Six little words: "I'll give you one of mine."
This exchange forever changed the lives of two people — one a rabbi, another a minister.
Rabbi Andrew Bossov, 47, of Temple Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel, N.J., and Rev. Karen Onesti, 49, pastor of the Masonville-Rancocas United Methodist Church, were total strangers until four years ago, when both took over pulpits in the South Jersey area. They became bound for life when Onesti donated a kidney to Bossov last week in successful transplant surgery.
"I was — and am — totally overwhelmed," said the rabbi several days before the successful surgery conducted by a team of physicians on Tuesday, Jan. 24, at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "How can you not be when somebody offers to give you a part of themselves — literally?"
That offer was delivered when Onesti noticed at a winter meeting of the Interfaith Council of Greater Mount Laurel back in 2005 that a great deal of attention was being paid to the rabbi.
"I realized that too many people were asking Andy. 'How are you?' in a serious way, and figured this wasn't quite right," said the minister. "When I asked him about it, he told me of his situation."
That "situation" involved dramatically declining kidney function, due to the side effects of an experimental drug Bossov had taken years before to treat colitis. In February 2006, when his kidney function fell below 20 percent, he reached a critical point that made the need for a transplant very real. He was placed on the organ-transplant list immediately.
"I never would have dreamt of asking Karen for such a gift," said Bossov. "I immediately told her, as we stood talking after that interfaith clergy meeting, that she simply didn't understand what she was saying."
But Onesti actually did.
"I truly knew exactly what I meant, and what I wanted to do," she said in an interview just prior to last week's surgery. "I told Andy that I came from a line of people who lived into their 90s, and had good kidneys. I told him that I have a healthy kidney to give, but that if he needed to pray about anything, it would be that my husband, Frank, would agree."
Onesti recalls telling her husband in a hurried cell-phone call to reserve time for an important conversation that evening. "We're both so busy that sometimes we have to schedule like that."
A Compatible Match
But Frank Onesti was troubled enough by that request that he insisted upon knowing what the conversation was about. When his wife told him, his first legitimate questions were, "Is he on dialysis? Is he in the hospital? And why are you doing this?"
His wife attempted to explain her deep feeling that she truly wanted to help this colleague — the sooner the better — so that he wouldn't have to face extended dialysis and critical illness.
By the time the couple sat down to talk that night, Frank Onesti had already armed himself with all the information he could gather about kidney transplants, particularly from the point of view of the donor. He wanted his wife to have all the facts. He didn't mince words — or details — making sure she knew just what was ahead.
"And then he said to me, 'I'm really proud of you for offering. And if my family had better kidneys, I'd offer him one of mine.' "
"And he meant it," said Karen Onesti.
Once that potential hurdle was cleared, and Frank Onesti, a computer trouble-shooter for the banking industry, gave his wife his blessing, the next hurdle was the big one: a compatible match. There hadn't been any with the rabbi's family.
But the pastor, this casual friend and colleague, was a perfect transplant match for the rabbi.
If only life were that simple.
Bossov's kidneys did continue to fail, and by last July, he was on dialysis three days a week, four hours a day. There were some serious complications last August that required the rabbi to be hospitalized. Meanwhile, he did his best to maintain his synagogue schedule.
Onesti underwent an unexpected hysterectomy last summer, and initially worried that it would end her chance to be a donor. But it did not.
And on Dec. 14, 2006 — the day before the start of Chanukah — the rabbi and the minister, each the parents of two children, learned that it was clear sailing for the Jan. 23 surgery. They regarded it as a gift.
"Everybody has something to contend with, and this is mine," said the rabbi as he considered his plight during one of his last dialysis sessions in Cherry Hill two weeks ago. "But not everybody has someone like Karen step into their lives."
"God puts you where you need to be," the minister said simply, in reflecting on her decision. "Jews and Christian don't believe in fate, but we do believe that God is in control."
On the weekend before the surgery, both congregations in South Jersey held special services, and the rabbi and the minister each attended their own and the other's. It was ecumenical cooperation in the truest sense. The minister's theme was about a "covenant" to keep, and the rabbi injected some humor about the jammed synagogue: "Is this what I have to do to get the place packed on a regular Friday night?" he quipped.
Both Bossov and Onesti plan to use the attention focused on them by the regional and national press to promote better awareness of organ donation. "We were given an unusual platform, and we hope to use it well," they said.
Last week's surgery, which lasted more than five hours, was led by Dr. Ali Naji, the surgical director of the kidney-transplant program at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Both sets of families, including Bossov's wife, Nancy, who serves as overseer of early-childhood education for the Reform movement nationally, and Onesti's husband Frank, were anxiously waiting at the hospital, while members of both congregations set up networks to receive the news.
Following the surgery, Naji predicted excellent outcomes for both patients, who will require several months of recuperation, during which they can hopefully resume limited professional responsibilities.
For the Mount Laurel rabbi, "gratitude" is not nearly a strong enough word to express what he feels for his kidney donor. And there is also, he said recently, a stronger appreciation of what it means to be tested.
"On a certain level, I was facing survival issues and tremendous adjustments. And then I thought about Holocaust survivors and what they faced. I thought of the questions we all asked in amazement about how they ever lived through what they did," said the rabbi. "Now, I think I better understand what it means to find strength and fortitude … and hope."
For more information about organ donation in the Delaware Valley, call the Gift of Life Donor Program at 1-800-DONORS, or log on to: www. donors1.org.