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Heavenly Matches: The Culture of Organ Donation

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Some say that living donors are doubly heroic because they get to save two lives—the person they are donating to, and a person on the waiting list who now has a chance to move up. "Living donors help to make the pool of people waiting for a transplant a little smaller," explains Sogawa. The organ also has better quality and longevity; while a living-donor kidney can last upwards of 15 years, a deceased-donor kidney often lasts just over 10 years. (Interestingly, when someone receives a kidney transplant, doctors don't remove the old, nonfunctioning kidneys—so there are some people walking around with five or six kidneys in their body, with only one of them actually doing its intended job of removing waste and balancing fluids.)

Of course, not everyone is lucky to find a living donor, and people can get desperate waiting for a new organ. That's why hospital transplant teams have a committee to assess potential donors and make sure there is no other interest such as money exchanged (it's illegal in the US to sell your organ to someone). Yet desperation can also lead to creative solutions, such as the national donation chains that have cropped up in the last five years—allowing a family member or friend who is not a biological match to donate their organ to a stranger so that, in turn, their loved one may receive an organ from another donor on the chain.

A Chance to Be of Service

For some, deciding to donate an organ is an impassioned choice, even a calling. That's how it was for Katy Matthews, a Brooklyn-based maker of gemstone malas and the owner of KaMala Jewelry. When Matthews heard that a friend, Ben Fleisher, was in need of a kidney, she knew within a blink that she would be his donor. "There are a lot of things in life that you're not sure about, but this is something that was very clear," she says. Fleisher, an acupuncturist and the proprietor of Woodstock Healing Arts, an integrative medical and wellness center in Woodstock, had been gradually losing kidney function due to a condition called IgA nephropathy, in which an antibody called IgA builds up in the kidneys and causes irreparable damage. He had started dialysis in July 2017. "For the first couple of months, the dialysis made me feel better, but then I felt like I was walking through mud," says Fleisher. "The body accumulates water and I started to feel worse and worse. I would leave dialysis with a crushing headache, exhausted and out of it."

Fueled by empathy, Matthews took action and signed up for donor testing at Mt. Sinai Hospital, where Fleisher hoped to have his transplant surgery. As a parent—she has a five-year-old boy, Elias—she was particularly moved to help. "He's a human who deserves to live in his body and feel good," she says of Fleisher. "Venetia [his wife] was a mother with two young girls, a business, and a very sick husband. They had two baby girls who needed to know their dad. For me it seemed so simple: I have something that somebody needs and they're suffering. I can help." The biggest hurdle to donating were the fears of some family members, who worried that she was putting herself at risk. "There's not a lot of research or information on what it means to donate an organ," adds Matthews. "People act like you're signing your life away. It's scary for a lot of people."

Ben Fleisher and Katy Matthews moments before surgery, Mt. Sinai Hospital, March 27, 2018.
  • Ben Fleisher and Katy Matthews moments before surgery, Mt. Sinai Hospital, March 27, 2018.

With an uncanny prescience, Matthews knew that she'd be Fleisher's donor, but it took a while for his medical team to realize that as well. Six or seven months after signing up to be tested—after several other would-be donors were turned down—she received the call to come to the hospital for testing. Donor testing is a rigorous process but, says Fleisher, "Katy was hugely determined. Anything they brought up as a concern, she knocked it down. She was like a ninja." In the end she was pronounced an excellent match, and the two went to surgery on March 27, 2018. Designed to be minimally invasive, the operations went without a hitch, performed by robot for Matthews and laparoscopically for Fleisher.

Speaking of Generosity Of People, organ Donation

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