Ilene Lechtzin had just turned 25 in 1989 when she was diagnosed with end-stage renal failure, but a kidney donated by her father saved (and changed) her life.
The pediatric nurse was so taken by the experience that she began working on the transplant floors of area hospitals.
But Lechtzin, now 53, finds herself in a familiar predicament: She needs another kidney, as she’s entered Stage 5 renal failure. And she’s not able to work these days.
“The main thing is I’m always tired,” the Huntingdon Valley resident and Northeast High School graduate said. “I’m on a very restricted renal diet to preserve my remaining kidney function.”
Lechtzin has touched base with Renewal, a Brooklyn-based nonprofit that educates and also works to match kidney donors with recipients in the Jewish community.
Renewal is hosting a kidney donation awareness event April 25 at 8 p.m. at Lower Merion Synagogue in Bala Cynwyd. Speakers will include Lori Palatnik, an author and founder of The Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project. She will describe her own experiences as a kidney donor. There will be a question-and-answer session as well.
Rabbi Josh Sturm, Renewal’s director of outreach, said there will be testing on the spot to check for donor compatibility, although results take a couple of weeks. The test involves swabbing the inside of a person’s cheek.
Sturm noted that there are about 96,000 people in the United States awaiting kidneys for transplants, but only about 17,000 receive them each year — and 5,000 to 6,000 people annually die waiting.
“Most people do not know anything when it comes to kidney donation,” Sturm said. “I knew nothing until I began working with Renewal.”
In its 11-year history, Renewal has helped arrange about 1,500 transplants, said Sturm, who will speak at the event. That includes 81 in 2017; last year, 150 people were added to the organization’s waiting list.
The April 25 event is not a fundraiser, but is purely to raise awareness, he said, adding that good matches often are found at events involving testing. Renewal organizes about 20 of these events every year.
“We don’t persuade anyone. This has to be something a person wants to do on their own. Kidney donation is not for everyone,” Sturm said, adding that the organization lends a helping hand where it can to donors. “We take the donors through the process and to the finish line.”
Renewal had a similar event locally in March 2017 for Rachel Stone, a Denver woman whose husband, Eric, has local ties. Sturm said Stone had a successful kidney transplant in the fall, although it was not arranged by Renewal.
Lechtzin is also working with Etz Chaim, the Elkins Park-based Jewish engagement and education organization. She took a trip with the organization, which learned of her medical condition, Director of Programming Gevurah Davis said.
Teaming up with Renewal seemed a natural fit, she said.
“So many people want to help make the world a better place, but don’t know they’re able to donate a kidney,” she said. “It’s amazing the impact you can have.”
Lechtzin thus far has managed to stave off the need for dialysis, but that likely won’t continue for too much longer. She recently underwent a procedure to enable dialysis access.
Sturm said that once a person begins dialysis it becomes harder to find a donor match. And dialysis is not as effective as a healthy kidney.
“The reality is dialysis does 10 to 15 percent of what a healthy kidney does,” he said in a 2017 Jewish Exponent article. “After five years on dialysis, there’s a 27 percent survival rate. After 10 years, it’s 10 percent. Dialysis is not a long-term answer.”
For her part, Lechtzin, who is on other kidney waiting lists as well, has her fingers crossed.
“I’m hopeful. I have to be hopeful,” she said, adding that she set up a Facebook page called Kidney Needed for Ilene. “The hardest part is the ask.”
Sturm noted that kidney disease is an often under-recognized medical issue, especially considering that kidneys filter and clean 200 liters of blood each day, while helping to produce red blood cells, control blood pressure and maintain bone health.
According to the National Kidney Foundation, one in seven American adults (about 30 million people) likely have chronic kidney disease (CKD) yet are unaware of it, and one in three are at risk. CKD can shorten life spans by five to 11 years; more than 95,000 people with kidney failure died in 2014.
Risk factors include diabetes, high blood pressure, family history of kidney failure, being aged 60 or older, and being a member of minority populations that have high rates of diabetes or high blood pressure.
Early detection and treatment can help slow or stop chronic kidney disease, according to the National Kidney Foundation. That includes diet, exercise and medications. However, treatment with dialysis or a kidney transplant is needed after the kidneys fail.
Because donor kidneys are so rare, many people end up on dialysis.