Saturday, April 24, 2010

Celebrating a Transplant Milestone

Kidney recipient honors donor’s gift

By Joseph Kellard

When Liz Stark walked into the Middle Bay Country Club in Oceanside on April 3, she was surprised to see a poster-sized, decade-old Herald article and a photo of her and her father-in-law, Eli, on an easel.

Liz was led to believe she was attending a party celebrating her in-laws' wedding anniversary a few days earlier, but instead she found the club's dining room filled with her friends and family, there to celebrate the 10th anniversary of her donation of a kidney to her father-in-law.

While Liz said she was "very surprised" and "extremely grateful" for the acknowledgment, she did her best to deflect the spotlight. "It's really about him," she said of Eli, "and it's funny because he probably thinks it's the other way around, but it's really about 10 more years of life for him."

Eli's long road to the anniversary began in 1999 with unnerving uncertainty. A longtime diabetic, Eli, then 67, had developed kidney problems due to his disease. From his Long Beach home he traveled to North Shore-LIJ Hospital a few days a week. Although he was eventually treated at a dialysis center in Lynbrook, Eli still had to rise before dawn for his treatments before teaching a 6 a.m. math class at Nassau Community College, where he has been a professor since 1966.

"Occasionally I think of what I had to do for almost a year on
dialysis," said Stark, a former vice principal at Long Beach High School and Board of Education president. "You had to do it at least three times a week."

Eli's wife, Susie, and sons Mark and Scott wanted to be his donors, but they didn't share his blood type, and although his brothers were good matches, their advanced age and frail health made them undesirable candidates.

His only recourse was to get a new kidney from a cadaver — and to mark time on a list where the average wait was five to six years. But then Liz stepped forward. "Finally, Liz, my lovely daughter-in-law, said, 'I want to give you my kidney,'" Stark recalled.

For Liz — then 32 and a mother of a 4- and 2-year-old, Elyse and Brendan — the decision was a no-brainer. "People always told me, 'I don't know if I would have done the same thing,' but for me, at the time, it wasn't even a question in my mind," said Liz, whose blood type is O, which makes her a universal kidney donor — anyone can use her blood.

A decade ago, doctors still had to operate on both the donor and the recipient, but the Starks agreed to try an emerging new method, laparoscopic surgery. On March 7, 2000, at New York University Medical Center, Dr. Michael Edye removed one of Liz's kidneys, and Dr. Thomas Diflo performed the transplant.

Susie recalled that her son, Mark, Liz's husband, felt a mix of emotions in the waiting room. "It was so painful to watch his angst, waiting for his wife to come out of surgery," Susie said. "It was the hardest for him, I think. It was the love of his life and the mother of his children and his father — what do you do?"

To this day, Liz has never been adversely affected by the surgery, and thanks to her, Eli got a new lease on life — along with two new grandchildren, Owen and Nate, Scott's kids.

"He's gotten to see my brother-in-law's two kids that he probably would have never seen," said Liz, who grew up in Long Beach and now lives in Lido Beach. "So he has double the number of grandchildren that he had at the time I gave the kidney. And that's the milestone that I keep in my head. That's a big thing."

These days, Eli has problems with his knees, and other ailments have sidelined him from playing racquetball, one of his favorite pastimes. But he still reads voraciously, mostly historical fiction, and teaches three days a week at NCC. "I have no plans to retire, not if I can help it," he said. "I'm more concerned about keeping my mind."

Every year on their special anniversary, Eli has always done something for Liz, buying her flowers or taking her out to dinner. He took her to Jimmy Hays Steak House in Island Park on March 7, one of the ways he kept her from knowing that a much bigger celebration was in store.

"It was outrageous — it was wonderful," Susie Stark said about the anniversary celebration at Middle Bay. "She was wonderfully surprised."

To Liz, who lost her father at a young age, Eli is like a father. Now, to further commemorate their anniversary, she will take part in her first walk for the National Kidney Foundation at Hofstra University on May 23.

"Everything worked out beautifully," Susie said. "My husband was so thrilled to honor her. What can I say? She saved his life. I cannot thank her enough. She's like the daughter we never had."

* Photo Courtesy of Arthur Findlay