During the High Holiday season, it feels like the wish and prayer to be inscribed in the Book of Life for the upcoming year is ever on our lips: from the liturgy we read, to the blessings we exchange with friends and family, even strangers. It is a time of year geared toward spiritual self-assessment as well as reflection on one’s deeds in the physical world.
There may not be a lot beyond prayers and deeds to influence the celestial outcome for ourselves, but Jerry and Eileen Chiat are encouraging people to consider an act of generosity which could mean the difference between life and death for another person.
The Chiats have been married for 51 years, and their marriage is a true testament of “in sickness and in health”: Jerry is the recipient of a donor kidney, and Eileen a donor of one.
The Chiats shared their story with the JT as well as WCBM’s Insight on disABILITY on a warm, Sunday evening. Invited by executive producer and host Michael Gerlach, the couple talked with him and co-host Lou Botteon, aka Scruffy Lou, about organ donation, survival and giving back.
Michael kindly allowed JT to sit in the interview booth with Jerry and Eileen, along with Dr. Sumeska “Su” Thavarajah.
Dr. Thavarajah is medical advisory board chair for the National Kidney Foundation serving Maryland and Delaware, and Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Nephrology at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
“I became suddenly ill in June 2011,” recalled Jerry. “I was found in the car, unable to move my legs.” Eileen rushed him to a clinic who told them Jerry had “ten minutes to live.” Jerry was subsequently rushed to the emergency room where he was immediately treated — his potassium levels were dangerously high. Once stabilized, Jerry was put on dialysis the next day.
Living on dialysis was an all-consuming process, Eileen and Jerry shared. They drove to the hospital early in the morning and stayed most of the day, a ritual they repeated three times a week for a year.
In 2012, the couple learned about a minimally invasive technique at the University of Maryland Medical Center for kidney transplantation. Jerry was placed on a waiting list but soon learned about a process called “the chain,” where a patient awaiting a transplant can move up the list when a family member donates an organ.
“The decision was not a difficult one for me,” said Eileen, when asked about her decision to donate a kidney on behalf of Jerry. “I knew that if I donated, Jerry would move up on the list.” Although she admits she was a bit apprehensive, Eileen recalls that UMMC’s medical staff, from the evaluation to the surgical team, made the process less difficult. And although she was not a match to Jerry, she was able to donate to someone else on the list, and her act of love enabled Jerry to obtain a kidney in June of 2012. Eileen would donate one of her kidneys to a stranger just two months later, in August of 2012.
One Who Saves a Life
In sharing their story, the Chiats want to educate people about kidney disease, and also about organ donation. As members of Beth Israel Congregation in Owings Mills, the couple would like fellow Jews to consider organ donation as a mitzvah.
Live organ donation does not contradict traditional Jewish teachings about avoiding non-essential physical risk. In fact, many Jewish authorities from across the denominational spectrum believe it to be a religious duty. Jewish tradition considers saving human life — pikuach nefesh in the wording of the Talmud — to be among the highest ethical obligations. Saving one life, the Talmud says in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, is equivalent to saving an entire world.
It is a misconception that reservations in the Jewish community about post-mortem donation, particularly in Israel, reflect an issue with live-organ donation. In reality, from the perspective of Jewish law it is hard to argue against saving a life.
“Concerns about organ donation after death have traditionally rested on laws concerning the handling of dead bodies and the mistaken view that bodies must be buried intact if they are to be resurrected after the Messiah comes — the traditional belief known as techiyat hameitim,” according to an article on the subject on myjewishlearning.com. “While taking organs from the dead is undoubtedly fraught with delicate ethical questions, the life-saving potential of organ donation is so great that nearly all restrictions of Jewish law can be suspended.”
The New York-based Halachic Organ Donor Society (HOD), has made it its mission to save lives by encouraging Jews to donate organs to Jews and non-Jews alike. Its website lists 215 U.S. based rabbis who carry HODS organ donor cards.
Renewal, a New York based ultra-orthodox charity, focuses its work on live kidney donation. According to a 2015 article in The Forward, 90 percent of Renewal’s donors are ultra-Orthodox, but half their recipients come from the broader Jewish community.
The statistics about kidney disease are staggering. Jerry shared, for example, that kidney disease is the 9th leading cause of death in the United States, killing more people every year than breast or prostate cancer; the number of American adults who have chronic kidney disease is estimated at 37 million, or one out seven people. One in three Americans are at risk for kidney disease.
Risk factors include diabetes, high blood pressure, a family history of kidney failure and older age. “Kidney disease,” Jerry continued, “can affect anyone.” Dr. Thavarajah added that she has seen in increase in young people suffering from kidney disease and diabetes, caused in part by a sedentary lifestyle and obesity.
On an average day, 2,886 Marylanders are waiting for a kidney for transplantation. According to the National Kidney Foundation’s latest national statistics, 13 people die daily waiting for a kidney donor.
As Jews prepare to welcome the new year, how does Jerry view his new lease on life through a live organ donor?
“We give thanks every day. I thank G-d; and although that never really was a part of my life, it became more so after I received a kidney.”
“We also give thanks by giving back, by helping people waiting for a transplant, by talking to them about their concerns and fears and encouraging them to remain hopeful,” he said.
When speaking to couples about life cycles, Rabbi Jay R. Goldstein of Beth Israel Congregation said he emphasizes the importance of organ donation by showing them his license identifying him as an organ donor. “Saving a life is one of the highest commandments inscribing us in The Book of Life, and we all need to be donors in order to fulfill that commandment.”
“In terms of the Chiats,” Rabbi Goldstein said, “they have a chance to reflect [on Rosh Hashanah] that they were inscribed for life due to the people doing the mitzvah of saving a life,” for Jerry, whose life was saved, and for Eileen, who saved a life.
More than five decades of marriage, a kidney transplant and a donation have not slowed Jerry and Eileen down. What’s their secret to a successful marriage? “You acquiesce to each other as best you can,” Jerry explained.
They still work at their Owings Mills based business, Acclaimed Promotional Specialties, and volunteer with various organizations in addition to the National Kidney Foundation.
“We very seldom to say no to anything related to The Living Legacy, the Kidney Foundation or TRIO (Transplant Recipients International), or the University of Maryland Medical Center,” Eileen remarked. “We spread the word by sharing our story. We try our best to try to put people at ease.”
“In sharing their story,” Dr. Thavarajah told the JT, “the Chiats let people know about options for donation, that they could be possible donors and the benefits of transplantation. It also highlights that even if a family member cannot be a donor for that person, they may be able to help someone else.”
The Chiats will be participating in the National Kidney Foundation’s 17th annual kidney walk on Sunday, October 6, 2019 at the Weinberg Y in Waverly, 900 E. 33rd Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21218.
On October 6, the Chiats will honor the memory of Jerry’s donor, Peggy, who died suddenly in a car accident this past April. Although the organ donor process is confidential, Jerry was able to meet Peggy and both he and Eileen became close with her. They will join over 5,000 participants, ranging from individuals to entire families, to health professionals, coming together to raise money for the continued work of the National Kidney Foundation.
The 30 days before Rosh Hashanah “are a time for introspection, a time to reflect on the principles of Judaism,” said Rabbi Goldstein. “Certain principles override others; and without a doubt, one of them is literally saving a life.”