Joining the Smallest Club in America

The day arrived, and I lay on the bare operating table, with my eyes closed and my mind at peace. When I opened them three hours later I knew that someone had just received the gift of life. I smiled as I knew that I had just joined the smallest club in America.
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On a brisk fall morning in 2013, I was called in to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City for an emergency checkup. Moments later, I sat surrounded by piercing silence and the cold empty white walls of the examination room. My heart rate quickened. Chilling possibilities slowly grew louder in my head, deafening me. I was alone.

"Mr. Doueck..." I heard a distant male voice say, "It seems you have been diagnosed with a rare disease called PH. There is no cure, but if all goes well, you have another five years to live."

I crumpled to the floor. My head was now spinning, my vision hazy. I was an active, healthy man with family and a life. And now I was going to die.

Minutes later, my vision refocused, and my heart rate slowed.

I had first visited Mount Sinai Hospital months ago with a goal of saving a stranger's life. And this was not going to stop me from achieving it.

In June of 2006, I read an article by an "ethicist" who argued that if we could donate an organ to save another person's life, it is our ethical responsibility to do it.

Intrigued, I proceeded to research the facts of kidney disease, and what I found was shocking. I learned that nearly 110,000 people are waiting for a kidney transplant, while only 16,000 kidney transplants are done each year, mostly from the deceased.

Kidney dialysis is not a cure. There is a 60 percent mortality rate for people on dialysis for more than three years, and 80 percent after five years. This means that in the average six-year waiting period for a kidney, most will not survive.

I found that there is virtually no lifestyle changes for kidney donors and thus they literally don't have much to lose after they donate. Yet although the risk of death to a kidney donor is less than 3/10,000 (i.e. it is more dangerous to ride a bicycle in Brooklyn), the number of live, non-directed, "altruistic" kidney donations is a paltry 150. So only 0.00005 percent of Americans are willing to donate a kidney to save the life of a stranger.

That had to be the smallest club in America and I wanted to join.

One of the most famous passages in the Bible occurs right in the beginning: "And the Lord said to Cain, 'where is Abel your brother?' And he said, 'I don't know. Am I my brother's keeper?'"

The next verse is much less well-known, but, to me, one of the most powerful statements in the Bible. "And He said: 'What did you do? The voice of your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground!'" The Talmud comments on these words: "Anyone who saves one soul is regarded as if he saved an entire world."

I quoted the above in a book I wrote about the power of kindness (and the danger of apathy) in the '90s. I wrote that I hoped, that when I had the opportunity to save a life, I would remember that every life is a world in and of itself. Now was the time for me to 'walk the talk' and 'practice what I preached.'

At that moment I committed myself to donating one of my kidneys to save the life of a stranger.

Unfortunately, my wife Jamie had other plans. "No, you're not!" she exclaimed, and that was the end of it. I spent the next seven years bidding for her approval.

In the summer of 2013, my wife and I attended an event hosted by "Renewal" -- a kidney donation awareness (and matching) organization. One of the recipients at the event was a close friend of Jamie's who had been on dialysis and now looked like she had a new lease on life.

That night, Jamie turned to me and said, "If you really still want to donate your kidney, you can do it." She was touched and inspired by the work of Renewal and didn't want to stand in the way of saving a life.

My goal was back in place. Little did I know that the journey to that goal would produce some of the most challenging and intense soul-searching moments of my life.

I walked into Mount Sinai Hospital the next day to begin testing and was immediately thrust into a battery of tests: blood, urine, pulse, blood pressure, EKG, an echo-cardiogram, and a chest x-ray. I walked out healthy and confident.

Next came intensive questioning and warnings by a psychiatrist ("why do you want to do this?"), the hospital nephrologist ("Are you sure you want to do this?"), the social worker ("Do you understand the risks to your life?" "Does your family approve?" Do your children know that if they need a kidney you won't be able to give it to them?"). I answered them all with conviction.

However over the next 12 months, I was thrown into the fire of doubt and panic.

In September of 2013, I was told by the hospital that I might have a tumor in my stomach. After a few gut-wrenching days of tests, an endoscopy proved it to be a fallacy. In October, I was diagnosed for Pulmonary Hypertension, or the rare fatal disease known as 'PH'. With no cure, I gathered with my family and accepted my fate. Yet weeks later I was called into the same office and informed that there had been a simple misdiagnosis. Finally, in December I was called once more, and told that I had a threatening tumor in my adrenal gland. I was told that I had a "ticking time bomb inside my body." Months later, I was again cleared of all issues.

My body was tired. My emotional capacity was drained. My drive in achieving my goal was aggressively challenged. Yet, I emerged clear-headed and resolute. No matter the hurdles or sacrifices that I had to make, saving the life of an innocent person was fixed in my sights.

In June of 2014 I finally received clearance, and Renewal quickly found me a match. The date was set for Sept. 11, and I found it auspicious to be fulfilling this great deed on a day marked with such sadness and evil.

The day arrived, and I lay on the bare operating table, with my eyes closed and my mind at peace. When I opened them three hours later I knew that someone had just received the gift of life. I smiled as I knew that I had just joined the smallest club in America.

Throughout this exhausting 13-month process, I became acutely aware of many things. Among them is the strength and resolve of the human spirit, along with the clear love and appreciation for the blessings in my life. Above all, what I learned is that if someone is in need, no amount of personal suffering or temporary pain can overcome the opportunity to make a difference in the world. As the Talmud says, " He who saves one soul is regarded as if he saved an entire world."