Tzipi Meets Her Matchby Natalie Jacobs August 24, 2017
Back in March, I shared the story of Tzipi Tivon and her team of kidney transplant advocates from Chabad Hebrew Academy. That story started when Tzipi was diagnosed with end stage renal failure back in January 2016, on her birthday. This portion of Tzipi’s story starts in a second-grade classroom on an uncharacteristically overcast day, August 2, 2017. Tzipi, Rochel Smoller (in whose classroom we sit) and Sheryl Daija are gathered around a circular table in chairs made for tiny bodies. Before we go any further, a reminder of how everyone got here.
It was late 2016 when Rabbi Josef Fradkin, head of Chabad Hebrew Academy, shared details of Tzipi’s condition with a parent, Rafael James. Rafael’s son had Tzipi for Hebrew and after hearing about her illness, he felt compelled to do what he could to help her situation. The typical waiting period for a kidney through Sharp’s transplant registry is 7-10 years, Tzipi was told when she got on their list last year. Tzipi was on dialysis by the time Rafi was informed of her condition. No one else at the school knew, and Tzipi continued to teach while receiving the treatments. When they found out, Rafi and wife Sheryl pulled together a committee to find a kidney for Tzipi. The committee included Rochel the second-grade Judaic teacher, and many others from around the community.
“We spoke about it and said there is no room for failure,” Sheryl recalls.
Rabbi Fradkin put the committee in touch with Renewal, the kidney transplant coordinating nonprofit serving Jewish populations and based in New York City. Together they began the process of organizing “awareness events” to share Tzipi’s story from here in San Diego.
Now that we’re caught up, here’s what we didn’t know at the time. After the first committee meeting where Rafi explained the donation process, Rochel Smoller quietly made up her mind that she would try to donate one of her kidneys to Tzipi.
“I had read an article about Renewal a few years ago in a Jewish women’s magazine,” Rochel explains. “I thought that was such a cool thing and [then] I put it in the back of my mind.”
Rochel, a mother and grandmother, says at the time she read the article and was initially interested in the prospect of donating a kidney, she thought her husband would think she was crazy if she approached him with the idea.
“And then when Morah Tzipi, when this whole thing came about I went back to my husband and I was like, ‘Two years ago I read this article. I didn’t bring it up to you but now I gotta go with this,’” she says with a laugh. She says he was “very nervous but very supportive” through the process.
The process itself, of matching a living donor with a person in need of a transplant, can be grueling. It took Rochel five months to go through the various levels of testing, which starts with blood matching and grows from there to include psychological evaluations and an MRI at some point. Part of what the Renewal organization does is streamline the testing process with the hospital. But since this was the first transplant Renewal had facilitated in California, there were no standard procedures. Sharp had to be willing to make some adjustments to its process, while Renewal and Tzipi’s team had to find middle ground between advocating for their cause and pushing too hard with the hospital.
Rochel says she stayed committed to her decision and calm through it all.
“There were no roller coasters. There was no nervousness,” she reports. “I had full confidence in Sharp and in Renewal. Every time I met with them, spoke with them on the phone they did over and above what my expectations even were. It was a very smooth process, very easy.”
She says it helped her to get through the harder parts of the testing, and the claustrophobia of the MRI machine to think of Tzipi.
While Rochel was being tested, there were others going through the initial stages too. Sheryl says that at the peak of their awareness-raising efforts they had someone from Australia send in a test. Someone from Israel contacted them, and an older student at the school expressed interest (though the student did not meet the age requirement, the team was heartened by the thought). They didn’t tell Tzipi any of this.
“It’s difficult to wait,” Tzipi, who ultimately waited 18 months for a kidney, says, “but I understand why Rafi and Sheryl didn’t share with me anything because to keep your hopes up and then to end up not doing it – it’s very hard. I had one incident when someone was tested but the hospital rejected her. The last time was very hard.”
In mid-June, Tzipi got a call saying her transplant surgery was scheduled for June 28 and that Rochel was going to be the donor. A week before the surgery, the two saw each other at the hospital. Once the two women woke up from their surgeries, Rochel joined Tzipi in her hospital room to see how she was recovering.
“It’s amazing,” Tzipi says, grasping for words. “It’s like she’s my angel. She’s my sister. She’s everything. It’s all because of her. I’m speechless.”
“We’re amazing because she’s amazing,” Sheryl says of Rochel.
Rochel sits quietly underneath the blankets of praise. I ask her how it feels to receive that.
“It’s a bit uncomfortable,” she admits. “In a good way, but it’s still a bit uncomfortable. I think I said to Sheryl ‘I don’t think it’s that amazing.’ It was a very easy process for me and I think Renewal made it even so much easier. I think Sharp was very professional and very open to what Renewal’s process is.”
“Yes,” Sheryl adds, “I think your words to
me were, ‘This is not a big deal to me so I don’t accept how amazing I am, because this was easy.’”
“But she is amazing,” Tzipi adds with a smile. “Definitely.”
The three women report that Tzipi’s transformation after the kidney was almost immediate. Tzipi says she can walk without stopping, and her vision has cleared. Sheryl and Rochel agree that her face has color again.
By the time we were all gathered together in early August to talk about Tzipi, Rochel and their recovery, the kidney transplant awareness committee had already been working to find a donor for another member of the local Jewish community. They gathered together once more at the request of Rabbi Fradkin to find a donor for David Mandelbaum. At the time of our conversation, they were in the testing process for potentials.
“You kind of sometimes get lost in the process of it,” Sheryl says, thinking about their second campaign. “If you think about it too much that you’re really saving somebody’s life it just becomes too overwhelming. So you focus on the process.”
She says it’s an opportunity for mitzvot, and to set a good example for their own kids and the kids at the school.
“It’s such a wonderful thing to be able to teach our children and have them watch the fact that a teacher donated to another teacher. All the kids know that and it’s a beautiful thing to share with them. The more that we can do and the more that we can set examples for kids I think we would say yes. Obviously if there is a need we’ll have to figure out how to help with that need.”
Rochel relates it to the third book of Vayikra, which says that to save one life is to save the world.
After I left the three women in the second grade classroom, Tzipi asked if she could join the committee searching for a kidney match for David Mandelbaum. To get involved, contact Sheryl at firstname.lastname@example.org.