Living organ donation – the generosity of strangers

A believer in second chances gives a total stranger a new beginning

Last year in Canada, nearly 500 people became living kidney donors to others in need. Some gave to family or friends – but others, including Mike Zavitz, gave to total strangers.

Because of him, a young man who needed a kidney is getting back to a healthy life. But the other marvel of this story is how Mike himself decided to become a donor, and how his turbulent life led to an act of extreme generosity.

Mike spent his earliest days alone in the hospital suffering from respiratory illness. He believes he was the 12th child in his family and he wasn’t expected to survive. At one month, his family took him out of the hospital for a get-together. There was a car accident. One of his brothers was killed and Mike was returned to the hospital; his family never came back for him.

Until he was three-and-a-half, Mike was bounced between hospitals. He wound up at Scarborough General, where a nurse and her boyfriend took a liking to him. They visited him in the hospital, played with him and took him to the park. Eventually the couple starting taking Mike home overnight, then for weekend stays, until they adopted him at age four. “Without them, I definitely would’ve spent my life in a foster home,” he says.

In his new home Mike’s health improved. His parents had three children after adopting him – two girls and a boy. The little boy who was left behind by his birth family grew up with his new family to become a marathon runner, a mountain climber and even studied to become a pilot.

But then Mike himself experienced a car crash that left him with a broken neck and back, temporarily paralyzing him and ending his dreams of working as a pilot. Another time he wound up treading water in the middle of Lake Ontario, awaiting rescue after a boating accident.  Throw in a few mishaps on mountains in the Rockies and Mexico and Mike had truly learned how precious life is. His father told him, “God’s saving you for something.” But at the time, Mike didn’t know what.

Fast forward to adult Mike, who has a family of his own – a wife, son and daughter. He owns a successful lawn sprinkler company in Pickering, regularly gets speeding tickets and still enjoys being in the outdoors.

When his wife told him that Steven Clark, her cousin’s husband, needed a kidney transplant, Mike decided it was time to give back. Even though he didn’t know Steven, he went through rounds of tests, spoke with his wife and two children about the benefits and risks of donating, and decided to go ahead with it.

But during his research he learned about paired exchanges and how he could help more than one person with a single donation. He got in touch with the transplant team at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton and says he got a call back later the same day. There was a young man waiting for a kidney who couldn’t take a non-matching donation. The young man’s father was prepared to donate a kidney to him, but it wasn’t a match – Mike’s was. “My kidney wasn’t a perfect match for Steven,” Mike says, “but it was an exact match to Jesse.” And with Jesse’s dad’s kidney being compatible with Steven, the paired exchange was planned.

On February 2, 2011, the four men went into surgery at St. Joseph’s. Mike’s kidney went to Jesse, and Jesse’s dad’s kidney went to Steven. Though they were in the same hospital, on the same day, the pairs never met. It would be almost a year before they learned the others’ identities.

Mike says he and Jesse connected online after a newspaper article was published about the exchange in December 2011. In Mike’s first email to Jesse he light-heartedly told him, “I want my kidney back.” Since then, the two have been exchanging emails and hope to meet up some time this summer.

When asked what led him to donate to a complete stranger, Mike says, “You don’t get too many chances to save lives. I didn’t have any family and some strangers came along to help me. Sometimes you have to depend on strangers.”



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