Happy Passover to Ilan Chaim
By Barbara Sofer
April 12, 2020
A month ago, journalist Ilan Chaim wrote a poignant and distressing op-ed in this newspaper.
Over his career, Chaim has written hundreds of op-eds on political and societal issues as one of The Jerusalem Post’s lead editorial writers.
But this time he was writing about himself.
Go back about three years. That was about the time the legendary Jerusalem Pool was closing, and those of us regulars like Ilan and me needed to find alternatives. A lifelong swimmer, Ilan chose Ramat Rahel because its spacious lawns and children’s areas allowed him to host his grandchildren. Life was perfect.
Then Chaim – who despite his Sabra-sounding name grew up in Pittsburgh – learned from a routine blood test that his kidney function was falling.
When I spoke to him next, he said he couldn’t swim anymore, not until he got a new kidney.
Shocking, but I was hopeful. After all, the transplant situation had improved in Israel.
A decade ago, organ donations – most from the dead – were very scarce, no matter the religion or religious views citizens held. Israelis in desperate need could travel abroad to get a kidney. But in 2008, the Declaration of Istanbul against transplant tourism and organ trafficking made it more difficult.
Then, in February 2009, an organization called Matnat Chaim (no connection to Ilan) came into being, founded by kidney recipient Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Heber. Since then, the number of live kidney transplants has tripled, Matnat Chaim facilitating 800 transplants from altruistic donors – those without a family connection to the recipient. I have chronicled some of the stories of these remarkable people in these pages. The recipients talk about getting a new life. Eating normally. Feeling energetic. No more dialysis. Being able to think of the future.
So, I was expecting to hear from Ilan Chaim when he got his kidney. Two years went by in which he lost 22 kilos. Finally, a hopeful note from him arrived in October 2019.
With thanks to Hashem, I’ve got a donor and we’re a match. Kidney, sometime next month, at Hadassah.
In celebration, a little poem:
How to get rich in Jerusalem
I first came to the park in San Simon in 1968
a penniless college student
hitchhiking through Israel on his first visit
Today I come to my neighborhood park with my 10 grandchildren
And then the disappointment.
In his own words from his March 15, Post op-ed:
According to the Health Ministry, as of January there were 857 people waiting in Israel for a kidney. I am one of them.
After more than two years on the waiting list and in dialysis since last May, I recently expected salvation: a donor had come forward – responding to an appeal on Facebook! I passed the scrutiny of the National Transplant Board, but for some reason it rejected my donor. Back to social media, in the hope another righteous donor will come forward.
Not so fast, Rabbi Heber explained to me. While there has been a steady increase in the live-donor pool, for some inexplicable reason, most would-be donors wish to give their kidneys to a younger person, not to a grandfather aged 70.
Although altruistic donors can’t specify whom they want to give to, they can note certain preferences such as to a nonsmoker or a mother of small children.
Evidently, grandparents are out. It’s what Ilan Chaim calls “deadly agism.”
The Health Ministry reports that 391 kidney transplants were performed in Israel in 2019, of which 248 – or 63% – were from living donors. This is undoubtedly encouraging, but not for the more than 200 people in their 70s like me, undergoing dialysis three times a week for four hours each session, just to stay alive.
And the clock is ticking: Without a transplant in the next year or so, I’ll become ineligible to receive a kidney due to age, and be forced to endure dialysis for the rest of my life….
WITH THE spread of the coronavirus to Israel, most transplants, like other so-called elective surgery, have been put on hold.
On March 9, the first patient with coronavirus arrived in the outbreak ward at Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem. The outbreak ward began to fill with patients. New intensive care units were opened.
What were his odds of getting a kidney now?
But life doesn’t always work with odds. In the fourth week of March, a 70-year-old member of Chaim’s extended family from the center of Israel died from a long-term debilitating neurological disease. Despite his disease, his kidneys seemed fine.
And, yes, as a family member, Chaim was eligible.
And, yes, despite the coronavirus, the kidney could be brought from Ramat Gan to Jerusalem, where the Hadassah administration gave the go-ahead.
Everything starts to move fast. Chaim is summoned to the hospital on March 24. A sample of his blood is sent by taxi to Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer. The kidney is extracted at 2 a.m. and undergoes a biopsy. So far it looks good. It arrives at Hadassah, Ein Kerem, at 7 a.m.
Dr. Abed Khalilah takes it for a back-table check. It’s a right kidney, technically more challenging to connect than a left. Khalilah insists on a second biopsy.
Chaim is waiting.
“There’s no sense prepping him until I’m sure the kidney is okay,” he says.
Khalilah nods to the team. Bring in the patient.
At 10 a.m., March 25, Khalilah places the 200-gram kidney in Chaim’s left abdomen. Now he has three. The surgeon connects the pipes, the arteries and veins, stitching them in place.
Ten days after his hopeless essay, Ilan Chaim wakes up with a kidney filtering his blood.
Oddly, exactly on the same day, March 25, 1971, he was motorcycling back with his violin from the Pittsburgh Youth Orchestra on the way to a swimming pool. A teen driver crashed into him. “It was the first time I got my life back,” he said.
After the surgery, he called his relatives who were sitting shiva without guests. “I was consoling them, and they were sharing their happiness for me. They kept saying ‘Uncle Ilan had Uncle Shaul’s kidney.’”
Iraqi Uncle Shaul was born in Basra, the city from which Sinbad set out in One Thousand and One Nights.
“I tell them that, now that I have an Iraqi kidney, we are truly blood brothers,” says Chaim.
Home for Passover with his wife, Janice, Chaim is in double isolation – once because of his transplantation and once because of the coronavirus restrictions. Feeling so much younger, he recited the Four Questions at their Seder-for-two. Why is this night different from all other nights? Why indeed? Aladdin’s lamp has nothing on your story, Ilan Chaim. Chag Sameach.