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It’s good to be Harold

Someone had just given me a shot in the ass that was supposed to make me feel a little less anxious, maybe even a bit loopy. It was December of 2000 and after months of testing – both psychological and medical – a team of transplant surgeons was about to slice me open to remove my left kidney. The intended recipient? I had absolutely no idea.

My name is Harold Mintz and I was the first donor to be accepted into and approved by the country’s very first community-based organ donation pool. How I ended up on that surgeon’s table at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, DC is actually a long and very interesting story. I mean you don’t just wake up one day and decide to start giving out body parts to strangers. But that’s not the story I’m going to share with you today. If you’re curious, go visit and you’ll be able to see a short 15-minute documentary film about the donation, a true life fairy tale, complete with the happily ever after.

That was 17 years ago. Ancient history. I’d rather share with you something that happened just yesterday. Here in Los Angeles. Another “happily ever after” story.

Coincidence Alert #1

I met my friend Lauren Pierce through the magic of movies. I had been working with the guy who made Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Nutty Professor, Liar Liar, Patch Adams and a bunch of other blockbuster films. Lauren was working at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen where they had been screening movies for various film festivals. Next thing you know, BAM! We’re friends! Years later, Lauren leaves the Wheeler and begins working as the Executive Director of CKF… smack in the middle of the ORGAN DONATION COMMUNITY. Fantastic coincidence! Lauren and I have been fortunate enough to have worked together in two drastically different worlds – movies and organ donation.

Last week, Lauren reached out to me to say that she and Anna Schwinger, (CKF Program Manager) were going to be in LA in a few days and invited me to tag along with them to a meeting at OneLegacy (the LA area’s OPO) and a visit to the hospital at UCLA to visit with a few new organ recipients. Great! I get to see Lauren, meet Anna and visit with recent organ recipients. Trifecta!

When we arrived at OneLegacy, Lauren and Anna said that there was one more person we were waiting for, Eric Barton. I asked who Eric was. Eric, it turns out, is a big stud! He played 12 years as a linebacker in the NFL (Raiders, Jets, Browns) and oh yeah… he’s also a recent (18 months) liver recipient!

After our quick visit with the OneLegacy team, the four of us squeezed into my Prius (Eric and I are both 6’4”) and headed over to UCLA’s Ronald Regan Medical Center. On the way over, we started sharing stories.

Coincidence Alert #2

It didn’t take long for Eric and I to discover that we both grew up in Northern Virginia. And where did you play high school football, Eric? At Alexandria’s Edison High School. Oh, you mean the same high school where my kidney recipient’s son went??!! Go Eagles!!

Coincidence Alert #3

Yes, Eric and my wife both went to the University of Maryland. Go Terps!!

After getting our security badges, we were escorted up to meet Dr Gabriel Danovitch, the Medical Director of the UCLA Kidney Transplant Program – a charming and passionate man who has dedicated his life’s work of helping people in dire need. And then it was off to meet the recipients.

But first, a last-minute addition.

Coincidence Alert #4

They asked if we would we like to meet a recent kidney donor? We were told he had donated his left kidney a mere 24 hours before our arrival. Sure! As we were walking towards his room we were told that “Clark” wasn’t just a kidney donor, he was an altruistic kidney donor. NO WAY! REALLY?!!

I’ve met 20 other donors who also decided to give one of their kidneys to someone they didn’t know. We’re a unique bunch. Nice as can be. But as I asked earlier… Who does this sort of thing? So far in the United States, about 2,600 people have made this same decision. A group of neuroscientists at Georgetown University are currently studying our brains to determine if we’re “built” differently than “normal” people. (For those curious enough, check out this book that was just released last week: The Fear Factor – How One Emotion Connects Altruists, Psychopaths and Everyone In-Between by Abigail Marsh )

But back to visiting Clark. I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Remember, 24 hours ago surgeons were playing tiddlywinks inside Clark’s abdominal cavity. Upon entering his room, the first thing I noticed was the sparkle in his eyes. He was awake, sitting up in bed, alert and seemed thrilled to have visitors. I jumped right in… “So, Clark… What the heck were you thinking? Why did you do such a thing?” He explained to us that after reading about a chain donation last year in an NYT article, he felt compelled to learn more about it. And started asking questions. After learning that the risks to his health were relatively minimal, and with the blessing of his 14 year old daughter, he decided to be tested. Within a few months, he’d passed all his tests and was given the green light. Next thing you know, he’s down one kidney.

Living kidney donors tend to be healthier than most. After all, if they weren’t, doctors probably wouldn’t allow them to donate in the first place. Their lives are not cut short by just about every measure and with the advancements of modern medicine, there are virtually no visible scars. No pills. No scars. Some discomfort for a week or so. And then a lifetime of knowing that you helped make someone else’s life possible. Happily ever after, right?

I asked Clark if he was a blood donor. “Yes”, he said. He said he’d been a blood donor for many years. (Me, too.) I then asked him if he’d ever gone bungee jumping. “Why yes, I have.” HA!! Me, too! Many of the folks who I’ve met who’ve donated kidneys to strangers have been bungee jumping, parachuting, extreme skiers, etc. It’s not uncommon to for us to be classified as “risk takers”. No surprise there, right?

We spent about 20 emotional minutes with Clark. At one point, I looked up and saw Eric – my new exNFL playing friend – with a tear in his eye. He told us both how moving it was to just be in the room with us. Eric wouldn’t have been alive if someone hadn’t decided to donate his/her organs after death. I can’t even imagine what it must’ve been like for him to hear Clark and I chatting about our decisions to donate.

Before we left Clark, I bent down so only he could hear me and quietly asked, “Do you consider yourself a religious man?” I don’t think I’d even gotten the question fully out of my mouth before he was already answering. “Yes. Absolutely.” Most altruistic donors that I’ve spoken with consider themselves “religious” or even “quite religious”. This is where I break from the pack. I was raised Jewish, was even Bar Mitzvahed. But today… I’ve got lots of questions when it comes to the Big G. But hey… The last time I bungee jumped, it’s possible I said a little prayer before stepping off the platform.

That was a very special and amazing 20 minutes. As I said, I’d been fortunate enough to have met a number of other altruistic kidney donors, but NEVER 24 hours after their surgery. Powerful stuff. I’d be fibbing if I said Eric was the only one in the room who had just shed a few tears.

UCLA wasn’t done with us yet. Now it was off to visit a recipient. And not just any recipient. We were about to meet Maury. Who is Maury? Maury was the proud recipient of CLARK’S KIDNEY!!

I’m not sure what I was expecting when we entered Maury’s room, but it wasn’t this. Sitting there in a chair with a big smile was Maury, a healthy looking, smiling man of Asian descent. And again, the first thing I noticed was the twinkle in his eyes. Well, of course, they were sparkling. For the first time in probably a very long time, this man had life to look forward to. Not hours hooked up to a dialysis machine every other day just to survive. His color looked great. His smile lit up the room. I asked how he felt and he said great. He told us he made his living making handmade spearfishing equipment. Wow! He was already looking forward to diving again as soon as possible, something his doctors have fully blessed. As Chris Klug has shown us all, transplant recipients can go on to live full and active lives, winning Olympic medals and diving 100’ down into the beautiful Pacific Ocean. Maury said his only regret was that he’s been told no more raw fish. Hey, Maury… If that’s the worst thing life has to toss you, consider that a win.

After a snapping, a few more pictures to capture the day, Lauren, Eric, Anna and I headed to the parking lot to cram back into my little Prius. I kept shaking my head, amazed at the good fortune I had been given to meet Clark and Maury – two drastically different people, one of them happily giving a piece of himself to help the other one. A complete stranger. Life keeps handing me special moments. I think life gives us all special moments, we just have to take the time to stop and notice them.

Coincidence Alert #5

Let’s go back to the day I first met Gennet Belay, the person who has been taking care of my left kidney for the past 17 years. It was two months after our surgeries. I will never be able to describe the feelings I had when we were first introduced. A crazy, beautiful day. Two people, completely opposite from each other in every possible way. And yet there we were, sharing life with each other. As we started sharing out stories, how we ended up in that room together, we stumbled upon something that to this day makes me tingle.

We learned that 15 years prior to our surgery – before I knew what a kidney even did – we didn’t just live in the same city. Or in the same neighborhood. Or even on the same street. We learned that 15 years before ever considering donating my kidney, Gennet and I had lived in the SAME APARTMENT BUILDING with each other! At the same time! I always wonder if we might’ve ridden the elevator together. Did I hold the door open for her? Did we ever say hello to each other?

My transplant life continually provides me with “coincidences”. Constantly. All the time. And while I think of them as happenstance, as mere coincidences, my spiritual friends call this all the work of none other than the Big G. Call it what you want. Life finds ways to connect us all. You just have to stop and notice.