I’ve never seen a crowd so electrified.
It happened at a lively meet-the-authors brunch at American Jewish University in Los Angeles the other day. The speaker was talking about her new money-saving book, Bargain Junkie, and instructed the audience of about 80 women, “I want you to share with me your own greatest bargain stories. The best one I ever heard was about a woman who got a free kidney on Craigslist. It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been assured it’s true.”
There was some disbelieving laughter, and some odd murmuring: “She’s here!” And “Marcia!” At a table in the corner, a woman with feathered silver hair raised her hand and said, not very loudly, with dignified good humor, “That’s me!”
Invited to the podium, she told her story briefly and clearly. In 2009, she had been on dialysis for two years, and on the long waiting list for a kidney transplant for four years. One day, a friend called and said that a poster on Craigslist was offering to donate a kidney to anyone in need. She got in touch with him, and a few months later, the operation took place at UCLA. The donor was a man who wanted to make amends for some bad choices in his life. The kidney worked perfectly right from the start, and she became the grateful recipient of a new life.
I was sitting in the audience — I had been flown out for the L.A. brunch to talk about a book I co-authored — and I could feel the goosebumps rising on my arms. What were the odds? As soon as brunch ended, I accosted the silver-haired woman and begged her to repeat her story to my little Flip camera. Her name is Marcia Gould, and she has the reassuringly calm manner of the high school guidance counselor she once was. Here is her tale in just 95 seconds, but keep reading afterward for the inspiring fuller version:
This story is worth much more than a little YouTube clip. Marcia’s daughter-in-law, filmmaker Jennifer Barbaro, has followed and filmed her transplant journey, and is now finishing a documentary titled “The Perfect Match.” The film’s Website is here, and the trailer, including extensive footage of the donor, is below. The voiceover includes this concise line: “Two failing systems — two perfect strangers.”
Now to begin a bit closer to the beginning:
Marcia lives in the San Fernando Valley, and is 73. She taught high school business classes, then was a guidance counselor for 14 years. In the late 1990s, she started to gain weight mysteriously, and then suddenly found her ankles swollen to the size of her calves. When her doctor put her on a diuretic, she said, she instantly lost 32 pounds — some five gallons of fluid. For years, as her kidneys slowly failed, she remained working and generally active, but finally retired in 2001.
She joined the long waiting list for a kidney in 2005. She was initially told the wait would be one to three years; later, that went up to three to five years; then to five to seven years. (According to current estimates, some 80,000 Americans are waiting for kidneys, and 15,000 of them die a year. Debate continues over how kidneys should be allocated.) Marcia called around the country seeking help, to no avail. By 2007, when she was finally put on dialysis, her kidneys were down to just 2% of their normal function.
Three time a week, for more than three hours at a time, Marcia went in for dialysis, a process that pumps out a patient’s blood to do the kidneys’ filtering work for them. The outlook was not good. Though obviously a highly rational type, she grew desperate enough to take a friend’s advice and write her wish — “I’d like to find a kidney in the next few months” — on a slip of paper, place it under a green candle and light the candle under a new moon.
Then on July 13, 2009, at about 10 a.m., Marcia’s old friend Jack Leibel happened to be poking around on the “free stuff” section of Cragislist — as many of us do — and came across this:
The listing that Jack Leibel came upon in 2009
Jack called Marcia right away, but she was in dialysis so he left a message. He called the would-be donor and left a message as well. Within an hour or so, Jack said, the ad had been taken down, apparently because it violated Craigslist rules. (Craigslist’s posted rules forbid ads for “blood, bodily fluids or body parts” in the “for sale” section, where the “free stuff” category resides.)
“As people say, timing is everything,” Jack said. “Some days, we get lucky.”
When Marcia got the message from Jack, she said, her initial instinct was that it wasn’t worth calling, but again — just as with the green candle — she thought, “What do I have to lose?”
She called the donor, Patrick McFarlane, and “he was very receptive,” she said. Patrick, then 49, told her that he’d tried to donate a kidney in Iowa when he’d lived there, but had run into insurmountable rules. Continue reading