My husband’s kidneys were damaged by medication. At one point we realized my husband – Avi Zarmi – needed a replacement as his kidneys continued to deteriorate.
Since Avi was a veteran, for several years we went to the Veterans Administration transplant center in Iowa City. He passed every medical test – and there were many – to be eligible. After four years of testing, and going to Iowa’s transplant center many times, and the New York City VA transplant center, he still didn’t have a donor. He also tried the transplant centers at Froedtert Hospital and the University of Wisconsin in Madison. We began to lose hope.
His kidneys became so bad he had to start dialysis. Dialysis was extremely hard as Avi had to sit for several hours as his blood literally had to be drained and replaced in his body three times a week. After his sessions he was exhausted. The average life span of a person on dialysis is five years.
Then my brother told us about Renewal, a Jewish organization that seeks to match kidney donors to those who needed kidneys. It was the only organization of its kind in the country. We went to New York City, where Renewal was headquartered in an inauspicious building in Brooklyn. The organization, founded in 2006, has to date facilitated 750 kidney transplants, with recipients from the age of 2 to 86.
Avi and I were interviewed by Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, the head of Renewal. We were thrilled when Avi was accepted into the program. He, again, had to be checked out medically which was an ongoing process with weekly blood tests, heart checkups, and other tests, to be sure a new kidney would survive the transplant.
Potential donors were also checked out thoroughly by Renewal, medically and psychologically. Almost all were Orthodox Jews who believed in the Talmud’s “anyone who saves a single life in Israel is as if he has saved a whole world.”
Renewal pays for all the donor’s tests and medical bills, as well as loss of the donor’s wages. Since Avi had turned 65 at the time of the potential transplant he purchased a Medicare supplement plan to pay for hospitalization and drugs.
The transplant was to take place at New York University Hospital. We now had to be interviewed by the NYU transplant team. This was a tougher interview than Renewal’s was. I, as the spouse, was extremely important. No transplant center will accept anyone for transplant unless he or she has a “support person,” to be there through the entire process and afterward. A secondary support person also had to be listed in case something happened to the first support person. My 25-year-old nephew became the secondary support person. The NYU team wanted more support, so my brother offered his as well.
The transplant team also insisted we stay in the area for a year for Avi to be observed by them.
Finally, Avi was accepted and told to be in New York City within two days, for his two-week stay there before the operation. I hustled to get a ticket and he got to New York City in the allotted time. In New York, he stayed at the Friendship House, a sort of Jewish Ronald McDonald House where people in New York for medical help were housed without charge. I joined him shortly after that.
We were not allowed to meet his donor before the operation and on Sept.16, 2019, we left for the hospital on a dark morning at 5 a.m. I stayed with Avi until he was taken up for the operation and was able to see him in the post operation center as well.
He was in the hospital for about a week in a room with a gorgeous view of the East River. The room had a couch so when our son David came from Los Angles he stayed overnight.
The hospital had kosher microwaves and refrigerators on every floor. Along with kosher hospital food, ladies from the Satmar Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick) organization, brought bags of food for the Sabbath with grape juice, challahs, soup, fish, and chicken!
One afternoon, Rabbi Steinmetz, and Rifka, the wife of Avi’s donor, 38-year-old Zev, came to see me. Rifka brought her recently born son and hugged me, thanking me for allowing her husband and herself to perform the mitzvah of saving a life! We were both in tears at that point.
When Avi was discharged, we returned to the Friendship House. Unfortunately, we had to leave after a couple of weeks and after a lot of calls I found a studio apartment on east 78th street, rented by the Lenox Hill Bikur Cholim organization, where we spent the next couple of months, rent free.
Every morning Avi had to be at the hospital by 7 a.m. for blood tests, as well as numerous other medical visits.
We were again the recipients of the kindness of the New York City Orthodox Jewish community, as there would be a bag of Satmar Shabbos food every Friday for us at the Lenox Hill Hospital’s Bikur Cholim room, near our apartment. There was also a Bikur Cholim room at the New York University Hospital where Avi got breakfast after morning blood tests. Almost every hospital in New York has those rooms for Jewish patients and their families.
Renewal organized a wonderful meeting between Avi and his donor Zev in Baltimore at an event to raise awareness for new donors and funds to help the program. His wife, Rifka, and their seven children were there as well. Avi and Zev met for the first time, on a stage, in front a large audience and hugged. It was a very emotional moment for both and many in the audience were touched by their embrace. As a result of what the audience saw, 150 people signed up to be tested to become potential donors!
Then I had to find another apartment for us as our studio was needed for other families. I found one in Lakewood, New Jersey, to live for the several more months that New York University had required. However, when we came back to Milwaukee for a break from New York, we found that Milwaukee’s Veteran Administration hospital has a wonderful post-transplant program and Avi made the decision to stay home.
It was a good decision. We returned in December, and not long afterward COVID-19 overtook all our lives.
It has been over a year and a half since Avi had his transplant. He is doing wonderfully well and we are so grateful to Renewal, and to his donor Zev, that he was given the opportunity to have a longer life than he would have had.