Meir Atkin has only one regret about donating a kidney to a stranger — that he doesn’t have an extra one to give to someone else.
“I wish people knew how easy it is,” said the 31-year-old father of three. “I tell my wife all the time I wish Hashem had given me three kidneys so I could do it again.”
Atkin, a Lakewood resident, grew up in Highland Park and Edison and is a doctoral student in psychology at Rutgers University.
He spoke by phone with NJ Jewish News and at a Jan. 31 program at Congregation Ohr Torah in Edison, where he met for the first time the man whose life he saved.
That man, Efraim Khaimov, is an immigrant from Uzbekistan now living in Queens. He was critically injured while in the Soviet Army in 1974 when a group of drunken soldiers stole a vehicle and accidentally ran him over, fracturing both his hips and causing the loss of one kidney and damage to the other. He was in the hospital for 30 months.
Atkin, said Khaimov, who had been on dialysis, “saved my life. He gave me hope. Because of him, I have maybe 20, 30 years of life left.”
Atkin’s mother, Rifky, of Edison said she was touched to learn Khaimov refers to her son as “my malach [angel].”
Khaimov, a children’s social worker, said he believed God sent him this “angel” as a reward “because I always did mitzvas and always worked to help my community.” Atkin’s donation allows him more time with his wife, Miriam, and their children and grandchildren.
During the program, he presented Atkin with an ornate robe he said was traditionally worn by Bukharian Jews on momentous occasions.
The program, which drew about 200, was sponsored by Renewal, a Brooklyn-based organization that assists people suffering from chronic kidney disease and educates the public about living kidney donations.
Also present were three members of the Highland Park/Edison Jewish community — Harvey Peretzky, David Dolinger, and Rabbi Yechiel Drillman — who received kidneys from family members through Renewal. Drillman spoke about the eight levels of tzedaka and told the crowd that kidney donors are on an even higher level.
“I think that is what this evening represents,” said Drillman. “I owe my life to all these people.”
Also in the audience was Dr. Tamar Green of East Brunswick, who three months ago gave her kidney to a stranger through Renewal.
“It was an amazing experience,” said Green, an internist with a practice in Lakewood. “I feel good and have lots of energy. I would highly recommend donating a kidney if you are able. You will really get back so much more than you give.”
Program director Menachem Friedman said while Renewal was well-known in the New York metropolitan area haredi communities, it was looking to broaden its outreach.
“We are looking to expand our donor base and reach new communities,” he told NJJN. Renewal has facilitated one in four of all altruistic kidney donations performed last year in the United States, at a time when more than 100,000 people throughout the country are on waiting lists and 14 people die every day waiting for a kidney, according to the National Kidney Foundation. The average wait for a kidney in the United States is five to seven years, but those who go through Renewal generally receive a kidney in less than a year.
While an organ from a deceased donor can be used, success rates are greater from a living donor. Friedman said in order to make the process easier on donors, Renewal does extensive “hand holding,” taking them to doctors’ appointments and hospitals, reimbursing any lost wages or baby-sitting costs, and sending meals during home recovery. The average cost of a donation/transplant is $150,000 and is covered by the recipient’s insurance. The transplant cost to Renewal is $18,900.
Jack Atkin said his son didn’t want to go public about his selfless act, but was asked to do so by Renewal to inspire others.
“We tried to raise our kids to be compassionate so when they want to give the ultimate gift you can’t tell them you don’t want them to,” he said. “The real answer is that we are enormously proud of him.”
Meir Atkin, who donated his kidney on Dec. 13, 2013, said he got the idea after learning about an Edison resident in need of one.
“One in 800 people are actually born with only one kidney and lead perfectly healthy, normal lives,” he said. “My wife, Chana Tova, happens to be that one in 800 and she’s never had any medical issues. Seeing that helped to allay my fears. You can live a normal life span with one kidney.”
A graduate of Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison and the former Moshe Aaron Yeshiva High School in South River, Meir said his recovery was relatively quick and he has never suffered any medical problems since his surgery at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center
“I am so tremendously grateful God gave me this amazing opportunity,” he said. “The Mishna says that anyone who saves a life, it is if he has saved an entire world. We all say the Jewish people are all brothers in the abstract, but this was an actual way to connect to my brothers, my fellow Jews.”