all began when, some years ago, Rabbi Yeshayahu Heber (at that time a dialysis patient himself and not yet a kidney transplant recipient) met a young man named Pinchas, the son of parents who had lost their older son in the Lebanon War. Pinchas, the younger brother, urgently needed a kidney transplant, but no suitable donor could be found and there was no official authority or organsation that could be approached for help. As a result, Pinchas’ transplant was delayed and his body could no longer cope. After a long period of physical and emotional suffering for him and his family, he passed away, leaving his parents bereaved of two sons. This tragic story, the likes of which has become all too common in recent years, illustrated the vital need for an organisation to which patients could turn in such times of trouble, and that is how Matnat Chaim came into being.

Sadly, Rabbi Yeshayahu Heber, z”l, passed away at the age of 55 after being hospitalised and testing positive for COVID-19 in April last year.

For more on Matnat Chaim, visit: www.kilya.org.il

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