As director of the Spiritual Care Department and senior rabbi at Cedars-Sinai, Rabbi Jason Weiner, PhD, has always had a special place in his heart for organ donors and their families.
“I always made sure, first of all, that when I heard about someone in the hospital, who had donated an organ to someone else, that I would go out of my way to go to visit them, just to share how impressed I was and support them and praise them,” Weiner said. “I always thought it was a beautiful thing. I was always very impressed by that act.”
But everything changed for Weiner last month, when he went from praising those selfless donors to becoming one himself—traveling all the way to Toronto to donate a kidney to a complete stranger.
Taking the First Step
Weiner had initially signed up to become a potential donor at an awareness event for a friend who was in need of a kidney. The event was hosted by an organization called Renewal, which specializes in connecting kidney patients with donors. Attendees who agreed were tested to see if their kidney might be a match for someone in need.
“I sort of thought, 'I praise it so much, and I believe in it, and I think it's such a good thing, why don't I put my kidney where my mouth is, so to speak?’” Weiner said.
Weiner wasn’t a match for his friend (who eventually did find a donor and received a transplant) and had all but forgotten about the test. That’s when he got the call that would change his life—and another life. He was a match—not for his friend, but for the woman in Toronto. And not just any match—a 1 in 1,000 match.
“She had very rare antibodies and HLA type, and they just couldn't find anyone, and she was likely to suffer for a few more years and die without finding a donor,” Weiner said.
The hopeful recipient was Bonnie Lilien, a retired teacher and grandmother who had been on dialysis for more than three years.
Consulting With Experts
Weiner said the decision to undergo such a serious operation wasn’t an easy one. So he turned for advice to his colleagues at Cedars-Sinai, including Irene Kim, MD, director of the Comprehensive Transplant Center.
But Kim was frank about the risks.
“I shared with him the exact same message that I share with my own patients,” Kim said. “And that is, there are some very serious risks involved with living donation. It is a major surgical procedure that you're undergoing, and you have to be mindful and know and understand those risks.”
Weiner also spoke with Zab Mosenifar, MD, professor and executive vice chair of the Department of Medicine. Known for running every single day of his adult life, and for completing more than 100 marathons, Mosenifar has been a health and wellness inspiration for Weiner, who recently started running marathons himself.
“He said, ‘You'll still be able to run marathons just fine. You'll do great,’” Weiner said. “That was reassuring.”
Finally, Weiner met with Stuart Finder, PhD, director of Cedars-Sinai’s Center for Health Care Ethics.
“He helped me to really ask good questions, rethink my assumptions,” Weiner said. “He helped me to make sure that it really worked for me, and he was extremely helpful in the process.”
In the end, those conversations, along with talking with his own physicians, family, friends, spiritual leaders and other kidney donors, persuaded Weiner that he was healthy and well enough to donate. With their blessings, and the support of his supervisor, Jonathan Schreiber, vice president of Community Engagement, he sent news to his care team—he was in.
When Lilien received that news, she was overjoyed.
“It was just too good to be true,” she said. “It was like I had been dreaming and praying for this, and finally, my wishes came true.”
Preparing Body and Mind
The weeks leading up to the surgery were filled with tests and assessments to make sure Weiner was fit to donate.
“It was very emotional,” Weiner said. “I found myself crying a lot, which I don't normally do. Not like sad tears, just like I was just overwhelmed by the emotions of the whole thing, just saving a life and doing something that I never thought I would do, but that I believe is a wonderful thing. And sometimes fear, and also some excitement, and just a desire to do this with joy. [There was] a lot of praying, a lot of anticipation. It's one of the biggest things I've ever done in my life.”
Renewal and Recovery
In early February, Weiner flew with his wife to Toronto for the big day. Both Weiner’s explant surgery and Lilien’s transplant surgery went smoothly.
“A little bit of pain but a marvelous amount of gain,” Lilien said. “And that's my attitude. It's all worth it.”
A few days after the procedures, Weiner was able to walk down the hall and meet Lilien and her family for the first time.
“It was just nice to see because she has small grandchildren, and she told me that she didn't think she would get to see her grandchildren grow up,” Weiner said. “And she's someone who's very beloved in her community. She was a high school teacher. So it's just nice to see that she was such a kind and giving person and she really appreciated it. So it really felt good.”
Passing It On
The surgery has given Lilien a chance to live life to the fullest. She plans on traveling, particularly cruising, and spending more time with her husband, children, grandchildren and friends, who she credits with being a major support throughout her transplant journey.
“And also, I'm able to eat anything,” Lilien said. “Actually, when I was in the hospital, they were feeding me this salty soup and vegetables that, as a kidney patient, I wasn't allowed to eat. So I called my doctor over and said, ‘Why are they giving me this? I can't have all this salt in here,’ and my doctor said, ‘You are no longer a kidney patient.’ So that was liberating. Totally, totally liberating.”
For Weiner, it’s not about the accolades he has received. He said he felt that donating his kidney was a private kindness, best done quietly. But he also felt encouraged to spread the word about kidney donation and about living up to Cedars-Sinai’s mission: to Be a Blessing.
“This act requires people choosing to do it, they need role models,” he said. “If I hadn't met people who had done it, and been able to speak to them and been impressed by them and encouraged by them and seen how well they did, I certainly would not have done it. So I thought that maybe I had an opportunity to encourage others, without putting pressure, obviously, but maybe I could serve as a role model for them as well.”
Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: Healthcare Heroes: Spiritual Care