It is harder to receive than to give.
Sandra Kisselback is someone who does both with grace. We’ve known of her for years because of notices she’s placed in our paper, raising funds for the National Kidney Foundation.
And we knew her father, Rudy Stempel, a legend in the Hilltowns who died last year at 82. We’d talked to him the year before about his sawmill, how he couldn’t afford to fix a broken motor and so pressed a century-old mill into service.
He wasn’t one to complain or feel sorry for himself. “This one works better and costs less,” he said. He made do with what he had. He found a way.
Stempel was raised in the Helderberg Hilltowns, where he and his wife would raise their own six children a generation later. He hadn’t liked the drudgery of his family’s dairy farm and left at age 21 to join the Army. That was in the midst of the Korean War, and he was sent to the front lines.
There, he ran a bulldozer, building roads and digging holes for the tanks. He liked the intensity of the work.
“You didn’t have things to worry about,” he said. “Your only goal was just keeping yourself alive. You had your meals and a place to sleep. You took care of yourself and made sure not to get hit. You lived or died. That was it.”
If you discard the dross, that pretty well sums up any life.
We thought about Rudy Stempel this week because our Hilltown reporter, Marcello Iaia, wrote a profile of his daughter. She works now, with others in her family, keeping her father’s mill running despite the tough times.
She has his tenacity, his indomitable spirit. It’s been tested over the years by her kidney disease. Diagnosed in her thirties, Kisselback is now 55. She recalled when her brother, Brian, concerned about her deteriorating health, offered her one of his kidneys. “I actually kind of refused him at first, but he was serious,” she said.
She enjoyed being active again; the transplanted kidney lasted until 2006. She’s back on dialysis now for hours each day — grateful she can do it at home — and is waiting for another kidney.
A man newly diagnosed with kidney disease dropped by the sawmill while our reporter was interviewing Kisselback. She gave him the comfort of straightforward advice. He said later she gave him hope.
Her example inspires us. Her disease and the medical team that treats it has left her grateful, not bitter or resentful.
The shame of it is that advances in medical technology would allow tens of thousands of people to live full lives, or to survive at all, if we, as a society, could be more generous as we think of dying. It takes some forethought, but the act is simple, as simple as filling out an online form, consenting to organ and tissue donation.
In the United States, over 100,000 people are on a waiting list, in need of an organ. Since there are only 30,000 transplants each year, over 6,000 people died for want of a donated organ — an average of 19 people a day.
Americans are not selfish people. Our lack of generosity stems rather from the systems — a state-by-state patchwork — we have for signing on donors.
Practices vary from country to country. Opt-out systems, in which anyone who has not refused is a donor, result in far more donations than opt-in systems. For example, while Germany and Austria are similar countries culturally and economically, Germany, which uses an opt-in system, has an organ-donation consent rate of 12 percent while Austria, with an opt-out system, has a consent rate of 99.98 percent.
New York State has taken a first, small step with a bill signed into law last year that takes effect this year. Lauren’s Law, as it is called, adds language to application forms for drivers’ licenses that says, “You must fill out the following section: Would you like to be added to the Donate Life Registry?”
The applicant can then check “yes” or skip to the next question.
The law is named for Lauren Shields, from Stony Point, whose enlarged heart could no longer sustain her. At 11, she was placed in a medically induced coma as she waited for a new heart. Her six-week wait ended on March 19, 2009 with a donated heart and renewed life. The road to recovery was difficult as she suffered a stroke, underwent kidney dialysis and physical therapy, and used a wheelchair.
“Now she is back to being healthy and active,” writes Mary-Ellen Rozak for the New York Organ Donor Network, “and she is an outspoken advocate for organ donation.”
The statistics for New York State are grim. Of the 113,000 people on national waiting lists for organ transplants, 9,700 of them are New Yorkers. Yet New York ranks near the bottom of eligible people enrolled in the organ donor program. Just 20 percent of adult New Yorkers, aged 18 and over, have enrolled in the New York State Donate Life Registry as organ, tissue, and eye donors. Nationwide, the average is 45 percent.
While the new law could help, there is no need to postpone an act of vital generosity. New Yorkers don’t need to apply for a driver’s license to sign up. You can go right to the New York State Health Department’s website — http://www.health.ny.gov/donate life — and sign up now.
The Donate Life Registry, created in 2006, means families no longer have to give consent to have a deceased member’s organs donated. You can decide for yourself and give legal consent now. It takes but a few minutes.
Our hearts, our kidneys, our lungs, our eyes, or our tissue are of no use to us once we are dead. Yet, one person’s donation could improve 50 people’s lives.
Think of other children like Lauren Shields who are now lying in a coma, dying, for want of a heart. Or think of how the everyday life of someone like Sandra Kisselback could be improved with a transplanted kidney. In the midst of her trials, she has found ways to help and give hope to others.
Her father said of life in a war zone: “Your only goal was just keeping yourself alive…You took care of yourself and made sure not to get hit. You lived or died. That was it.”
Sometimes, if we’re not in a war zone or fighting to stay alive, we get to help others. Let’s do it now, before it’s too late.