This is the story of my friend Valerie, whom I first met just last year. Valerie sent me an e-mail introducing herself as Shira, a Jew-by-Choice who worked as a flight attendant. She wondered if I was the same Rabbi Mark her fiancé Glenn knew from his synagogue's high school youth group. Glenn and I had lost touch with one another when his family moved to California. Was I the same individual, Val asked, and, if so, would I officiate at their wedding?
Thanks to Valerie, two best friends were reunited after more than three decades apart. More importantly, Glenn and Val had found each other. Their love was intoxicating, with family and friends commenting how happy each was to have found his/her soul mate.
On a sunny October afternoon, I performed the ceremony as Glenn and Valerie married in a traditional Jewish wedding on a yacht in Marina del Rey. We joined with their children, parents, relatives and friends for a joyous ceremony on the deck replete with a wind-blown chuppah. Val's artistic touches were evident in the wedding program she designed, the ketubah she selected and the extra touches that made the day special. Adding to the festivities were other yachts in the harbor whose captains blew their horns in celebration with shouts of mazal tov from their own passengers.
Two months after that glorious day, Glenn called to tell me that his beloved Valerie had suffered a brain aneurism and was in critical condition in an area hospital. I rushed to the ICU unit, only to find our beautiful, 47-year-old Valerie near death. I sat with Glenn, Val's daughters, and other family members as a neurologist informed them that Valerie was brain dead and being kept "alive" by machines.
Amid the overwhelming shock and grief, the medical staff gently raised a sensitive but timely subject: Would the family consider donating Valerie's organs to others? Their initial reply was no, since Valerie had thought that Jewish law prohibited organ donation. They too believed that donating organs was a sin. Fighting back tears, I counseled family members that organ donation is not contrary to Jewish law. In fact, rabbinical authorities from all Jewish movements agree that organ donation is a tremendous mitzvah and the highest form of pikuah nefesh (saving life).
An emotional discussion followed. What would Valerie want her loved ones to do had she known that organ donation is permissible according to Jewish law?
In the end, Valerie's family consented to donating her organs. I sat with my friend Glenn as a nurse from OneLegacy (the Southern California transplant donor network) completed the paperwork to initiate this awesome mitzvah. I witnessed the OneLegacy team spend day and night painstakingly matching Valerie's organs with compatible donors, as her family and I made plans for her funeral.
On a sunny December afternoon, we laid Valerie to rest in a local cemetery. We remembered her as a fun-loving, vivacious young woman. Val made friends easily and instantly, from passengers on her flights, to total strangers in stores and restaurants. She lived each moment to the fullest, and radiated warmth and joy to those around her.
In life, Valerie gave 100 percent to whomever she was with and whatever she was doing. In death, Valerie gave the ultimate gift. One of her kidneys is now in the body of a 76-year-old man who had been on dialysis for six years. He is married and the father of three children. His kidney function is now good and he is off of dialysis.
Valerie's other kidney went to a 50-year-old man. He is single, active and used to ride his bicycle 40 to 50 miles a week. Prior to the transplant, he had been on dialysis. Valerie's kidney was a "zero mismatch," meaning that it was a perfect match for this recipient. He told the transplant team that he knows he "won the lotto" by receiving such a perfectly matched kidney. He is doing well and his prognosis is quite good.
These are just two of the fortunate recipients of Valerie's donated organs. The quality of their lives has improved dramatically since their transplants. In some cases, they are alive because of their transplants.
I will never understand why my friend Valerie was taken from us in the very prime of her life. When I sit and cry with her family, I cannot know their pain and anguish nor can I comprehend their tragic loss. I do know that they find a small measure of comfort in the knowledge that Valerie gave the gift of life to others. Amid the darkness, they have found a ray of light and hope for the future.
Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is the executive vice president of The Board of Rabbis of Southern California.