Saved By The Kindness Of A Virtual Stranger

I grew up thinking that if miracles existed at all, they were larger than life, spectacular acts that suspended the laws of nature (think Cecil B. DeMille's "The Ten Commandments"). Even as an adult, whenever I read about some medical phenomenon that doctors were hard pressed to explain, like a late-stage tumor that disappeared long after a patient's treatment was discontinued, I chalked it up to the sort of inexplicable divine intervention that trumps macrobiotic diets and crystals. It was something to hope for in your darkest hour, perhaps, but not to expect. So when I learned that my wife would need a kidney transplant within two years, I focused on what modern medicine had to offer.

Her polycystic kidney disease had been controlled with medication for some 20 years, but in the spring of 2001 it began to worsen. The nephrologist explained that her best shot at regaining her health was to receive a living kidney, which would function better and longer than a cadaveric kidney. The challenge was to find a healthy person with the same type O blood who was willing to undergo a regimen of tests and ultimately donate a kidney. Otherwise, she would have to start the time-consuming, punishing process of dialysis in order to get on the five-year waiting list for a cadaveric transplant.

I was quickly ruled out as a donor because my blood type didn't match my wife's. Her family produced no candidates either. In fact, her mother had died from complications of the same genetic disease, and her brother had received a cadaveric transplant the year before.

We desperately needed help, and yet we felt uncomfortable asking for it. After all, how do you ask another person to give up a kidney? We finally turned to our friends, and one of them, our rabbi, gave an impassioned appeal during Yom Kippur services. A number of congregants agreed to be tested, but all of them were eliminated after the first stage of screening. It looked as if we had hit a wall.

Then one evening I rode home on the train with Carolyn Hodges, a friend of mine from work. I was feeling particularly low that day, and I told her about our situation. The next day she stopped by my office and told me that she and her husband were type O's and longtime blood and platelet donors who were listed with the bone-marrow registry. They had talked it over and decided they were willing to be tested as potential matches. Carolyn was eliminated shortly thereafter, but John, whom we barely knew, emerged as the surgeon's donor of choice.

John is a scientist by training, and once he got the news he began diligently researching kidney disease and transplant surgery. By the time he met with the surgeon, he had compiled a list of incredibly detailed questions, the likes of which the doctor had never seen before. Most donors are blood relations who are more likely to beg the surgeon to take their kidney than grill him on the latest studies.

Despite his thorough research, John encountered a fair amount of resistance from his family members and close friends. They'd ask, "Why should someone in good health put himself on the line for a person he hardly knows?" But John strongly believed that this was a way for him to actively make the world a better place. He would simply tell them he had considered every potential danger and determined that the rewards--for my wife, her family and himself--outweighed the risks. He was even more reassured after talking with his daughter's teacher, who had donated a kidney to her brother years before, and his good friend who was a transplant counselor.

By the beginning of this past May, my wife's condition had deteriorated to the point that she was in danger of being too sick for the transplant operation. To make matters worse, the procedure required two operating rooms and a 20- person surgical team--and both were booked solid for nearly two months. We were scared.

Thankfully, one week later there was a last-minute cancellation, and we received word one afternoon to go to the hospital at once for pre-op work--the surgery would begin the following morning at 6:30. Without hesitation, John dropped everything and drove over.

I am happy to report that the operation was a success. "Little Johnny," as my wife calls her new kidney, is working exceptionally well. After John spent a few weeks recovering at home, he was able to ease back to work and resume his normal routine.

Except that life will never really be the way it was before the surgery for either of our families. A tremendous bond now joins us. We will forever be connected by John's generous, selfless gift of life.

I've learned that miracles come in myriad forms, including human. John and Carolyn Hodges are living proof.