Cousins Share Life–saving Connection

Sheila and DavidAs a child, Sheila Schwartz spent countless hours playing with her beloved first cousin, David Kanter, and his Lionel train set. A feminist-in-training, she enjoyed hanging with the guys and pursuing a hobby that was off-limits to girls in the 1950s. At the time, she never dreamed that the two would share more than a close friendship and a passion for model railroads. Yet, Schwartz's bond with Kanter endured throughout her marriage, the birth of her four children, her professional pursuit of both social work and law and his 30 year career as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. Today, the two cousins share a pair of kidneys after Kanter stepped up last fall to give Schwartz the gift of life.

A clinical social worker with a thriving private practice in suburban Boston, Schwartz suffered from high blood pressure after giving birth. Several doctors prescribed various anti–hypertensive medications, but when none of them worked, she was told that her condition was due to the fact that she “worked too hard” or that she “had too many children.” While Schwartz had a feeling there was something medical at play, she never followed up because her doctor was sure it was just her lifestyle that was causing the problems.

So Schwartz continued pursuing her challenging career and personal life, taking on a teaching position at a local university and planning outings for what grew to be her ensemble of 11 grandchildren, currently aged 4 21. She did this until the day she could no longer ignore her declining health. In the fall of 1999, while in Atlanta visiting her daughter, Elizabeth Cohen, CNN Senior Medical Correspondent, Schwartz noticed that her ankles were terribly swollen.

Cohen insisted that she see a doctor immediately so she went to a local internist who urged her to see a nephrologist, or kidney specialist, when she returned home. Schwartz made an appointment with the nephrologist right away. This doctor listened to her concerns and diagnosed Schwartz with IgA nephropathy, a disease that damages the tiny filtering units of the kidney. He set the parameters for a diet and specified a medication plan that could manage her kidney failure—which it did for 10 years.

Schwartz said “I went beyond what guidelines suggested. I ate virtually no salt, no potassium and very little protein. I was not sure that I would be able to maintain that restrictive a diet, but I was completely committed. And I had great help. Even my grandchildren became my allies in the quest to protect my health. They got really good at grilling waiters about the content of restaurant specials and catered banquets.”

But after a decade of subsisting on pasta and limited fruits and vegetables, Schwartz’s kidneys began to shut down. When she underwent surgery in August 2009 to prepare her for dialysis, doctors asked if she had any relatives who'd consider being tested as her living donor. Kanter, who was 71 at the time, but had already voiced his willingness to give a kidney years earlier when the family first learned of Schwartz’s condition, immediately reiterated that he wanted to be considered. When asked why he made the decision to donate, he said simply, "Because I could. It wasn’t a difficult decision. We grew up together and have been close our whole lives.” Kanter says three months after the surgery, it was as if he’d never done it. “With laparoscopic kidney removal, I came home with no wound management and the pain was negligible and short lived—as were the few restrictions on my activity.”

Both Schwartz and Kanter say that as a duo they are “unabashedly aggressive” and credit this tendency, and their otherwise good health, for the fast turnaround in receiving a transplant–compatibility decision. Kanter laughs as he describes his interaction with the hospital personnel at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s Transplant Institute. After being interviewed as a potential candidate, the nurse asked when they could schedule the first of his blood tests. “I said ‘what’s wrong with this afternoon?’ She was taken aback, but she saw I meant business—and she and the whole team at the Institute then did everything they could to make the process move as quickly as possible,” recalls Kanter.

The transplant evaluation for both of them began in late September 2009, and they were approved for transplant in late November. Just a month after that, on December 29th, Kanter’s kidney began working miracles in Schwartz’s body.

Schwartz told her clients about her condition just one month before the surgery and was surprised and pleased at their reaction. “Not one of them suspected that I was sick and I’m most proud of this…that I was able to lead a normal life with the rest of the world for all that time.”

Post–surgery, the cousins began their recuperation together at Schwartz’s house. Schwartz started seeing clients within three weeks, was working 40 hours within six weeks, and took in Red Sox games with her grandchildren that spring. Schwartz is now back at her teaching post as well. She and her husband recently took a 30–hour trip from Boston to Orlando, and back, via Amtrak, with their 6–year–old twin grandchildren and their parents.

“My cousin’s generous donation, along with the skills and continuing support of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center’s Transplant Institute, has truly enabled me to continue contributing to my family and society—and of course, to indulge my lifelong love of trains,” says Schwartz.

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