Mom donates kidney to save stranger’s life
CHARLESTON, S.C. — It was an especially awful day, one when sorrow and helplessness brought Dana Rothschild to her knees, when the good news came.
The mother of two young children, Rothschild was crumbled in defeat, facing a future connected to dialysis machines for hours a day.
The West Ashley woman had beaten childhood cancer, survived well into adulthood on three-quarters of a kidney and recovered from aortic bypass surgery thanks to the relentless protection of a fierce mother, strong faith, good doctors, a husband and all that life with two kids brings.
[PHOTO: In this Dec. 10, 2013 photo, Kathy Davenport, left, and Dana Rothschild embrace in Summerville, S.C. Davenport donated her kidney to Rothschild, who needed a kidney after her only remaining one was failing, having survived cancer in her childhood. (AP Photo/The Post And Courier, Grace Beahm)]
In the deepest recesses of their minds, however, they knew her health could be a temporary gift.
So it was. At 45, Rothschild faced a terrifying new reality: She was suffering end-stage kidney failure and would need a transplant to save her life.
The normal wait? Seven to 10 years, depending on various factors. And given her medical history, finding a suitable match would take nothing short of finding the old needle in a haystack.
To find that needle, Rothschild traversed an agonizing maze of blocked passageways and frightening unknowns ahead. Her faith dwindled with despair.
But through the selfless gift of a fellow mother, Rothschild would rediscover hope, joy and her faith in God again.
Over the cliff
Her medical ordeal actually began when she was a 4-year-old girl facing neuroblastoma, a cancer that develops from immature nerve cells and often arises in and around the adrenal glands near the kidneys.
At 4, Rothschild had one entire kidney removed and one-quarter of the other. After a 21-hour surgery and six months in the hospital, her survival beat considerable odds.
She lived a mostly healthy life until nine years ago, shortly before her first child was born, when she needed an aortic bypass. That, too, she overcame.
“She always had a feistiness,” recalls Rothschild’s mother, Faye Seigel.
But a year ago this summer, with her children ages 2 and 8, fatigue descended. Her nose bled. By October 2012, she suffered end-stage kidney failure.
She knew it was bad when her nephrologist called on a Saturday: “I want to tell you that they are going to talk about a transplant. That’s where we are.”
She would need dialysis. And at an orientation meeting for people needing kidney transplants, she sat packed in with endless numbers of others waiting.
“I knew the day would come. But she went over the cliff so fast,” Seigel says.
Yet, deep down, they were confident, smug even. Of course a match would be found. Family and friends stepped forward to see if they could become living kidney donors.
But none would work.
Due to receiving many blood transfusions over the years, Rothschild’s antibodies were extremely aggressive toward invaders. They attacked every potential donor’s blood. And the aortic bypass left surgeons without an obvious, strong artery to which they could attach a new kidney.
In the abyss of despair, Rothschild’s faith slipped away.
But not her mother’s. Seigel felt the divine in every step of their quest to find that needle in the haystack.
Seigel sprang to PR and marketing life.
With help from staff at the Jewish Community Center, she started with a flier. They spread word over Facebook.
Rothschild’s stepfather, the retired Rabbi Robert Seigel, reached out to fellow rabbis. On a Reform Judaism blog, he reminded readers of the Talmud’s words: “Whoever preserves a single soul, it is as though he has preserved the whole world.”
Soon, rabbis all over the world prayed for Rothschild. Christian churches joined in, too. A Christian radio station’s 24-hour prayer marathon included pleas on behalf of her and others needing kidneys.
John Clendaniel, principal of Orange Grove Elementary Charter School, where Rothschild’s daughter, Gussie, is a student, sent an email out to the entire school. Even his wife was tested.
All of the rabbis in town were tested. People from Israel to North Carolina and Florida were tested.
Eli Hyman, owner of Hyman’s Seafood, included a plea in his Saturday ads for weeks. The Post and Courier ran a story about Rothschild and the need for living donors.
A group of Presbyterian women made a prayer quilt in which each knot tied represented a prayer said on her behalf. Someone held a Christ-based fundraiser.
“In the faith community, it doesn’t matter if you are Jewish or Christian or black or white. You are a human being,” Faye Seigel says. “You are a person in need, and people rose to the occasion.”
MUSC was flooded with people wanting to be tested.
Still, no needle.
Mom to mom
Nearly 150 people were tested to see if they could be living kidney donors for Rothschild.
One was Kathy Davenport, a 42-year-old Summerville mother.
She never met Rothschild. But her husband, Kenneth, was a childhood friend of Rothschild’s brother, Greg. She heard the story through a relative who saw a flier hanging up at her gym.
Davenport prayed. Her husband had just battled brain cancer. She knew the horror of looking at young children and imagining the loss of a mom or dad.
She went in for the simple blood test shortly before the holidays. If she was the best match, she would donate her kidney. The decision, she felt, rested in God’s hands.
“I never felt any qualms,” Davenport says.
Good thing. She was the needle.
Servant of God
When Davenport knew for certain that she was the match, she emailed Rothschild.
“I feel honored to be able to do this for you and your family, and I’m thankful that I am a healthy match for you. I can’t wait to meet you and give you a hug, meet your children and hug them, and see you back to the healthy Mama you deserve to be!” she wrote.
By then, Rothschild’s kidney was working at about 8 percent.
The dual surgeries, to remove Davenport’s healthy kidney and transplant it into Rothschild’s ailing body, took place Feb. 20.
The day before, a nurse came into Rothschild’s hospital room at MUSC: “Your donor is here for her pre-op and wants to meet you.”
Joy flooded her. But how do you thank a stranger about to save your life?
Both Rothschild and Davenport were there with their own mothers. Faye Seigel remembers racing to Davenport’s mother and hugging her. “You raised a wonderful woman,” she said.
The day after surgery, wearing matching hospital gowns and exhausted smiles, donor and recipient took a picture together in front of a Tree of Life painting.
Since then, several people have asked Davenport, a substitute teacher, what the surgery was like.
Could they, too, save a life?
She encourages them all to step forward, as so many did for Rothschild.
“These were nameless, faceless strangers who had it in them to be servants of God and servants to other people,” Rothschild says.
During the wait, she often asked herself: Would I donate a kidney to save a stranger?
When she was honest, the type of honest you don’t want to admit out loud, she wasn’t sure.
Now, just days after turning 46, she tears up with gratitude. Never has she felt so healthy.
“Kathy gave me life,” she says.