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Carrollton Woman Receives Kidney Donation; Son Of Donor Tells Story

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My father donated a kidney last week. 

There was no one in our family in need of a transplant, and he knew of no one who could use his spare, so he decided to become what's known as an altruistic living kidney donor. His kidney would go to a stranger, someone he could meet only if the recipient agreed to meet with him, and the rules being the way they are, he would have no control over who would receive his life-saving gift. 

That being said, even had he been able to, my father had no interest in earmarking his kidney to a person fitting any particular set of specifications (age, ethnicity, religion, favorite baseball team, etc.). His sole motivation: get the kidney to a human being who needed it. The lucky recipient was a 70-year-old African-American mother of three from Carrollton, Ga., named Glorious. She had been on dialysis for five years; she is doing great now and is fully off of dialysis. 

Glorious' daughter, Latausha, who wanted to give her mother a kidney but wasn't a match, signed up to become a living donor, thereby pushing her mother up the waiting list and increasing her odds of receiving her life-saving transplant. On the same day and in the same Atlanta-area hospital, two kidneys were removed, one from my father and one from Latausha, and they were transplanted into two individuals whom the two donors had never met.

My father got to meet Glorious and Latausha the day after the surgeries, and together with my mother and sister proceeded to have the mother of all cry fests. It was a moment to remember for a lifetime. Through her tears my mother explained to Glorious and Latausha that we were Jewish and that as Jews we saw this deed as a mitzvah, an obligation to help our fellow man. 

It may seem to an outsider that this moment was short in coming, but the tears in my parents' eyes were two years in the making.  My father started by researching the possibility of becoming a kidney donor. He subjected himself to the many tests one was required to pass. He failed the final one; he had high blood pressure and was told he would not be a candidate. My father argued that he had never had a high blood pressure reading in his life and asked if he could be retested. This time he passed.

This feel-good story is certainly worthy of public dissemination on its own merits, yet I would be remiss if I did not share what is perhaps a more profound lesson for us all that lies not so much in the public details of this story but rather in the private and perhaps difficult decision to even donate one's kidney. After the operation was finished, and the nerves that pulse through the heart of a child whose father is on the operating table had subsided, I tried to pinpoint the roots of my dad's decision to make the sacrifice. Why had he done what too few people had done? What gave him the courage, the vision, the desire?

It would be easy to turn to the life and pattern of giving that has been the hallmark of my parents' lives as the explanation for his desire to give the ultimate gift, and, although certainly true and central to his decision, I knew that there was something else inside of him, some missing link that was helping inform his decision.

A day before the operation, I received an email from my father with a link to a story in Vanity Fair about a pair of Israeli psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, who are pioneers in the burgeoning field of behavioral economics.  Next to the article's link were a few words from my dad.  "If you took the time to read my behavioral economic analysis of Trump's election, then perhaps you'll have the patience to read a fascinating piece (fascinating for me, at least) about my heroes, without whom I probably wouldn't be donating my kidney next week." In the excitement and anxiety of this time in our family's lives, I hadn't been fully cognizant of the import in my father's message. Something in this article unlocked the key to his decision to donate. But what?
More than anything else, the study of behavioral economics attempts to understand the determining factors in the human decision-making process. How much weight does logic have in our decision-making. Do we rely upon probability or statistics to help us resolve our queries? What role does heuretics play, the reliance upon our gut, rules of thumb or other classic decision-making tools in the final analysis? And what about the role of our subconscious biases? Kahneman had an early formed proposition that would be vindicated time and again through the course of his many years of study: People don't depend upon hard data such as probability and statistics to form a final decision. As Kahneman stated later, "No one ever made a decision because of a number — they need a story."  This, and the compound effect that "gut feelings have a mysterious power to steer us wrong," led Kahneman and Tversky on a crusade to implore the world and its decision-making leaders to reconsider the way they solved problems.   The psychologists also noticed a fascinating phenomenon in the human psyche. Human beings have a much more acute response to the possibility of impending loss than we do with the possibility of a consummate gain. In other words, we are programmed to run from danger more than we are programmed to run towards opportunity. This mental default position may help us escape from impending threats, but it also compromises our decision-making. In the world of finance our fear of loss leads us to sell our shares when stock prices fall dramatically even as we know that a statistical study of the markets over the last century would lead the discerning investor to buy at this time instead. Our collective aversion to loss leads us to take risks when we shouldn't and stand still when strict logic and analysis advise us to move.

The decision-making process as it relates to kidney donation starts the way any such process might begin, weighing the pros and cons, the potential gains versus the potential losses. 

The thing is, a sensitivity to the findings of Kahneman and Tversky in "decision analysis," as they called it, would naturally inform us that most of us, when made aware of the possibility of becoming a kidney donor, would run away from the procedure for fear of what we would perceive as severe impending loss — the loss of the kidney itself, the concern over future health problems that the loss of a kidney could cause, real or imagined, the possibility of one's own future renal failure and the danger of suffering that fate with only one kidney, for example. Unlike what we know about the real risks of kidney donation, there is no end to the scope and limitations of the human imagination.

This is not to say that the decision to give a kidney is without any serious cause for concern. Every surgery has its dangers, as does the loss of an organ. The point is that as a student of behavioral economics, my father understood that we tend to overestimate loss and underestimate potential. He was able to push aside his natural fear of loss and focus instead on the facts, statistics and advice of medical professionals. Were the dangers great enough to impede my father's desire to save another's life? In his final analysis, they were not.

After years of prodding people in high places to reconsider the way they make decisions, Kahneman and Tversky grew pessimistic about the impact they had in decision analysis: "We have attempted to teach people to be aware of the pitfalls and fallacies of their own reasoning. We have attempted to teach people at various levels in government, army, etc., but achieved only limited success."  The way Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball and of an upcoming book on the academic duo, describes their feelings about their lifelong work is that "they'd found decision analysis promising but ultimately futile." Perhaps if Kahneman has the opportunity to meet my father — Tversky died in 1996 — he would think differently about the impact their work had.  
It's hard to know whether we have made all the right decisions in our lives, but my dad is convinced that he got this one right.  He put it to me this way: "Imagine you were given $1 million that could either be thrown into the grave along with you or could be given to your favorite charity during your lifetime. Which would you choose?" To my father, it's as simple as that. God gave us a gift at birth — one kidney for ourselves and another to share with someone in need.

Last week my father gave one of his kidneys to a woman who is no longer a stranger, and we are all the more proud of him for it.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the director of outreach at DATA of Plano, a center for Jewish education and worship. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News. Email: yrobkin@gmail.com
 
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