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Matchmaker, matchmaker made a match for kidney transplant

Aaron Nielsenshultz Photo by BP Miller

Philadelphia — Most emails from your synagogue regarding donations call for canned foods or used clothes.

But sometimes, it’s for a living organ.

In December 2014, Marc Silverman, who belongs to Congregation Beth Or, was diagnosed with end-stage kidney failure and a mass on his right kidney.

He knew he’d need a kidney transplant, and soon.

He joined the donor waiting lists at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and Jefferson Health in Philadelphia for a kidney from a deceased patient, which lasts usually only half as long as one from a living donor.

Silverman accrued a lot of time — the wait for a kidney at Johns Hopkins is about two years once on the active list, and five to seven years at Jefferson.

“But if you find a [direct] donor, you don’t have to go through the whole list process,” explained Susan Silverman, Marc Silverman’s wife.

However, the mass on his right kidney turned cancerous, and in November 2016 it was removed. Additionally, an increase of polyps required 90 percent of his colon to be removed as a preventive measure.

“Once you get a transplant, the drugs they give you increase your risk of cancer,” Susan Silverman noted. 

The Silvermans are friendly with Beth Or Rabbi Gregory Marx. After visiting Marc Silverman in the hospital, he sent out an email blast to the entire congregation notifying them of his search for a kidney.

Three people volunteered to get tested to see if they were potential donors. One was a match.

Aaron Nielsenshultz, 44, jumped at the chance to get tested.

Nielsenshultz, who is the director of Beth Or’s religious school — Susan Silverman also teaches there two nights a week — only met Marc Silverman a few times in passing.

But a couple years ago, his friend, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, donated a kidney, and it had a lasting impression on him.

“When I got the email,” recalled Nielsenshultz, who worked in the Kansas City Jewish community for eight years, both at Congregation Beth Torah and for the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City, “I thought, ‘Oh, I can do this. This is something that’s within the realm of reason.’ My first thought was not something like I’m going to be the hero. It was just an idea that fits within a framework that I have now established.”

As a consistent blood donor since the age of 18, Nielsenshultz sees this procedure as the same type of donation.

“It’s something that I have an extra of that I really have no need for, so I would really rather see it go to use for somebody else,” he said.

Going through testing, he realized even if he was not a match for Marc Silverman, he would donate his kidney to someone in need within the year.

There are less than 5,000 living kidney direct donations a year, most of which come from family members of the patient.

Nielsenshultz’s wife, Yara, used to work as a critical care nurse, so she knew the risks, but she and their two children weren’t surprised that he wanted to contribute to someone’s life.

He just hopes other people are inspired by his act of kindness to help another in need.

“You don’t have to be Superman to do this. You just have to be you and you have to be healthy,” he said. “Just having one person say, ‘I think I can do this,’ then that’s just improving the world one ripple at a time.”

“It’s gigantic,” Marc Silverman said of Nielsenshultz’s generosity. He cried when he learned a donation was in reach. “I’m a lucky guy.”

“I was very shocked that someone out of the goodness of their heart would just offer a kidney,” Susan Silverman added.

The donated kidney can last up to 20 years. Once the surgery is completed, 97 percent of live donor kidneys are fully functional, compared to 50 to 60 percent of deceased donor kidneys, according to Columbia University Medical Center.

Marc Silverman, now 55, was scheduled to receive his new kidney the last week of June at Jefferson, but Nielsenshultz caught pneumonia just days beforehand.

“Who gets pneumonia in June?” Nielsenshultz joked.

As a pretty healthy guy, he’s never had pneumonia or anything of the like before. The surgery was postponed while Nielsenshultz recovered.

“Hopefully sooner than later,” Marc Silverman laughed. (Editor’s note: Surgery was set for July 18, the day this article went to press.) Removing his right kidney and part of his colon was the first time he ever experienced a major surgery, totaling six hours. But after going through that, he said this donor surgery will be “a piece of cake.”

Nielsenshultz credits his donation to his friend, Rav Shmuly, who initially inspired him, adding that “he needs to get credit for donating two kidneys because I wouldn’t have done this if it wouldn’t have been for him.”

“It never made sense to [Yanklowitz] why we carry two kidneys,” Nielsenshultz reiterated of his role model. “It never made sense until he realized, ‘Oh wait, I’m carrying a kidney for somebody who needs it, and all I’ve been doing is keeping it safe.’”

This story is reprinted by permission of the Jewish Exponent.