Jeff Pearlman

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My wife donated one of her kidneys to a stranger this morning.

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It’s 10:15 am, and as I write this my wife Catherine is in surgery here at UCLA’s Ronald Reagan Medical Center—donating one of her kidneys to a complete stranger.

You read that correctly, but I recommend reading it again. My wife Catherine is in surgery donating one of her kidneys to a complete stranger.

The story dates back several months, when Catherine was sitting in a Starbucks. She was doing our friend Bev a favor, and had a moment to spare, so it wasn’t a coffee shop she often frequents. While waiting, or standing, or thinking, or something—she spotted a flyer hanging near the front of the store, above the sugar and powders and milk canisters. It was posted by a woman, Monica Valdez, whose husband was in need of a kidney. The man’s name was Eli, he was in his mid-40s, he had type O+ blood.

Catherine also has type O+ blood.

That night, she asked if I thought it’d be crazy to donate a kidney.

“What do you mean?” I said. “How does that even work?

Like most Americans, I was naive to kidneys in about 10,000 different ways. I didn’t know how they function, what they do (in any sort of detail), how donations kick off. I certainly didn’t know that, across the country, hundreds of thousands of people are in need of kidneys, and that we can live fruitfully with just one, and that the process of having a kidney removed is remarkably safe. So we talked about it, and I said, “It seems like it’d be an amazing thing to do.”

Catherine followed with something she’s wondered—openly—over and over and over. “Does it come off as dumb to give a kidney to someone you don’t know?”

I get the question. I’ve always gotten the question. You’re a parent with two children. You’re a daughter. You’re a sister. Is this wise? Is this prudent? Is it putting yourself at risk? Also, to a lesser degree, what will others think? Does it seem foolish? Reckless? We’re only humans, after all, and these are the ponderings that enter a mind. Am I being kind, or insane?

Catherine decided to go for it. Or at least put herself out there. She underwent the various tests at UCLA, and was deemed a match. In many ways, it always felt more hypothetical than realistic. She might give a kidney. This could happen. It may go down. Probably not—but maybe.

Then the call came.

And here I sit. Waiting. Nervous, edgy—but incredibly proud.

Upon arriving at the hospital 6 o’clock this morning, we were ushered into a registration area. There were a couple of people sitting quietly in the corner of the room, and as we walked past Catherine whispered to me, “I think that’s Eli and his wife.” We sat down to register, and she said, “Should I say something to them?”

“Do you want to?” I said.

Pause.

“I think so.”

Moments later, Catherine approached. They stood, and suddenly this emotional cape cloaked us. There were no hugs, and no tears, but the wife and I both felt like crying. This man—sick for so long—would be receiving a kidney that should change his life. A kidney from my wife. We know almost nothing about him. Name—Eli. Job? Don’t know. Hobbies? Don’t know. Trump supporter? Obama lover? Apolitical? Don’t know. Jets fan? Amateur magician? Pearl Jam diehard? Don’t know. We know, legitimately, one thing—he needed help.

My wife decided to deliver it.

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•••

I wrote all of the above six hours ago. It’s now 4:02 pm. About 50 minutes back I received word that everything went fine. Catherine is tired, but well. The kidney was removed sans fuss. No problems, no complaints.

As I was waiting for word, I struck up a conversation with Monica, Eli’s wife. We’d never met before today, but there was an instant connection. Similar, perhaps, to a pair of soldiers who experience battle side by side. The two of us were in different parts of the waiting area. When Monica walked toward my turf I said, “How are you doing?”

The conversation began.

Eli and Monica met nearly 28 years ago, when both were in high school. They’ve been married 17 years—same as us. Monica works in the medical field, Eli at a bank. He’s needed a kidney transplant for slightly less than a year. No family members matched. Dialysis has been nightmarish. Once, while receiving treatment, another patient died in front of him. Here, gone. Eli had to take a leave from his job, because he suffers from uncontrollable coughing fits.  Months ago they believed they had a match. Someone Monica knew from her youth said she was moved by Eli’s plight, and wanted to offer her kidney. They were both O+; everything lined up. The woman began preparing, following procedures—then dropped off the face of the earth. Ghost. Monica says the woman still LIKES some of her Facebook posts, but never gave a reason for vanishing. It was a crushing blow.

Then Catherine entered the Starbucks.

Monica told me she felt something about Catherine was different. And she’s right—she is different. Granted, this is something everyone says about his/her spouse. Cliches aplenty—“big heart,” “would give the shirt off her back,” “the most compassionate person.” On and on. Truly, though, this is next level shit. I think I first saw it when we were early in the dating process, and Catherine was running a youth homeless shelter in New York City. She was this young, green 5-foot-nothing woman—and the kids responded to her. She cared, and they could see it. Feel it. Come Christmas the shelter used to buy a gift for every resident, and I have this vivid recollections of Catherine handing a kid named John a thing of tube socks. John was giddy—the socks were more than mere socks. To someone, John mattered. Catherine beamed.

If you’ve been around enough, you can sniff out fake compassion v. legitimate compassion. Catherine’s has always been legitimate. She wants to end suffering. She wants you to be happy. She doesn’t see family members as any more worthy of love and empathy than strangers. There’s no ego. No boastfulness. You help people because you help people. No preening allowed. You help to help.

Anyhow, Monica and I spoke at length, and at one point Eli’s parents—also in the waiting room—approached. His father only speaks broken English, but he extended his right arm in my direction and said, haltingly, “I need to shake your hand.” Eli’s twin brother started talking to me and had to walk away. It was just too much. “He and Eli are best friends,” Monica explained. Monica told me her father, 85 and not here today, cried when he learned Catherine was donating her kidney.

Around this time, the doctor who inserted the kidney entered the room. He asked for Monica, who excused herself and left for the hallway. I watched from 100 or so feet away as she listened, listened, then raised her arms into the air. She wrapped her arms around the doctor, returned, said, “He told me the kidney is doing exactly what it’s supposed to!” She asked if she could hug me. Of course—it was as satisfying a hug as I’ve known. I then watched her and a gaggle of family members embrace.

If not the greatest moment of my life, easily top fi—

No.

The greatest.

•••

It’s now 4:41 pm. I am sitting by Catherine’s bedside. She is groggy and sort of out of it. The pain is fierce. Normal, but fierce.

A nurse, positioned two stations away, motions for me. “Is that your wife?” she says.

“Yes,” I reply.

“Is it true she didn’t know the person receiving her kidney?” she asks.

“Yes,” I say—then tell her of Starbucks, of the flyer, of her past at a homeless shelter, of the best person I know.

“She’s an angel,” she says. “You’re married to an angel.”

Monica gets word.

Monica gets word.

PS: I feel quite certain that, in the future, I’ll be donating a kidney. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned through this process, it’s that we all should (if possible) consider doing so. It’s not dangerous, you live a prosperous life with one and you are saving another person’s life. Even if it’s a stranger. What difference does that make?

  • apajax6

    To that stranger, it makes all the difference in the word. Thank you, Catherine, for existing.

  • This is spectacular, in so many ways. Thanks for writing about it (very well) and sharing it. Good wishes to all.

  • Gluten Dude

    With all the crap going on in the world right now, I NEEDED this story. Hats off to your amazing wife.

  • wiredmomma

    Thank you so much for sharing this story. I hope your wife is doing well and recovering on track. I am in the process of being evaluated as a living donor for my sister and it is scary enough when you know the person! The world needs more people like you and your wife. I hope you’ll give us an update on how she’s doing – know that sharing this story not only helps create awareness about the importance of living donation but it is also incredibly helpful to those of us on this journey right now! Wishing you all much health.

  • Kelly Simmons

    Thanks for sharing. Life is the greatest gift. Maybe we all can’t give a vital organ, but wouldn’t it be great if everyone did one kind thing to help another person? That’s the world I want to live in. Catherine is a hero.

  • Michael Gibson

    WOW! As her co-worker, I have always known she was special…and feisty…..

    BTW…Your writing is incredible Jeff….I hope that you write a book one day!

  • Robbymack87

    Selflessness is as high a level anyone of us can aspire to. Lovely piece

  • Emily A. Filmore

    This is the best story I’ve heard in a long time. I hope her recovery is swift and uneventful. I hope his is as easy and smooth as possible. Thank you for being such positive forces in the world.

  • Kristen Weeks

    This is an amazing story and gives me hope as we search for a donor for my father. 5-7 year wait in Boston and we are only in year one… be the change if you can!

  • Edwin Concepcion

    Thank You <3

  • nrwillick

    You did marry an angel. Thank you for deciding to do the same. I had a partial liver transplant when I was 20, due to damage from a car accident. It saved my life.

  • Saskia Borst

    What a blog, that a people give a good kidney gives too a stranger, that is amazing, I’am proud on the people who this have dear and have dawn. I did not know or I had dawn.

  • Teresa

    Wonderful story! She’s an angel. My husband is on dialysis for 3 years now. We were asked when we started if he wanted a donor and we said no. He is 92 and he believes that a younger person needs it more than he does.

  • tenn tom

    Brava Madam! People like you give us hope.

  • M Vallazza

    How delightful to read something so uplifting!

  • Saskia Borst

    I saw the blog and I could not last a post that there is hope on humanity, arts who have studied into the ilnis (sick) whatever you have.

  • Barbie Lulu

    she is an angel,may god bless her and all your family

  • Mahesh Somashetty

    Amazing. You are an inspiration and hope for others…

  • Paul L

    I may or may not be sitting her tearing like a child :) It’s a wonderful story. I’m not sure I have the courage to do what your wife did.

  • The Yodha Within

    Wow, so inspiring!

  • Marc Sheris

    Truly selfless.

  • Melanie Leong

    Wow, this is so moving.

  • Saskia Borst

    I should not dare this to do, as a live people give a kidney to a stranger.

  • Saskia Borst

    Melanie Leong, has had good Wow, this look like a movie.

  • Minh Anh

    not many articles can make me cry, and this is one of them.

  • Emma

    I lost a friend few years ago due to the organ crisis which is world wide. So can say your wife is awesome to be able to do this, if only there was more like her. Thank you for sharing and God bless your and your family.

  • TheMountain Mums

    I lost my brother this year to kidney failure, he was suffering for the past two years. In India you have to be a blood relative to donate an organ. The illegal Kidney harvesting racket has made it impossible to receive such acts of kindness here. But I am so happy to hear about ELi. He really had an angel looking out for him, in his case the angel came in the form of your wife. Kudos Catherine!! The world needs more people like you.

  • Amanda Bowles Curtis

    It is articles like these that help me believe that in a world as harsh and cruel as ours, that there are still good people in it. Thank you for sharing your story!

  • Kazbit08

    What a truly remarkable woman your wife is! Hope she and Eli are recovering well and no complications anywhere in sight! Much love. Xx

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