Nov. 15 marks the fourth anniversary of Mark Abrams’ heart transplant, and still he is reluctant to talk about it, especially in public.
“I rehash it every day in my life,” he says of an ordeal that has included 20 additional hospitalizations, a slew of medications and bouts of gout, early-onset osteoporosis, bleeding ulcers, and mini-strokes.
But then, he said, he thinks about the second chance he was given and of all the other patients who need transplants and might not get them, and he knows he must tell his story.
“The problem is the science is there, the technology is there, but what is not there are people” willing to be donors, said Abrams. “People are still afraid to even think about it. It’s not something they want to think about — it happens after their death.”
The Short Hills man spoke about his experience during High Holy Day services at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, where he is a member. Last week, just after a weekend that was designated Organ Donor Sabbath by the New Jersey Organ and Tissue Sharing Network, he sat down with NJJN to talk about his own transplant and urge people to sign up as organ donors.
Abrams was 37 years old when he was diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy — a disease of the heart muscle. After that, he said, he sought opinions from cardiologists all over New York and New Jersey and ended up at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where they told him his heart was pumping inefficiently but not badly enough to put him on the transplant list. Instead he was put on medications until three years later, when his appendix burst. After that he spent five years in and out of hospitals before being admitted in August 2002 to the hospital to await a heart. One became available that November.
Now 49 years old, he still deals with the side effects of the heart disease and medicines. He also goes for weekly blood tests and still rarely drives his wife, Lisa, or his daughters — 12-year-old Samantha and 10-year-old Alexandra.
But he tends to focus on what he gained — especially the time he spends with his children. He missed out on some things — for a couple of years he couldn’t play catch in the backyard with his daughters or teach them how to ride their bikes. Now, on good days, he can play catch. And next month he will be there to celebrate Samantha’s becoming a bat mitzva.
“I try not to dwell on the past too much,” Abrams said. “I take it day by day and try to look to the future…. My wife’s been wonderful. If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t be here today…. I can’t say I feel okay all the time, but the alternative is death, so I’m thrilled to wake up every day.”
In a sermon delivered on the eve of Yom Kippur, B’nai Abraham’s Rabbi Clifford Kulwin urged his congregation to spread the message of organ and tissue donation — and invited Abrams to the bima to tell his story. As part of this month’s Donor Sabbath, the NJ Sharing Network organized a conference call with Kulwin, the network’s president and chief executive officer Joe Roth, and a pastor. The interview will be available as a podcast on the network’s Web site.
Kulwin was moved to address the issue after hearing of Abrams’ experience and that of a woman awaiting a kidney transplant.
Kulwin was hospitalized while on vacation in Glens Falls, NY, for emergency gall bladder surgery. While recuperating, he walked around the recovery floor and noticed a woman sitting alone in a room. He walked in and talked to her. She was a dialysis patient, waiting for a kidney to become available for transplant.
It wasn’t Kulwin’s only transplant-related encounter.
“When I was getting my driver’s license renewed, I asked and learned some facts,” Kulwin said. “All of that I found profoundly moving. There are so many things in this world we can’t do anything about, and here’s something we can do. There’s no excuse not to.”
Rabbis across the denominational spectrum agree that, contrary to some stubborn myths, organ donation is permissible under Halacha, or rabbinic law, said Kulwin.
And yet not enough people are willing to volunteer. At any given moment, roughly 90,000 people nationally are waiting for an organ transplant, with a new name added to the list every 20 minutes. In New Jersey alone, roughly 3,000 people are on the list, according to the Sharing Network.
The donor Sabbath was intended to encourage people to sign donor cards.
“It’s an important way for our major religions to show support for organ donation,” said Myra Burks-Davis, spokeswoman for the Springfield-based Sharing Network. “We’re trying to raise awareness and get a multiethnic point of view.”
The New Jersey Organ and Tissue Sharing Network, with offices in Springfield, can be reached at 1-800-SHARE-NJ, 973-379-4535.
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