Sean Eshaghoff, a 49-year-old Great Neck resident, recalled watching his kidneys fail.
He and his doctor steadily saw their productivity drop from 60 percent to 30 percent and eventually to 5 about a year ago — which threatened his body and heart, as potassium, excessive water and toxins built up in his system.
“Unfortunately when kidneys don’t work, your body carries around so much toxins,” Eshaghoff said in an interview, noting he carried around 20 to 25 pounds of water. “I had thrown up because my body was retaining all the water I drank — and I drank very little of it.”
Today, after six months of emergency procedures and dialysis, Eshaghoff has been going into a dialysis center three times a week for hours at a time. It is there that he is hooked to a machine that does what his kidneys should do but no longer can: pump out water and toxins.
“Right now because of the kidney issues, it’s almost like a part-time job going to dialysis, so I cut back a little bit on my work,” Eshaghoff, a product coordinator at the rug manufacturing company Nourison, said in the interview. “And it’s really hard to move on with your life.”
Eshaghoff, who is seeking a kidney donor with an O negative blood type, also helped spark a Monday panel facilitated by Sephardic Heritage Alliance Inc., Temple Israel and other groups on the topic of organ donation at Temple Israel in Great Neck.
“It was my idea of getting the word out not just for me, but for the tens of thousands of people waiting for a kidney, and especially in the Jewish community [where] there are some taboos about it,” Eshaghoff said.
The panel featured Dr. Aaron Winnick, a kidney and liver transplant surgeon at Northwell Health, who spoke about how the practice of medicine has improved to boost life expectancy for donors and recipients, but also how the need for kidneys vastly outpaces supply.
Statistics from the Division of Transplantation, an agency in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, show that more than 114,000 people nationwide need a lifesaving organ transplant. For comparison: there have been only 7,104 donors this year so far as of May, according to the Organ Procurement and Transportation Network.
The panel also featured Temple Israel Rabbi Howard Stecker, who argued that becoming an organ donor is an “obligation” that should take precedence, especially since Jews have historically seen it as “an imperative to go out of our way to help someone when it comes to a life-threatening circumstance.”
“So is it permissible? There is wide recognition that in fact it is, that it overrides concern with the body once the person has passed on,” Stecker said. “Is it required? Actually, a growing number of rabbinic authorities are saying that it should be considered not just mutar – not just permitted – but also mitzvah, also one of the highest commandments a person can perform.”
There were two organ donors in attendance: Rabbi Steven Moskowitz, who answered a newspaper ad to help a woman he didn’t know, and Rebecca Klar, a Blank Slate Media reporter who wrote about what went into giving her father a kidney.
“After seeing what my dad went through, and waiting, just seeing the toll that being on dialysis takes on someone, nobody should have to go through that,” Klar said in an interview. “And I think if people are out there that can step forward as a donor, I think it’s a really great thing to do because you’re changing somebody’s life and it’s really not impacting your life at all.”
Eshaghoff said that for him, family hasn’t been an option. He is single and has no children. His father is 87 years old. His two brothers, like him, are diabetic. And while he has “a lot of cousins,” none of them have come forward, and they aren’t even guaranteed matches.
He is on the waiting lists in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York and has been going through “an evaluation process” in Miami and Atlanta, Eshaghoff said.
“There are people that die waiting for a kidney,” Eshaghoff said. “Luckily with dialysis I am able to maintain decent health, but there are people who can’t wait and their health deteriorates really fast and they end up dying waiting for it.”
Rebecca Sassouni, the president of SHAI, recalled when Eshaghoff, a board member, approached her about the idea of hosting a forum that could be a “controversial subject” for some people.
SHAI’s board ultimately decided to host the panel and promote it with the Great Neck Chinese Association, Great Neck-based Sephardic American Medical Society and other groups because organ donation was something important to educate the community about, she said.
“As Rabbis Stecker and Moskowitz, and Dr. Winnick framed it, perhaps we are reaching a time in medical ethics when organ donation will be more common, and may even be considered a mitzvah, an obligation,” Sassouni, herself registered as a posthumous organ donor, said. “In the meantime, if SHAI can educate more people, and more become living and posthumous donors, we will have served our purpose.”
Lesther Sierra, a 40-year-old maintenance supervisor at Temple Israel, is another of the more than 114,000 people waiting for a transplant. Sierra said has had to be on dialysis for over two years — including during the Monday night panel — and has been on a waiting list for a kidney from an O negative donor for six months.
Sierra said he had his first kidney failure more than a decade ago and waited two and a half years before his younger sister turned out to be a match. Her kidney went on to last 10 years, he said.
“It was a happy time and it worked,” Sierra said.
Now, he said, family members who have come forward have been taken off the potential donor list due to high blood pressure.
Sierra, however, described himself as “more optimistic” this time because he knows what to expect, dialysis is helpful, and the creation of bionic kidneys may someday eliminate the need to wait for donors.
“When the time comes, it comes,” Sierra said of a donor match.
Ultimately, both Sierra and Eshaghoff expressed hope and encouraged anyone thinking of donating a kidney to go for it.
“If somebody’s waiting for a transplant and they want to, definitely, go for it,” Sierra said, adding that the prospective donor needs to be careful with medications during the process.
“We all have two [kidneys], we usually only need one,” Eshaghoff said. “And so it would just be a great gift that they would give to anybody.”