Wheelchair-bound Pittsburgher recovers, competes in games
It is difficult for people to grasp the concept of how precious life is. Many attempt to live their lives to the fullest every day, but are thwarted in their attempts and believe they can simply rediscover their dreams at a later time.
For some it takes a significant event in their lives to understand that life cannot be recaptured, and for many more, that point comes too late.
Jack Silverstein has been battling these types of setbacks his entire life. At 64 years old, he now knows how important his life truly is.
Silverstein was conceived in Feldafing, Germany, in a DP [displaced persons] camp during the Holocaust. His mother watched as her first husband and children were killed; yet she was kept alive for her seamstress skills. After many years, she was remarried to Jack’s father in the DP camp. After their liberation they sought out a way to come to America.
Silverstein had an aunt living in upstate New York who paid his entire family’s way into America.
“We were one of the last groups to come into Ellis Island,” Silverstein said.
Silverstein did not live an affluent life, but his family managed to get by as his father accepted a carpentry job. During his last year of high school, with college on the horizon, he slipped into a diabetic coma, which kept him in a hospital for 10 days.
“I was never even aware that I had diabetes,” he said.
Many doctors told him that he would be on insulin for the rest of his life. His diabetes became so severe that Silverstein began to suffer from diabetic retinopathy, which in many cases can cause its victims to go blind.
“I had something wrong with me from my head to my feet,” Silverstein said.
In addition to his diabetic retinopathy, Silverstein began to suffer from neuropathy of the feet.
“I could walk on nails and wouldn’t feel it,” he said. “All of the bones in my feet collapsed.”
Two different surgeons told Silverstein they would need to amputate his foot, but one surgeon told him there were other ways to treat his disease. Silverstein would need specialized casts molded to his leg every week for two years.
Many years later, Silverstein began fainting randomly throughout the day. It became so bad that for precautionary measures doctors had him in a wheelchair for five years.
As his diabetes grew worse, Silverstein was prescribed 18 different pills, which resulted in the loss of 50 percent of his hearing, and a loss of his short-term memory. In addition, his kidneys began to fail and he was put on dialysis.
“The doctors told me I might need a transplant,” he said. “That was really scary for me.”
As doctors evaluated him for a transplant, they discovered that all four of his arteries were blocked, and he would need quadruple bypass surgery. Silverstein still has the scars along his inner bicep to remind him of the dialysis he went through many years ago.
While receiving dialysis Silverstein noticed that his fellow patients to his right and left had passed away.
“These were people I had talked to every day for years,” Silverstein said. “I thought, ‘Well, I guess it’s my turn next.’”
Meanwhile, although Silverstein was unaware, he would soon receive the greatest gift of his life. While riding an ATV in the woods, 17-year-old high school senior Jordan Fitzwater was killed as he crashed into a tree. Fitzwater was an exact donor match for Silverstein, and donated a kidney, pancreas and bone marrow to help save Silverstein’s life.
Silverstein has since become extremely close with the Fitzwater family.
“We have become relatives,” he said. “Their family is just unbelievable.”
Silverstein has an enormous amount of respect for Fitzwater, and will never forget the opportunity that he gave him.“If you can save others’ lives you are a hero,” Silverstein said. “Jordan is my hero, if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be here right now.”
After years of intense rehabilitation, Silverstein progressed slowly from standing up to walking at a moderate pace on the treadmill. He has progressed so well that this summer he will represent team Pittsburgh in his fourth National Kidney Foundation United States Transplant Games.
These games are an Olympic-style event for recipients of lifesaving organ transplants ranging from heart, liver, kidney, pancreas and bone marrow. This year’s games will be held from July 30 to Aug. 4. Silverstein will participate in a 5K walk, and will play golf and bowling.
“When you walk into the stadium you feel like a million bucks and I say ‘Hey, I’m alive,’” Silverstein said.
This year’s games will be the world’s largest gathering of transplants recipients with an anticipated 1,500 athletes representing all 50 states, as well as thousands of family, supporters and organ donor families.
The games aim to call attention to the desperate need for more organ donors in the United States. More than 108,000 people are currently waiting for lifesaving transplants, 85,000 of which are kidney patients.
Silverstein is moved to tears every year at the games.
“I see people come up to organ recipients and say,’Can I feel your heart because that is my sons,’” he said. “And every time I cry, but there is nothing wrong with crying.”
Silverstein considers himself to be a professional volunteer. He said he has more than 50 shirts that all have something to do with organ transplants, and those are the only outfits that make up his wardrobe.
He currently visits hospitals every day to talk with people about their impending transplant surgeries, and volunteers for the Center for Organ Recovery and Education, or CORE.
“Doctors know how to perform the surgeries, but they do not know how life is afterward,” Silverstein said. “It is good medicine for me to talk with people waiting for transplants.”
Silverstein is not expecting to win any medals at this year’s games, but that does not mean anything to him.
“I know that I am a champion because I can do it,” said Silverstein. “And I am alive.”
(Brandt Gelman can be reached at email@example.com.)