What motivates a person to give an internal organ to a total stranger?
For Upper St. Clair resident Suzanne Weiner, it was a way for her to express gratitude for her own good fortune.
Five years ago, after having help re-building her family-run, Washington County store, which the remnants of Hurricane Ivan destroyed, Weiner found herself counting her blessings.
“Everything was going really well,” recalled the mother of four. “I was thinking about how thankful I was. I had a nice home. Everyone was healthy. Then, I read in the Temple Emanuel bulletin that someone needed a kidney. I thought, ‘This is something I could do.’”
A fellow Temple Emanuel member, Heather Bonime, needed the kidney. At a routine checkup on her 48th birthday, she got some unwelcomed news.
Bonime’s nephrologist informed her that her polycystic kidney disease, a genetic disorder that causes cysts to grow and multiply on the kidneys, was advancing quicker than she expected. Although more than 20 of her family members also had the disease, it had not affected them until they were in their 60s.
Bonime’s doctor told her that she had two options: dialysis or a transplant.
“It was a total shock,” said Bonime, who also lives in Upper St. Clair, and is the mother of two children.
While dialysis was an unappealing option, Bonime knew she could be waiting years for a cadaveric kidney. For medical reasons, not one of Bonime’s family members was a potential donor.
Enter Rabbi Mark Mahler, spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel of South Hills, who asked Bonime if she would permit him to write an article about her in the temple’s monthly newsletter, with the hope that someone might come forth to offer a kidney.
Bonime told Mahler that he could write about her, but asked that he not use her name.
Weiner read the article, and soon got in touch with Mahler to see who needed the kidney.
While Bonime and Weiner had never met, their children attended Hebrew school and youth group together. When Weiner realized it was the mother of one of her daughter’s peers who needed the kidney, the deal was sealed.
“I called her (Bonime) up, and said I wanted to give her a kidney,” Weiner said. “We met, and found out we had so much in common. I knew it was just meant to be.”
As fate would have it, when Weiner went for the blood work to determine compatibility, she learned she was a near-perfect match.
“The doctor said he couldn’t believe I wasn’t a blood relative,” Weiner said.
More than 3,000 people nationwide die each year while awaiting a kidney transplant, according to Dr. Ron Shapiro, who performed the transplant surgery on Bonime. While most transplanted kidneys come from cadavers, living donor kidneys “last longer and do better,” he said.
“Living unrelated donor kidney transplantation is becoming less and less unusual,” Shapiro said. Although most unrelated donors direct their kidneys to specific patients, there are also “altruistic donors who just donate to a complete stranger.”
With less than a .03 percent mortality rate, kidney transplantation is considered a safe procedure for donors, Shapiro said. Weiner had no complications from the surgery, and was left with just three small scars that “you can’t even see anymore.”
“To me, it’s not that big of a deal,” said Weiner about giving her kidney to Bonime. “You have two kidneys, and you only need one. So, there’s obviously a reason you have two.”
Bonime, who just celebrated five years of good health following her 2005 transplant, and Weiner have become close friends, seeing each other often, and speaking on the phone regularly.
“I really didn’t think someone would come forward,” Bonime said. “You’re asking someone to give up an organ. It’s really amazing. Suzanne’s just an amazing, selfless person.”
But Weiner does not see what she did as extraordinary.
“I think everyone should do it,” she said. “In the Jewish religion, the greatest gift you can give is to save a life. There is no negative here.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)