By Katie Edelstein (right) & Belle Simon (left)
Think back to the day when you received your first driver’s license and you were asked whether or not you wanted to become an organ donor. When Katie was just a teen she did sign the back of her driver’s license to become an organ donor, but she never would have predicted that one day she would donate a kidney while she was alive.
Katie recalls, “During the months leading up to the transplant, many people asked me why I was doing this at the age of 55. Why would I put my own health in jeopardy and possibly the health of my children in the rare instance that one of them needed a kidney transplant in the future? Why would I do this for someone I barely knew? For Katie the answer was simple. Her years of involvement in Hadassah had taught her so much about Tzedakah and Tikkun Olam, and the importance of helping those less fortunate. “How many times in life do we have the opportunity to make such a profound difference in someone else’s life? Someone was in dire need of something I had to give and I was the only one available right then to help. I could give something precious to another human being and change her life completely. Why wouldn’t I do it?”
Belle’s story began in the Spring of 2001 when her internist informed her that he had been watching her creatinine level rise, an indicator of reduced kidney function. Upon further investigation, Belle learned that she had a progressive disease that would ultimately result in kidney failure. Dialysis and a possible kidney transplant were in her future. Devastated, she began to investigate potential solutions. She learned that she would not be eligible to register for a kidney transplant until she was actually on dialysis, and she also learned that her brother was not a match.
In May, 2003, at the age of sixty-five, Belle began dialysis and the process to be listed for a transplant at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, where the wait for a kidney was then five to six years. As a winter resident in Florida, she also began the process to become listed at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, since the wait for a cadaver kidney there was only eighteen months.
Although dialysis kept Belle healthy, there were restrictions placed on her life. She spent three hours, three days a week, tethered to a dialysis machine. Her diet was restricted, and she was unable to travel freely.
Katie’s part of the story began at the Hadassah Midwinter National Board Meeting in January, 2004. It was there that the announcement was made by then National President June Walker that Belle, a long time Hadassah member, required a kidney transplant. Katie leaned over to her friend and said that she was interested in donating her kidney. Her friend’s response was, “What, are you crazy? Save it for your kids!” But that response was not enough to deter Katie from quietly approaching Belle and indicating that she would like to be her organ donor, a response that Belle had clearly not anticipated. When Katie was asked if she wanted to go home and first discuss it with her husband, she said no—not because she didn’t value her husband’s input, but because she knew he would support her in any decision she made. Katie’s amazing offer gave a glimmer of hope to Belle who thanked her profusely for her unbelievable offer, no matter what the outcome would be.
After the midwinter meeting, Katie began to learn what was involved in donating a kidney. One of the first steps was to ascertain if, indeed, she was a match. The most amazing fact was that Katie was a match. Truly, a miracle! Then the women learned in mid-March that the transplant surgery would take place on May 11, 2004, almost one year from the date that Belle’s dialysis had begun.
“From the time I made the decision to donate my kidney to Belle,” Katie recalls, “I never gave it another thought and actually looked forward with great anticipation to May 11th. It’s one of those dates I’ll never forget. I remember the special people who were by my side, before and after the transplant. I remember the thoughts that were spinning around in my head. I remember the feeling I had when I awoke after the operation, and the joy and relief I felt when I heard the doctors exclaim that the kidney was working. “Of course it’s working,” I responded. “What do you expect…it’s a Hadassah kidney!”
Since that time, both Katie and Belle have appeared at countless Hadassah and non-Hadassah events as featured speakers, individually and together, to talk about the benefits of organ donation and the imperative to sign an organ donor card and talk to family members about one’s desire to be an organ donor. Both have spoken to many people who seek advice and moral support from those who have gone through the process. When Katie and Belle are fortunate to be together, they often find themselves standing side by side, remembering the physical connection they developed through a shared kidney. Belle continues, “The quality of my life was restored because of the generosity of my angel.”
Two weeks after the organ transplant, Belle and Katie were united to celebrate before Katie returned home to Bellingham, Washington. At that celebration, Belle’s granddaughter Rachel, then ten years of age, gave Katie an illustrated poem that she had written especially for her. Still sitting proudly on Katie’s desk, it says:
To make a sunflower grow older and stronger, you must take care of it. For my grandma to grow older is one thing, but growing stronger is another thing to worry about. You know to start to feel strong, we need our organs. You planted a seed in our hearts, as well as lending an organ to my grandma. You made a sprout appear. You made the Simon garden grow by donating just one seed.”
Rachel’s words made Katie realize that what she had done for Rachel’s grandmother was not for Belle alone, but also for all those who loved and cared about Belle and would have been lost without her.
The lesson we learn from this story is that each person can make a difference by their actions, which radiate far beyond the original action. Katie believes we must never look back on our lives and say, “Should we have?” or “Could we have?” but rather,“We did.”
Katie and Belle are forever linked through Hadassah and by the courageous and generous act of the kidney donation, and they celebrate each anniversary of the transplant with love and excitement.
This is a story of compassion, fortitude, strength and miracles. It is the story of two women brought together through their membership in Hadassah - one woman in need, and another woman who had the courage to make a personal commitment to improve the life of another. It is the actualization of the principle of Pikuah Nefesh, the Jewish value of saving life.
This is a Hadassah story!
By Joyce M. Saltman – 9/7/10
(Society of Major Donors- Shomrei Hachaim)
I was born the day before my Mom’s 40th birthday, into the American family personified – a 15 year old boy, an 11 year old girl, a dad who was a dentist, and a mother who devoted herself to volunteer work. On Mondays she was a volunteer nurse’s aide at the Brooklyn Veteran’s Hospital, other days she worked hard for the sisterhood of our local Orthodox synagogue, and she served on the boards of several other worthy causes. But her first love was always Hadassah, and rather than giving up her involvement to stay home with a young child, she began taking me to Hadassah meetings at the East Midwood Jewish Center when I was just 2 years old. In those days, I could be quiet for long periods of time; I would sit on the floor with a coloring book and crayons, and never made a sound. The only time I stood up was when Pearl Schwartz was called up to the podium to sing Hatikvah – The Hope. As young as I was, her lovely soprano voice, accompanied by the piano, entered my soul, and to me, that song symbolized “Hadassah.” Oddly, in retrospect, I realize that back there in 1946, the idea of a Jewish homeland was still a dream, and although I was too young to grasp the impact of those gatherings of bright, concerned women, I inherently knew that this song would be the most important melody of my life. Sixty-five years have passed since my early memories as a little girl. I have helped create 2 chapters in Connecticut, activate one in Delray Beach, and have served on the boards in each of the 3 (and president of two!) The ages of members, and their interests, have been very different, and even the demographics were dissimilar. But one element has been the same, largely due to my insistence: every Hadassah meeting, no matter where I am, begins with Hatikvah. The hope of our people has always been in our promised land, and Hadassah has 300,000 women throughout our country committed to keeping Israel healthy and strong. The thinnest thread – those early strains of an unfamiliar tune – have bound me to Israel and Hadassah forever.