Sixteen years ago, Springfield resident Gennet Belay got the phone call that saved her life. She was one of three candidates for a kidney transplant and a few days later, became the lucky recipient.
“I was very happy,” recalls the shy and humble mother of two who went on the transplant waiting list a year after she arrived from Ethiopia 12 years prior. Belay had been suffering from nephritic syndrome and her kidneys were only functioning at 10 percent. Her prospects were grim.
But it was a complete stranger from Falls Church, Harold Mintz, who donated one of his kidneys to Belay that piqued her curiosity.
“I wanted to know, who is this man?” she recalls. “It’s easy to give clothes, and things. But it’s not easy to give life.”
Mintz grabbed headlines that year for donating his kidney to Belay and becoming one of the first living donors in an organ donation program organized by the Washington Regional Transplant Community (WRTC).
MINTZ AND BELAY’S subsequent meeting, organized after the donor and recipient agreed to it, only solidified their bond, a connection they now share for life, and a “rebirthday,” Belay’s term for the anniversary of the donation.
But Mintz had his reservations at first about meeting Belay post surgery, which he shares in a new short documentary, “1-800-Give-Us-Your-Kidney” by filmmaker Samantha Smith who chronicles their saga. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=avw4xRVvaBk
“What happens if that person that got the kidney looks at me and goes, ‘You’re not what I thought you’d be,’” he ruminates. But all that worry and the commotion in the room faded away, says Mintz, when he entered and made a beeline for Belay’s embrace. Belay, diminutive and soft-spoken and Mintz, tall and outgoing found at least one thing in common beyond their shared kidney. They had both touched each other’s life.
“You can see love, the passion in him,” Belay says about Harold. “You have to have passion to give life to other people.”
Even though Georgetown University scanned Mintz’s brain for a study years after the surgery to prove that altruistic donors brains are different from others, Mintz maintains, “I’m normal. Normal people have the ability to do outrageous, beautiful things,” he says.
“I was struck by Harold’s story,” says Smith. “Just a look on Gennet’s face, a moment of silence after Tsegaye [Belay’s husband] contemplates whether he would donate like Harold did, the emotion Harold showed when talking about his father. Spending so much time with these characters in the editing room, I really fell in love with their hearts... [The film] says so much about humans, our nature, and our relationships.”
Mintz now lives in Malibu, Calif. in Paradise Cove, “the world’s most expensive trailer park,” he says, and works with his high school friend, Tom Shadyac, also a former Falls Church resident and currently a Hollywood movie director (“Ace Ventura: Pet Detective,” “The Nutty Professor,” “Bruce Almighty,” etc.). But when asked about the day Mintz decided to donate his kidney to a total stranger, he recalls how it wasn’t a sudden decision. Life was leaving him “breadcrumbs,” he says, that accumulated over time.
“When people hear that I donated a body part to a stranger, I oftentimes get the same response...I could never do that. I always tell people that if the events that happened to me had actually happened to them, then they quite possibly would have ended up on that surgeon’s table,” he says.
Mintz attributes his decision to donate to events like donating blood in high school and reading a newspaper article about a North Carolina teacher who donated one of her kidneys to help save one of her student’s life.
“I was just amazed that the teacher was willing to offer up one of her kidneys for someone who wasn’t family. I couldn’t get that out of my head...” he says. But it was losing his father at a relatively young age and a casual meeting in a New York mall that left a lasting impression on Mintz.
At 26, Mintz found out his father was diagnosed with cancer and five weeks later, he died. Mintz says doctors didn’t have enough medical knowledge at the time to figure out how to save him but when he thought years later about the people that die everyday waiting for a new kidney, it was an eye-opening moment. “I totally get it if doctors don’t know how to save someone. But to know how to save them but just not have enough parts? That was a big breadcrumb,” he says.
Then, years later at a mall in New York, Mintz stumbled upon parents of a daughter with leukemia asking passersby for blood, hoping for a possible match for their daughter’s bone marrow transplant.
“I had every intention of walking right by them on my mission to acquire confections and flowers...but I quickly noticed that everybody else in the mall was cruising right past them,” he says, so he stopped. Mintz and his wife offered their blood but six months later, he found out via a news article that the daughter had died.
“I was devastated,” he says. And to top it off, the parents thanked everyone who donated blood. “Not a statistic, not a number. But real people...that one left a mark.”
THE EVENT that sealed the deal for Mintz to donate his kidney was a movie on a plane, “A Gift of Love: The Daniel Huffman Story,” starring Debbie Reynolds as a grandmother who falls ill and sees her grandson donate an organ to her. At the end of the credits, there was a number: 1-800-Give-Us-Your-Kidney.
He jotted that number down but it wasn’t until months later that he found it. He says, “Just out of curiosity, I called...”
“It wasn’t until enough of these breadcrumbs were placed on some sort of internal scale that my mind shifted,” he says. Recalling the moment he made his decision in the short documentary, Mintz ponders this: “If I don’t give my kidney to somebody this week, will somebody die waiting for it?”
The answer was yes. In fact, with over 119,000 people currently waiting for a lifesaving transplant, 22 people die each day, waiting. “Every 10 minutes another person gets added to the list,” says Lisa Colaianni, WRTC’s donor family advocate for the past 25 years. It was these statistics and her good health that compelled Colaianni five years ago to also donate an organ to a stranger, technically termed a non-designated donor. She donated one of her kidneys to a woman whose son was unable to donate because he wasn’t a match.
Colaianni says she wanted to pay it forward and honor the families, the donors, those waiting, and recipients. “It’s brought me more joy [in life]. We feel like we’ve done a good thing and this is good for your heart.”
Colaianni adds that her donation led to another seven donations. The son who was unable to donate to his mother, donated instead to somebody else outside their family and another six recipients benefited.
“I continue to receive because giving that gift allows me to receive this love and warmth,” she says.
“I feel that when I share my story, when I tell others about it, it might just prove to be a breadcrumb in someone else’s story...Every time I speak [about donations], I feel that I’m making a difference. Not a difference in numbers or statistics but a difference in another person’s life. The ripples keep rippling.”
1-800-Give-Us-Your-Kidney is currently making its rounds at film festivals. It recently won the Audience Award at Napa Valley Film Festival. It also won the Audience Award at the Washington West Film Festival in Reston and Conscious Good Film Festival.