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Tuesday, October 21, 2014 | Last updated: 2:50am




An act of altruism


Joe Altman i85 donated his kidney to the son of his Brandeis roommate


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Brandeis is a place to nurture intellect and encourage debate. It is a small place where people from all over the world collide. These seemingly serendipitous encounters may have an enduring impact on your life, whether professional or personal. Perhaps the girl in your art class will one day be your wife. Or maybe your roommate might one day save your son's life.

Greg Newman's '85 and Joe Altman's '85 friendship started before Brandeis and blossomed throughout college. Newman and Altman have known each other since they were freshmen in high school. "We both grew up in the same borough, [and] we both rooted for the same baseball team," Newman said. The friends left Queens, N.Y. for Waltham, where they roomed together for 2 years at the University.

Here, the two men both met the women whom they eventually married. Newman and Susan Hart '85 recently celebrated their 24th wedding anniversary. In art class, Altman met Susannah Cohen '86, who later became Susannah Altman.

Though their time together at Brandeis ultimately came to a close, Newman and Altman continued their friendship throughout the years. "After we graduated, we still got together—‘the Brandeis crowd,'—as we called it," Altman said. "We remained good friends, sharing the different phases of life," he described.

The attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 were an impetus for change for Newman's and his wife's lives. "9/11 was the trigger for me; everyone rethought their lives [at that time]. We discussed adopting, and 9/11 convinced me to do it," Newman said.

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In 2002, the couple adopted a baby boy from Guatemala named Carlos. Today, Carlos is a gregarious 12-year-old. "We used to call him the mayor [because] he is a big people person. We go places, and people always know his name," Hart explained.

Despite his happy, outgoing nature, Carlos was plagued with health complications from a very young age. He suffered from itchy skin, sleepless nights and high urine output. Between late January and early February 2011, Carlos' health became a serious concern. "He was exhausted, out of breath [and] he would fall asleep in school. … We took him to the pediatrician. ... They thought it was the stomach flu," Hart said.

On April 4, Carlos, then 11 years old, was rushed to the pediatric emergency room. After a blood test, he was diagnosed with End Stage Renal Disease, also known as chronic kidney failure. 

"He had a number of the symptoms of kidney problems over the years, but none of his pediatricians ever connected the dots," Hart said. By the time Carlos was finally diagnosed, it was clear that he would need a kidney transplant. "[The doctors] thought he might not make it through that day," Hart added.

Carlos' parents set out on an immediate mission to find a kidney donor. His mother, Susan Hart, who was tested first to determine whether or not she was a match, initially appeared to be viable donor. Her kidneys, however, are low-functioning and do not filter blood efficiently enough to be transplanted.

The couple began to reach out to friends, family and even to strangers to find a kidney for their son. The first person to put his name on the potential donor list was none other than Newman's college roommate, Joe.

"It just hit me that I thought that I would be [Carlos'] donor. Something felt that way for me. I knew that I was blood type O, that I was a universal donor," recalled Altman. His wife, Susannah, had a similar feeling; "Just knowing who [Joe] is as a person, I knew he would do it."

While organ donation naturally poses a certain degree of risk for the donor, Altman's decision also had the potential to alter his wife's life as well. Susannah has lupus, an autoimmune disorder that affects the kidneys, among other organs.

"[Joe's] first concern was that if I had a kidney problem, he couldn't give it to me. We made sure that I would be covered in the worst scenario. My sister had her blood tested, and she was a match," Susannah said.

Though the Altmans had their minds made up, the process was also stressful for Carlos' parents, who recognized the gravity of the situation. "It is not easy to ask people to donate a part of themselves, to put themselves at risk to help someone else. We knew we were asking people to make a huge sacrifice for us," Newman's wife wrote on a blog at the time.

Despite a strong desire to help his son, Newman had concerns for his longtime friend. "I was worried about Joe's physical condition in the hospital, for his wife and his kids," he said.

But for Altman, donating his kidney to save Carlos' life felt like the only option. "There are many difficult decisions in life, and this isn't one of them," Altman reassured his friend.

Humans have two hands, two feet and two eyes, but "Why did God give us two kidneys if we only need one?" Newman wondered. "One to keep for ourselves and one to be available to donate to someone in need," he concluded.

After enduring years of physical discomfort and months of thrice-weekly dialysis, Carlos has reason to smile today. On August 31, 2011, Altman's kidney was removed and transplanted into Carlos' body to save his life.

"Joe and Carlos' recoveries were textbook: as fast and as good as you can hope," Hart said. After spending just 1 day in the intensive care unit following his surgery, Carlos was moved to the hospital and was able to return home a week later.

A few weeks after the surgery, Altman is still a little sore. "I knew the recovery would be painful and challenging," Altman said. "While it has been [painful], it has been less than I expected. Within a few days, I was able to be up and around, [and] I have gotten stronger day by day."

"The few weeks of discomfort that I have had ... so pales in comparison to the feelings that I have, how good I feel about having done this," he added. 

The new kidney has revitalized Carlos. "Physically, he feels better than he has in years. … He is bike-riding and playing Wiffle Ball," his mother said.

The two families live a 20-minute drive from each other and can easily check on each other's progress. The friendship that began in Queens between Greg Newman and Joe Altman has spanned decades as the two have experienced life and its challenges.

After all of this, Altman feels that "quite honestly, we're family now."



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