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Kidney Donation: Message In A Bottle

by Harold German


The title of this story is not unique. In fact, I’ve seen it grace the titles of articles, songs and even a movie. Despite this, I opted to keep it because this story is, in effect, a message in a bottle. What follows is my best attempt at an explanation, and a firm toss into the murky, ever-churning waters of the social conscience.

For many years I knew him as the strongest man in the World. My earliest images of him depict a tall man with a proud chest, powerfully built arms and an always-kind disposition. He was my hero; still is. I once remember watching him play Softball on a sunny Saturday afternoon. We were walking through the park and he had stopped to ask if he could join in. The burly men accepted his request, and they were promptly rewarded with a broken bat, after he had taken a hammering swing at the first pitch, which simultaneously netted his team a hit and ended the game. I was in awe. It is this brand of one-punch knockout power that has immortalized him in my thoughts, and in my heart. Despite the fact that these magical feats occurred over 30 years ago, and that my life is now filled with new realities, I think of him often. There are times when I remember the confident words that followed his swift and permanent banishment of a monster that had once hid in my closet, which conversely, permanently kept me at ease. He’s always had the solution to every problem. I’m sure you’ve guessed by now that this fearless man is my father; Aurelio German.

My parents came to the U.S. in the late 1960s, from The Dominican Republic. My mother came first, as a teenager. These early days consisted of working in a factory, pursuing a degree in healthcare, eating leftovers and sleeping in the hallway of her uncle’s Brooklyn apartment. Her hard work and persistence paid off and she was able to gain employment in a hospital. With her earnings, she helped my father buy a one-way ticket and, after several years of living and working together, they eventually married. I came soon afterwards. Like many immigrants that come to this country, they worked very hard to achieve their American Dream. I don’t remember a time when my father worked less than two jobs. Their hard work paid off and they enjoyed the benefits of owning a house in the U.S. and another in The Dominican Republic. I remember the weekend parties they would take me to as a boy, where I would eat ‘Pasteles,’ drink ‘Jenjibre’ and dance ‘Merengue’ with pretty married women whose husbands never denied my requests to cut into their dance. With their support, I was also able to spend most summers with my cousins abroad while receiving my education in the U.S. They also helped me with my college education, as they did for my two brothers. But these, and other, benefits came at a hefty cost. My father, in particular, experienced much stress in the work place, which led to his elevated blood pressure. I remember seeing his bloodshot eyes before leaving for work every morning, and worrying that his long work hours were affecting his health.

In the Summer of 2002, my father was forced into an early retirement. He was suffering through the ravages of kidney failure. Every member of my family was shocked by this grim development. Some more than others. I am considerably older than my brothers, and as a child, I had first-hand knowledge of his usual routine following a hard day at work. He would sit in his favorite recliner and await my eager untying of his shoes, while pouring himself a stiff one. This is the way it was, six days a week. He worked Saturdays. A daily habit of nursing his stressful work life, by turning to the bottle, caused his already high blood pressure to create permanent damage to these vital organs. A glass bottle had reduced a once powerful man to a weakened, shriveled-up version of himself. By now we all know that the dangers of alcohol are well documented. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that over 100,000 people die, either directly or indirectly, from the effects of alcohol each year. My father knew the risks. I just think he thought he’d have the wherewithal to deal with any problem coming his way. Once again, and unbelievably, my father was victorious. His secret weapon? Love. As soon as they found out about his illness, his brothers and sisters lined up to undergo the tests needed to determine who would be the optimal donor. My aunt Altagracia was a perfect match, and she quickly flew to the U.S. to proceed with the donation. The surgery was a complete success. Our scare was over. My father was healthy again and all was well. That’s what we thought. A few months ago, after undergoing his usual blood tests, doctors found that the creatinine level in my father’s blood was abnormally high. Creatinine is filtered out of the body by the kidneys, and when tests come back high, it can be an indication that the kidneys aren’t performing normally. This is what happened in my father’s case. Unbeknownst to all of the doctors who were part of the initial procedure, my father has been living with an immune illness called IGA Nephropathy. In a certain percentage of people, the disease attacks the kidneys. If the patient also happens to have high blood pressure, it exacerbates the problem. Unfortunately, my father is a member of both groups. If that wasn’t enough, it gets worse. The IGA Nephropathy is especially proficient at attacking a kidney containing the same DNA as my father. It recognizes the incoming DNA and begins its sustained attack immediately. This is why Altagracia’s kidney is now failing my father’s body. It also means that neither I, my brothers or anyone from my father’s side of the family, can donate without the possibility of another fast failure. My mother, and her side of the family, aren’t compatible, as they have a different blood type. For all intents and purposes, my father is now facing a medical double whammy.

For as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve always considered myself to be a strong and capable fellow. After all, I was raised in The Bronx. But too often than I’d care to admit, there have been times when I lay awake in bed just thinking about him, with tears rolling down my face. I want to be his hero now, and slay these monsters that continue to deprive him of his health. My pain is augmented by the fact that every path I’ve taking thus far has ended at a wall. The sad truth is that most people are hesitant to donate a kidney to save a human life due to lack of information, which is why approximately 20 people die each day waiting for kidney donations in the United States. The fact is that kidney donation is a remarkably non-invasive process that poses little, to zero, health risks. In fact, the hospital stay for a kidney donation is only one or two days. Upon being placed on the kidney list through his hospital, my father was told that it would be 6-8 years before a kidney would be available for him; a virtual death sentence. Strike one. I’ve also inquired about kidney swaps; a growing trend where family members who can’t donate to their loved one join a “kidney exchange network” in the hopes of finding a match among the list of potential donors. This would eliminate the 6-8 year wait. However, previous procedures disqualify me, and existing health problems eliminate many of our family members, from being qualified donors (kidney stones, high blood pressure, etc.).” Strike two.

I remember one year when I had spent the Christmas holiday with my grandparents in The Dominican Republic. I was about seven years old. My parents flew in to surprise me. I was so happy to see them, especially since I knew my father’s birthday was the next day. Given that it was the holidays, all manner of foods and alcohol were readily available. I managed to get my hands on a bottle of a Dominican rum, which I anxiously wrapped into a clumsy-looking present. I rushed to his side, hugged him, told him that I loved him and gave him the present. When he opened it, he had an odd look on his face. I was sure that he’d be very happy since the bottle had always been a benevolent fixture on our living room cocktail table. He would sit on the sofa and listen to ‘Bachatas,’ ‘Perico Ripiaos’ and ‘Merengues,’ with the bottle on the table, while I would play with my toys nearby. For me the bottle was a welcome figure because I knew he would be sitting with me for a while. The long-hour jobs wouldn’t be taking him away from me. He’d be all mine. Ultimately, I remember him patting me on the head and telling me that although he appreciated my present, “little boys should never give bottles as gifts, as they can break and cause cuts.”

After swinging and missing in my previous attempts to find help for my father, I’ve come across an increasing number of stories discussing kidney donations made by complete strangers. In every case the donation was done out of the kindness of the donors heart, or perhaps more apropos, kidney. As a gritty New Yorker, this is not a concept I fully understand. Sure, we New Yorkers get a bum wrap for being pushy and overly aggressive but that’s because we’re used to working exceptionally hard for every little inch; whether the goal is a promotion or a subway seat. But to think that someone who has never met my father, never heard his gentle voice, or felt his powerful hands, would have the innately altruistic sense to do something so special for another human being, a stranger; it’s something I wouldn’t have believed had I not read it. Through their heroic actions, these generous souls are changing the lives of families, and giving the precious gift of life.

I think about the new memories we’d share; fishing trips, advice with the kids (when I have them), tips on fixing my roof, so on and so forth. I think about him quite often. Lately I’ve thought about those incredible donors, and about leveraging my profession, which my father helped me to obtain, to start down a third path. This magazine is a bottle, which won’t break when you drop it. It contains this story, which is my message to you. I don’t know who you are, I don’t know what you look like, but I do know that you are out there, and you possess an uncanny benevolence that is extremely rare. I’ve read about what people like you can do, and about the powerful impact you can have on many lives. If you’re really out there and can read these words, this message is for you. If you’ve thought about kidney donation in the past and are well informed about the procedure, I wholeheartedly implore you to consider saving, what is to me, an incredible and truly beautiful human life.

Copyright © 2009 Harold German. All rights reserved.

About the Author
Harold German is a renowned author and contributor, with appearances on CNN and in noted international publications, such as The Economist. Mr. German is a managing partner at New York-based Blu Chip SEO, and can be contacted at hgerman@bluchipseocompany.com.

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