Marianna Ilyasova came to the Unites States from Uzbekistan when she was 13 years old. “Life in Uzbekistan was beautiful,” she told The Jewish Press. “My father was a professor in chemistry and my mother a professor in music. Everyone in my family was educated, but unfortunately, we had to relocate because of economic reasons and tensions with the Muslim community. Today I live in Brooklyn.”
Thinking back five years earlier, Ilyasova said she couldn’t recall feeling any pain or discomfort, in fact, she said she was full of energy; but every time she visited her doctor her blood work would show that her kidneys were not working well. Eventually the doctor gave her an ultimatum: “if you don’t do dialysis or a kidney transplant, you’re going to die.”
Being proactive, she started looking for holistic ways to heal her ailment, “I was trying to cure myself with herbs and supplements, but last year I started itching all over my body and the tests were showing that my kidneys were shutting down.” Ilyasova did everything she could to avoid going on dialysis, including speaking to several doctors for a diversity of opinions, and everybody came to the same conclusion: “The doctors told me that dialysis would not really help me,” she said, “in fact, it would just slowly push me towards my grave. At best, it would clean my system for a day but the next day the same symptoms would begin to return.” The process of finding a donor would not be easy and dialysis would prove ultimately unavoidable. Still, llyasova started a meaningful search to find a donor. “I started ringing all the suggested doorbells, calling the rabbis and even calling organizations in Israel.”
In order to donate a kidney the donor and the recipient must have a compatible blood type. Thankfully, Ilyasova’s was A-positive, which is very common. Still, it was daunting having to deal with the growing effects of the illness while advocating for yourself and searching for a donor. “It’s shocking that you have to search for yourself,” she said. Even more shocking the doctors told her it could take five to seven years to find a donor! “I would not have been able to wait five or seven years. I was already to the point where my whole body was full of water, and I had water in my lungs, and it was starting to build up around my heart.” Ilyasova knew if she did not find a donor soon it would cost her her life. “I always believed in Hashem but I was never that strong in my prayers until I met my friend, Emmanuel R., who assured me that only through prayers I would get the donor sooner. Each day and night, I would ask Hashem if he would please send me a donor.” Thankfully Hashem provided her with a miracle: a donor came to her rescue in only five months.
Not a moment too soon, as the illness was progressing so fast Ilyasova was barely able to function in daily life. “When I first started doing dialysis, it was three times a week, three hours per session, and still my body was declining. I was experiencing water buildup, high blood pressure, severe headaches and I would come from dialysis and sleep for days till the next dialysis. I slept so much my muscles got weak and stiff – I am still recovering from all of it.” She was constantly hospitalized with low hemoglobin, and one night she remembered a nurse coming into her room at 3 a.m. and offered to pray with her. She grabbed Ilyasova’s hands tightly and said this beautiful prayer, and at the end of the prayer the nurse opened her eyes, started jumping up and down and screaming ‘you’ve got a donor! You’ve got a donor! To which I said, “Amen.” Two days later she got a call from a lady named Chaya who said, “I have a donor for you.”
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“I used to consider myself ‘fairly educated’ and ‘fairly intelligent,’ yet admit I knew absolutely nothing about kidney failure; neither its origin nor its treatment,” Liza Porat told The Jewish Press. Porat, a daughter of Israeli immigrants, was raised in Monsey, New York. After attending universities and law school in Israel and New York, she moved to the Jewish community of Kemp Mill in Silver Spring, Maryland. It was a coincidence of timing that resulted in Porat becoming a kidney donor. “My best friend from yeshiva in Monsey, named Lisa, had undergone a kidney transplant on the evening of May 3rd. “The next day, on my birthday, instead of her coming to town for our annual birthday get-together, I received text messages from Lisa’s husband stating that her transplant surgery was a success. Seeing a picture of her beautiful face barely 24 hours after the transplant, sitting up and smiling in her hospital bed, I burst into tears. I was so grateful and relieved.”
Porat stated how shocking it was to learn her dear friend was suffering from compromised kidney function to the point a kidney transplant was necessary. “Lisa was always the picture of health, fit and health conscience as far back as elementary school. I do not know how she could have acquired this disease, but since she did, I realize it could afflict anyone.”
Around the same time, Porat spotted an ‘urgent appeal’ on her Jewish community’s listserv; for a kidney donor with type A blood. Shortly after responding, Porat received an email from Chaya Lipshutz, asking Porat if she would be willing to be tested. For Porat, the obvious answer was “Yes!”
Once the testing process began, Porat and Ilyasova, through Chaya’s hands-on involvement, began to form a bond. Ilyasova was eventually able to communicate with Porat through Chaya, sharing updates and progress, as well as painful setbacks. Porat learned that Ilyasova suffered all day long, every single day. “I could not rest or relax for even one day since the day I became involved,” Porat admitted, “knowing the severity of her condition, and that time was of the essence.”
In fact, Porat herself exerted pressure on the hospital’s donor transplantation team and urged Ilyasova to do the same to the recipient team. “Waiting for test results or for a hospital call was no less painful for me as it must have been for Marianna, knowing how much she was suffering,” recalls Porat. “My family and work life were in a holding pattern, as Marianna was fighting to hang onto her life.” Shortly before Rosh Hashana the ladies received final approval for a direct kidney transplant, which would occur simultaneously, on October 4th, the day before Yom Kippur. Porat’s donated kidney began to function the moment it was transplanted into her body. “I was so thankful to Hashem that I was able to do my share in this medical miracle, and prevent a valuable and precious life from ending prematurely,” stated Porat. When they all finally met together the day after Yom Kippur, Chaya, Porat and Ilyasova made their very emotional introduction.
“Everybody should consider kidney donation,” Porat said. “We must realize that at any point in life we or a loved one could be facing kidney failure and we must have enough kidney donors to prevent those suffering from becoming too sick to receive a transplant, or from becoming too sick from the disease prior to transplantation, like Marianna.”
“I donated a kidney in 2009 and a third of my liver in 2018, both through Chaya Lipschutz,” Rabbi Ephraim Simon, a Chabad emissary in Teaneck, NJ, told The Jewish Press. “When it comes to kidney donation it’s not a question in Jewish law whether it’s allowed or not.” Rabbi Simon said he’s not aware of a halachic authority that prohibits kidney donations, but, in fact, many encourage it. “It’s a wonderful thing,” he admitted, “the risk is so infinitesimal and the reward of saving someone’s life is an incredibly strong value in Jewish law. So there’s no issue.” Rabbi Simon said this was his way of giving back to those less fortunate, and a way to show his children and his congregation to not just “say the words, but to actually live the values that we preach.”
“I wanted to be an example for my children and my congregation, “Rabbi Simon said.
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Dr. Stuart Greenstein has been a transplant surgeon at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, NY, for 34 years. He says anyone who wants to donate has to be evaluated medically to make sure they can. Candidates go through a complete physical. Greenstein said a family member is preferred because of similarities in genetic information. Greenstein said people with a kidney disease have two primary options; to go on dialysis or to get a transplant. “If you cannot find a donor,” Greenstein said, “in dialysis you are hooked up to a machine three times a week, but it’s nothing like having a kidney that works 24/7.” If placed on a donor list, the real test of survival is waiting in line; the current donor list is approximately 100,000 strong and counting. Still, he encourages every potential candidate to get started; if you know the patient, find out where the patient is listed and contact the program and tell them you want to donate – or just sign up on the list as an anonymous donor. “It’s an extreme act of chesed that a person can give another person,” Greenstein said. “Not everyone can be a donor, but that does not mean you don’t get credit for trying. Even the attempt of donating is an act of chesed.”
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There’s one invaluable person who ties Ilyasova, Porat, Rabbi Simon and Dr. Greenstein together in one story: Chaya Lipschutz. She’s known as the kidney and liver matchmaker. She remembered when she donated a kidney after seeing an ad in The Jewish Press in 2005. “At that time, I saw that there was no organization that was helping. People literally had to put in their own ads, and the ad I saw said “save a life, be makayim a once in a lifetime mitzvah.” She started a project to help people to find donors in 2005, three months after her own kidney donation, and since then she’s made lots of matches a reality. In 2005, a rabbi in Monsey contacted her about his wife needing a liver transplant – which were rare compared to kidney transplants – and at the time one of her early donors was turned down for a kidney donation. “He was very disappointed,” she remembered, “and I asked him if he’d like to donate a part of his liver instead, and he did.
Ilyasova had contacted Chaya and said she was in dire condition; she was on dialysis, had severe swelling in her legs and terrible headaches; overall she was in a lot of pain. “She contacted me and told me that she posted about her needing a kidney on a bunch of Jewish email groups throughout New York and New Jersey and also on a listserv in Silver Spring, MD…
“Marianna was extremely weak,” Chaya said, “this wonderful woman was crying out for help. She could have died. But the donor, Liza Porat, was so wonderful, she realized Marianna was suffering so much and she was wiling to do it.” After the transplant surgery, the Bikur Cholim of Manhattan arranged a nice apartment for Porat while she recovered. Ilyasova and Porat did not actually meet until two days after the transplant. Ilyasova’s sister flew in and expressed her thanks to Chaya and Porat. Chaya said, “for me it was easy; I wasn’t the one who donated, and when I make a match it’s a gift for me too, because to save a life is my reward.”
Chaya pointed out it says in the Talmud Sanhedrin, “He who saves one life, it’s as if he saved the entire world.” The waiting list is at least five to seven years, and only 20% of those who need a kidney survive for more than ten years on dialysis. But when you donate a kidney you not only save the person’s life, they get to enjoy life, be with their families and do mitzvos. Chaya said she has never heard anyone express regret on donating a kidney, some even wish they could do it again!
Marianna Ilyasova would like to thank those not mentioned in this story that played vital roles in her recovery: Dr. Rafael Khaim and the team at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, Michael Yakubov for putting her in touch with Chaya, her family for always being positive during her healing, and of course, Chaya Lipschutz for going above and beyond and finding a donor and Liza Porat, her angel, for saving her life.
To learn more, go to kidneymitzvah.com or please contact: Kidney Donor and Kidney & Liver Matchmaker. E-mail: KidneyMitzvah@aol.com, call (917) 627-8336.