Five years ago, Harry Burstyn suffered from kidney failure. Although he beat it and got his kidney functioning again, he wound up on dialysis a year-and-a-half later. He needed a donor kidney.
“They said the wait’s five to eight years, or come back, bring us a donor, and we can do your surgery tomorrow,” said the 50-year-old. “I’m a salesman. I’m proactive. This five to eight years, to me, wasn’t going to work.”
In his search for a donor, Burstyn reached out to the community through a Facebook page, local media, his synagogue, Ner Tamid Greenspring Valley Congregation and Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, where his son is a student. The response was overwhelming.
Within the first week, a stranger from Hagerstown offered to get tested, and the months that followed would see offers from all over the country and around the world.
“It showed there are a lot of good people in the world,” said his wife, Linda Burstyn, who although she was a possible donor, was unable to contribute her kidney.
Burstyn decided to ask his cousin, Yossi Burstyn, whom he considers a nephew, if he would get a blood test. That one test led to months of appointments, more tests and evaluations.
“Test after test after test, I never thought I’d be picked,” said the cousin. It never truly hit him that he might be giving up an organ.
After months of testing, which started in August 2013, a surgery was set for Dec. 3. That’s when the enormity of the situation struck Yossi Burstyn.
“I kind of do things and think about them later,” he remarked. “Once I had a hard surgery day and I had certain restrictions of eating and stuff before the surgery and pre-op … I was like, ‘Holy cow, this is pretty legit.’”
More than two months later, Harry Burstyn, by his own admission, is on his way to “100 percent.” His wife said he’s watching his diet, exercising and sticking to his medication regime. Burstyn went from being constantly lethargic to newly energized and excited about life.
“Imagine you have a burned-out flashlight and put in brand new batteries and turned on the high beams,” she said. “It’s been really great watching him get better before my very eyes. He’s just gotten so much happier.”
More than 500 kidney transplants were performed in Maryland in 2013, according to available statistics. Johns Hopkins Hospital performed 232 of the procedures, according to Brigitte Sullivan, administrative director of the Johns Hopkins Comprehensive Transplant Center; the University of Maryland Medical System performed 284, according to spokeswoman Meghan Scalea. At Hopkins, 92 kidneys came from living donors; at the University of Maryland, 104.
Although Sinai Hospital does not perform transplants, its staff can perform the necessary tests to determine if a donor is a match and can remove kidneys from donors. Last year, six kidneys were recovered from three deceased donors, said Helene King, a spokeswoman for LifeBridge Health, which operates the hospital.
“Overall, I’d say the outcomes are very good,” said Dr. David Leeser, chief of kidney and pancreas transplant at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. “If you look at living donor transplants, the one-year survival rate is greater than 95 percent.”
The half-life of a living donor kidney is about 17 years; the figure falls to 13 to 14 years for a kidney from a deceased donor, and five to seven years for “expanded criteria” kidneys — those donated from older patients or patients with high blood pressure, explained Leeser. Despite the success, it’s not uncommon for someone to need another transplant down the road; some patients have been known to receive up to three transplants.
Waiting times depend on a patient’s blood type: Those with type A blood can expect to wait one to three years; those with type B can wait two to four years; type O translates to a three-to-five year wait; and those lucky enough to have type AB blood can wait as little as six months, according to Leeser. Some patients on dialysis do die while waiting for a transplant, although the health of patients on waiting lists is monitored to inform transplant priorities. Not everyone needing a kidney requires dialysis.
“There are patients whose renal function is poor enough that they can qualify for a transplant but not bad enough to need dialysis,” said Leeser. “Some are lucky to get a transplant right before they need dialysis.”
Medical history shows that the human body can live without one kidney, and donors are tested for renal failure risk prior to surgery, noted the doctor. Less than 1 percent of donors develop renal failure, and donors get priority if they need another kidney.
With a shortage of donors, some organizations work to connect potential matches with those who need transplants. Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Renewal serves as a connector and resource for Jewish kidney donors and recipients and works with several hospitals in New York and New Jersey that perform transplants that are set up through the organization. The group helps expedite appointments, takes donors to hospitals, spends days with them to help navigate the various tests and even connects past donors with future donors.
“The big thing that Renewal does is take the person who is thinking about donating a kidney and getting them to the finish line,” said Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, director of Renewal.
About 50 transplants were performed through Renewal in 2013. The group even had a kidney lined up for Burstyn that wound up going to someone else who needed one.
Another Baltimore resident, Elisheva Rabinowitz, did donate a kidney through Renewal. As she got closer to her surgery date, she had some misgivings but with the help from a couple of rabbis and Renewal, she donated to a Staten Island rabbi in 2007.
She initially saw an advertisement for a needed kidney and felt that she could be a match for the man. Although she went through a lot of pain after the procedure, she said she would do it again.
“I went by the person’s room whom I donated my kidney to [after surgery] and I saw him learning Torah,” she said. “I said to myself it was all worth it, all the pain, everything I went through. … It was all worth it.”
Although she didn’t know her recipient at the time, their families have since gotten together, and he writes to her every once in a while. She wasn’t bothered by the fact that her recipient was neither a family member nor a close friend.
“I really feel like all Jews are connected,” she said, “so it didn’t feel like he was a stranger.”
For Yossi Burstyn, kidney donation was a no-brainer.
“I think it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something like this,” he said. “I always wondered, if you could give up a kidney and you could live, why wouldn’t you do it?”
Leeser and Steinmetz both said arranged kidney swaps are helping get kidneys to more recipients. Swaps take groups of potential donors and recipients and pair them up, allowing more patients to receive the kidneys they need.
“It won’t solve the donor shortage, but every transplant we do makes it a little better,” said Leeser. “So, we’re just trying to make incremental progress.”
Those looking for help and advice on kidney donation can contact Harry Burstyn at firstname.lastname@example.org.