December 7, 2019

Thankful for My Kidney and the Kidney Exchange Program

It all started with a phone call in 2015. “Hey Rick, happy Thanksgiving.” It was Larry Greenfield, a longtime friend whom I’d met through the Jewish community. The call literally saved my life. This is my story of friendship and gratitude.

“Honestly, Larry, I’ve had better days,” I said. I explained I had polycystic kidney disease (PKD) and that without a transplant within the next year, I would end up on dialysis or die of kidney failure. My grandmother, mother and older brother all died from the disease. Other than my wife, Dana, Greenfield was the first person I told about my condition. 

“Not a problem, I have two kidneys, you need one. I’ve got you covered,” Greenfield replied. I said, “Larry, you can’t offer me a kidney over the phone. I am not asking you to donate. All I did was share my story.”

The next day Greenfield came to our house and told Dana, “You aren’t going to do this; you need to take care of Rick and the kids. I have you all covered.” This was the start of Greenfield’s relentless mission to save my life.

PKD is a common genetic disorder affecting some 600,000 people in the United States. When diagnosed, I was told there was no cure and that my kidney function would slowly deteriorate, resulting in renal failure. My best chance for a long and healthy life would be a kidney transplant, preferably from a live donor. 

Dana offered to donate but I didn’t know if she would be a viable candidate. It wasn’t helpful knowing there was a 7- to 10-year waitlist in Los Angeles to receive a kidney from a deceased donor. I thought about moving to a different state with a shorter wait list. I considered posting my story on Facebook. I anticipated life on dialysis. When Greenfield called, I was running on fumes.

In February 2016, within hours of my approval for transplant, Greenfield applied to donate. Only the healthiest people are permitted to donate after being screened like astronauts. Greenfield gave me hope, but I knew there was a long path to travel, and sure enough, his first test revealed he wasn’t a direct match. I was devasted, but UCLA told Greenfield about its Kidney Exchange Program, whereby he could anonymously donate into a chain and enable me to receive a kidney from a compatible donor. 

Other than my wife, Dana, my friend Larry was the first person I told about my condition. 

Greenfield continued to undergo testing, only to have the donor team reject him again. Not willing to accept defeat, he contacted Dr. Larry Froch, his boyhood friend and a leading nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Based on Froch’s advice, Greenfield altered his diet and lost 20 pounds in 45 days. He then convinced the UCLA donor team to reconsider and was finally approved in June 2016. 

As UCLA worked to create a donor chain, my condition declined and my faith was tested. Eventually, I was matched with a 31-year-old single mother of four, on active military duty back East, who wanted to donate because her youngest child needed a kidney. Any hiccup and I would be back to Square One. But my hope was renewed.

Unfortunately, the hiccup came. My donor was unable to participate in a simultaneous exchange, but UCLA wanted Greenfield to make an “advance donation” to keep the chain alive. Greenfield was asked to trust that if my donor didn’t come through, UCLA would find me another.  

In October 2016, Greenfield donated without knowing that the recipient of his kidney was in the adjoining operating room. Three weeks later, just after Thanksgiving, my donor went into surgery. Her kidney was packed up, shipped on a flight to Los Angeles, and couriered to UCLA where Dana, Greenfield and I all anxiously waited. I received the transplant that night and have been blessed with great health ever since.

So, a story of friendship has blossomed into a lifelong bond. I owe my life to the incredible team at the UCLA Kidney Transplant Center, my amazing wife, Dana, and a woman I have never met. But most importantly, I am grateful to my friend Larry Greenfield, who just happened to call with Thanksgiving greetings and tell me “I’ve got you covered.”

For more information on the Kidney Exchange Program at UCLA, visit the website.

Rick Entin is a Jewish community lay leader.