Lee Gaitman, 74, and a retired textile buyer from South Orange, recently returned from a trip to an urgent message on his phone from his nephrologist.
“The message was to come in as soon as you can,” said Gaitman, who had been diagnosed with Stage 3 kidney disease several months before. He was steeling himself for the worst, having lost part of a kidney to cancer a few years ago and his test numbers had recently dropped to a dangerous level, near end-stage renal failure. “I knew the news would not be good.”
His doctor, Maya K. Rao, at New York-Presbyterian Hospital-Columbia and Cornell, confirmed Gaitman would soon need a new kidney to avoid
dialysis. She started a process to get him the transplant, contacting the Brooklyn non-profit group Renewal, which has arranged over 500 kidney transplants, almost all donors coming from the Jewish population.
“This gave us a lot of hope,” said Lee’s wife, Caren, 73, herself a lymphoma survivor who is battling kidney disease, though it’s not as serious as her husband’s fight.
Since 2006 Renewal has been involved in assisting those in need of kidney transplants by setting up events to recruit and match donors with transplant candidates. The Orthodox charity collects DNA by swabbing the cheeks of attendees to see if any are a potential match.
Renewal accepted Lee’s application and Caren began planning the N.J. event.
First, she needed to find a venue to rent. When she asked Chabad of Short Hills, where the Gaitmans are members, if its auditorium was available, Rabbi Mendel Solomon told her that Chabad would host the event free of charge. (Chabad of Short Hills is affiliated with the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown, the N.J. headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch
“This was a mitzvah to help Lee and Caren to make people aware of their situation and to find donors,” Solomon told NJJN. “What we wanted to do is help save the life of a fellow Jew.”
Between Solomon’s promoting the Sept. 16 event and Caren’s posting flyers in shops all over the area, over 200 people came and had their cheeks swabbed. The swabs are processed in five weeks, at which time the Gaitmans will know if one of the attendees is a match for Lee.
“This was Lee’s best chance to get a kidney quickly, much more than any national list,” said Rabbi Joshua Sturm, Renewal’s outreach director. “Caren worked really hard, and the Chabad really helped.”
Renewal holds several similar events annually in Lakewood, and Sturm said it’s crucial to get the word out about them, “because this is how we find altruistic, live donors, those who are not family, and build our donor chains. We are glad to help Lee in any way we can. With this, we have a life-threatening disease with a cure: a transplant.”
Sturm said Renewal takes care of donors “in every way possible,” and the transplant recipient’s medical insurance pays for all the surgery, medical procedures, examinations, and hospitalizations. “We reimburse a donor for travel, lost wages, and other intangibles,” he added, and said donors are usually fully recovered within a few weeks of the transplant.
Sturm explained the rudiments of how Renewal’s donation chains are set up. A transplant team performs tests to confirm if the donor’s blood type and tissues are a healthy match with the recipient’s, and donors undergo a complete physical examination prior to the transplant and are given medical care through the length of their recovery.
“Say you donate a kidney and are A on the chain, wanting to donate to B, a family member, but you are not a match for B, but are for C, and it goes on and down the chain. F might not have been a match for an intended G, but might be for B,” said Sturm.
“It would be nice to have a refrigerator full of kidneys, but it’s unfortunately not like that.”
Steve Zunde of West Orange, a member of Chabad of Short Hills, donated a kidney 11 years ago. The president of a company that manufactures process control equipment in Newark, he said awareness is the key to helping people in need of transplants.
“You have some pain and inconvenience, but just think for a second what you are doing for someone,” Zunde, 64, said. “The kidney I donated was flown out of state, but I know a person, instead of having to go through the exhausting process of dialysis, is well and enjoying life. As for myself, I’m doing fine with one kidney.”
As the Gaitmans await the results of the swabs taken at the event in Short Hills, or a call from New York-Presbyterian Hospital informing them of a matching donor, they are taking every precaution.
“We are watching what we eat, taking extra care of ourselves, and not looking to push or overburden anything,” said Lee. “We’re doing every little bit we can.”
Not surprisingly, the couple’s anxiety level is high, but the support of their community and their medical team is comforting.
“It’s been hard, but we’re grateful for the help and guidance we’ve gotten from everybody and we’re optimistic it will all work in the end,” said Caren. “Our doctors, Chabad, Renewal, and people we have talked to have just been great.… we must make [everyone] more aware of what can be done for people in this situation and how everybody can help.”
Said Lee, “I just want to get a kidney before I have to go on