One American dies nearly every hour waiting for a transplant and more than 113,000 people in the United States were on a waiting list for a lifesaving organ transplant as of June 11, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.
Young Jewish Columbus board member Perri Levine, 24, who moved to Columbus two years ago after graduating from Tulane University in New Orleans, is now among 2019 organ donation statistics – on the giving side. On May 28, she donated a kidney to Rachel Schneider, a 20-year-old woman from Long Island, N.Y., who was a total stranger.
In early January, Levine was scrolling through Facebook when she noticed a post written by a childhood friend from Jewish summer camp. The brief message said the sister of one of his friends was in great need of a kidney as she had only 5% renal function. Levine momentarily paused, thinking how sad the situation was, then continued scrolling.
When that same post reappeared on Facebook two weeks later, however, something unexpected happened.
“I was suddenly struck with the desire to actually look into helping,” said Levine, who works as a software engineer at Olive, a company that makes artificial intelligence technology for health care in Columbus.
The first step was to contact NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, where Schneider went for medical care. Levine wanted to know whether the fact her thyroid was removed in 2014 would prevent her from donating a kidney. She was told it would not.
When she learned she could apply, Levine broke the news of her plan to her parents.
“My parents were scared,” she said. “I didn’t actually ask them but told them I was going to pursue this.”
When the results of a battery of medical tests over the next few months proved Levine could in fact donate her kidney to Schneider, she was elated.
“Every time my phone rang, I was scared they would tell me I couldn’t donate” she said. “That was my only concern. Other than that, I never wavered.”
During the lengthy medical testing process, Levine sought counseling from Rabbi Alex Braver, assistant rabbi at Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus. Levine is both a member at the temple and teaches in its religious school.
“I know this was a huge decision to make, and Perri went about making it with great seriousness and care,” Braver said in an email. “I’m deeply inspired by her thoughtfulness and generosity, and am so grateful that things have gone smoothly for her and for the recipient.”
In mid-March, when Levine learned she was approved to be Schneider’s kidney donor, she was told simply that a 20-year-old Jewish woman would be the recipient. Additional medical tests followed, and every indication suggested Levine would be Schneider’s ideal donor.
Two weeks later, Levine was medically cleared to donate her kidney.
While the two women were once strangers, they are now friends. Both sets of parents met in the hospital waiting room during the operation and also had much to discuss.
Schneider had been a swimmer on her high school team. She was diagnosed at age 15 with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a form of kidney failure due to scarring that has a range of causes. According to Levine, Schneider “kept it under control with diet and lifestyle.” However, in early 2019, Schneider’s medical prognosis suddenly worsened. She was placed on the national kidney donor waiting list, while friends and family turned to social media to spread word about her need. She was forced to drop out of college to undergo kidney dialysis three times a week.
On May 30, just two days following the surgery, Levine was discharged from the hospital. Her recovery has gone perfectly, she said, and she is expected to return to Columbus this week. Schneider, whose recovery as the recipient is more complicated, was discharged May 31. According to Levine, so far, so good, on Schneider’s recuperation.
Levine has become an active member of the local Jewish community since moving to Central Ohio, including with Young Jewish Columbus of JewishColumbus. Meetings have been rescheduled to accommodate her schedule and countless people have offered support, said Hannah Pierce, young adult engagement and philanthropy director at JewishColumbus.
“Perri is part of the YJC family,” Pierce said. “What she did was such a mitzvah, and we wanted to support her however she needed.”
Knowing what she now knows about the organ donation process, Levine urges others to consider it.
“I am an organ donor on my driver’s license and I donate blood, but being an organ donor (during life) had never crossed my mind,” she said. “But this has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It was the easiest decision I have ever made. To anyone considering being an organ donor, if you’re healthy, do it.”
Tami Kamin Meyer writes for the Columbus Jewish News from Bexley.