The fragility and unpredictability of life

The fragility and unpredictability of life August 12, 2005

An incredible turn of events recently befell a dear friend of mine that is an eerie mix of tragedy and triumph.

Rafi, a family friend for many years (like my father, he’s an American who converted to Islam in the 1950s, and they’ve known each other since) was at the hospital for an urgent kidney transplant operation, when Marian–his younger and to all appearances healthy wife–collapsed before his eyes, felled by a brain hemorrhage.  This was only a short time before his operation was to begin and he passed on the kidney, feeling unable to go through with the operation while his wife was in critical condition.   She passed away, God rest her soul, soon afterwards.

This numbing tragedy was soon to take a strangely beautiful turn, though.  As Rafi grieved for his beloved Marian, doctors informed him that her kidneys were a match for him.  Having passed up on the original kidney and knowing she’d want him to have hers, he agreed to the operation with a heavy heart.

The transplant was a success, alhamdulillah, Rafi has been released, and appears to be recovering steadily (insha’Allah).

We think we’re in control in our lives and that we know what’s going on.  Then something like this happens and we’re reminded of the ultimate reality in life.   It reminds me how fragile, precious and ultimately beyond our control life really is.

The Baltimore Sun has run an article on this incredible story, which could’ve come from an Indian movie.

Update (2006-03-06):  I’m very sad to report that Rafi passed away as well last week after the failure of his liver.   I attended his janazah two days ago.  I will be blogging on this shortly, insha’Allah.

Since the link to the Baltimore Sun is no longer working, I am going to paste in the whole article here.

In death, a wife’s gift of life

By Greg Barrett
Baltimore Sun
August 8, 2005

Marian and Rafi Sharif entered the hospital, expecting him to receive a methadone user’s kidney. But a brain hemorrhage killed Marian – and made her the source of Rafi’s new organ.

Marian Sharif tried several times to give away one of her kidneys. Take it, she pleaded with her husband, Rafi – it could save your life.

No, he’d answer. It’s too risky. If their 11-year-old daughter, Anya, could not have two healthy parents, she needed at least one. After being diagnosed with hepatitis C several years ago, Rafi, 65, had received two liver transplants, and now his
kidneys were failing him, too. So when the University of Maryland Medical Center found a less-than-ideal match for him June 30, the Baltimore couple accepted it as the best option. It didn’t matter that the deceased donor had been amethadone user. Without the kidney, Rafi might live to see Anya enter high school; he was unlikely to see her graduate.

But the fates of Rafi and Marian, two devoutly spiritual people from similar Lithuanian heritages, flipped as they waited in the prep area of the transplant unit. Marian suffered a massive brain hemorrhage and Rafi would eventually leave the
hospital with her ashes in an urn and her healthy kidney sewn delicately into his body.

"If somebody would tell you a story like this, you would not believe it," said Dr. Luis Campos, the University of Maryland transplant surgeon who had the idea to salvage new hope from the family’s loss. "It is incredibly tragic. But in a sense, Mr. Sharif
was able to make something good out of it." Marian Yasenchak Sharif’s eight-paragraph obituary in her hometown Wilkes-Barre, Pa., newspaper doesn’t fully capture her life – and, certainly, not her extraordinary death. She was a
50-year-old doting mother of one, an avid gardener, a licensed practical nurse, an acupuncturist, a Windsor Hills neighborhood leader, a class mother at Owings Mills’ Garrison Forest School, a passionate lover of dance and theater, and a student of Sufism and yoga.

"She had a deep spiritual sense that guided her life," Rafi Sharif said yesterday at his Windsor Hills home, speaking softly, appearing weak and occasionally emotional. "My spirit is not as pristine as hers."

Lying near Sharif’s feet yesterday was a black Labrador-border collie mix rescued by Marian several years ago. When Marian found her outside a Baltimore strip mall, the dog had just given birth and appeared weak and sickly. She used all of her
training – even acupuncture – to nurse the dog back to health, Sharif said.

She had done the same for her husband when his body rejected a liver transplant in 2003. A second transplant was successful, but then the kidneys began to fail. Without a new kidney, Sharif, a former Boy Scouts of America Executive, had only
three to four years to live, doctors said. The waiting list for patients needing a healthy kidney is five to seven years. With Sharif’s complicated medical history, "some kind of renal function is better than none," Campos said. Sharif’s blood was being filtered regularly with dialysis. His lean frame had withered after the liver transplant, from 160 pounds to 120, then climbed back to 138.

Sharif fit the criteria necessary for patients to receive, in effect, transition kidneys, Campos said. These are inferior kidneys that can last about six years – or long enough for someone to endure the waiting list and receive another, healthier kidney.

It was under those conditions that the University of Maryland Medical Center phoned on June 30 with news of a donor. But as Marian shared the excitement with her best friend, Cindy Spitzer of Randallstown, she sounded concerned. Spitzer
believes that traumatic experiences with the liver transplants and subsequent rejection had made her friend anxious about this next transplant.

No one knew Marian was ill, though. Her blood pressure was slightly elevated, and for two days she had quietly suffered headaches. Her friends thought it was just the tension – Marian’s intense desire to take care of her family and get Rafi well.

"She loved with absolute passion," said Marian’s older sister, Ann Marie Bonislawski, speaking yesterday from her home near Atlanta. "Everything she did she would do with boundless passion. And she was very passionate about her daughter…and about her husband’s health."

At the University of Maryland Medical Center, Marian laid her head on Rafi’s lap as they waited for blood tests and X-rays and all the particulars that accompany major surgery. Rafi stroked her blond hair, hoping to quell the pounding headache, and she took a short nap.

When Marian awoke, she sat up and a stroke hit her with such impact that, as Sharif began to describe it yesterday, he wiped his eyes and fell silent, unable to share the details. More than two dozen doctors and nurses rushed into the room, but
Sharif believes his wife died immediately. Sharif canceled his transplant and, by the next day, doctors had declared his wife brain-dead.

Campos told Sharif about the "direct donor" program that allows family members to bequeath the remains of their loved ones to specific friends or relatives who need transplants. Marian was an organ donor, and her blood type was O-positive, a match for Rafi.

As the next of kin, Sharif signed the necessary papers. "I guess this way I will at least have a living part of her inside of me," he told Campos sadly. "I was quite moved," Campos said. "I am not sure this has ever happened. I have never heard of it."

Before accepting his wife’s kidney, Sharif called a meeting at the hospital with more than a dozen friends and family. He needed to change the executor of his will and designate temporary guardianship for Anya – or permanent guardianship
in case he didn’t survive.

Anya arrived at the hospital July 1, the day her mother was declared dead. She ran screaming into the hallways. She called for her mother’s best friend, Spitzer, who is close to her and has an 11-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter. Spitzer, it was decided, would be her temporary guardian.

Yesterday, Anya was with Spitzer’s family at the beach in Chincoteague, VA. The thing she remembers most about her mom, she volunteered in a phone conversation, is her smile. "It was big," she said. "She showed all of her teeth."

Bonislawski said her family members were discussing her sister recently and decided that what they missed most was her infectious laugh.

"It was like the tingle of lots of crystal glasses," she said. "When she was happy, she was ecstatic."

She once proposed giving every member of the Windsor Hills Association sunflower seeds to plant in their yards, as a sign of community and a nod to nature. For her July 15, 1991, wedding to Sharif at Baltimore’s Leakin Park, she sewed her own wedding gown, baked the cake and cooked food for 100.

Sharif had met his wife at a community dance in Baltimore. She was wearing red socks and swaying alone to Indian music in a hypnotic, meditative rhythm. He, too, was wearing red socks.

Were they the only ones in red?

"I don’t know," he said yesterday. "I didn’t look at anyone else."

Within 26 hours after her stroke, Sharif had one of his wife’s kidneys. Today, he’s weak, but the kidney is working wonderfully.

"The doctors said it was plump and rosy," Sharif said. "They said all kinds of good stuff about it. It was just like her."

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