From a stranger, the gift of life; ad, phone call led to kidney transplant

HACKENSACK, N.J. -- Alan Segal's life was saved by a phone call from a complete stranger. The call came last December as Segal, of Franklin Lakes, N.J., was despondent. A kidney he had received in a 2006 transplant was shutting down and he desper...

Michael Graham and Alan Segal
Michael Graham donated a kidney to Alan Segal who was a complete stranger. The two are both doing well healthwise and are good friends. They are shown in Bergen, N.J. MCT

HACKENSACK, N.J. -- Alan Segal's life was saved by a phone call from a complete stranger.

The call came last December as Segal, of Franklin Lakes, N.J., was despondent. A kidney he had received in a 2006 transplant was shutting down and he desperately needed a new one. At the other end of the line was the gravelly voice of Michael Graham, a self-employed plumber and former Eastern Airlines pilot whom Segal had never met.

"This is Mike Graham, I live in Franklin Lakes, and I'm your man," Graham told Segal. "I'm O-positive, I'm in good physical shape and I've got two kidneys. I want to give you a kidney.

"How do we get started?"

Ten months after that phone call -- and nearly seven months since Graham's left kidney was removed and implanted in Segal's abdomen -- both donor and recipient are doing remarkably well. Graham, 67, fixed a toilet for a customer the day he was released from the hospital and does not expect any long-term complications. Segal, 60, says his new kidney has pushed his life expectancy to 80 or beyond and he hasn't felt better since before he learned he was diabetic 22 years ago.


And Graham and Segal have become the best of friends.

"Imagine what it feels like to walk around having done that for a total stranger," Segal said of his donor. "I'm in awe of it every day, and I can't say enough. I get up in the morning and I look in the mirror and I say ... 'I'm here again. I wasn't supposed to be here.'"

Before he could get there, though, Segal first had to unravel the mystery of how Graham ended up dialing his number in the first place.

The beginning

A week or so earlier, Segal had gone to see a friend who runs the preschool and adult education programs at Barnert Temple, where Segal and his wife, Joy, are members. Segal was desperate. The cadaver kidney he had received in a transplant three years earlier was failing. He was on the waiting list for a new one, so far without luck. Maybe Elyse Frishman, the rabbi at Barnert, could do something, Segal wondered.

His friend, Sara Losch, approached the rabbi, laid out Segal's plight in a succinct 65 words and, without consulting him, placed the notice in The Villadom Times weekly newspaper. Anyone with O-positive blood was urged to call Segal's cellphone, the ad said.

Days later, Graham was donating platelets at the Bergen County Blood Center in Paramus, N.J., which he says he does every two weeks. Typically, he passes the time by watching television. On that particular day, though, the televisions weren't working, so Graham picked up the only reading material within arm's reach -- the latest edition of The Villadom Times.

The words "Organ Donor Sought" on Page 8 caught his eye.


"I sat there and I read it, and I read it again, and I said, 'Jesus, this guy lives a mile from me in Franklin Lakes,'" he said. "I'd been thinking for the last five years, every once in a while, I wondered how you donate a kidney, because one of my customers died because she couldn't get one."

Graham figured that giving up a kidney carried less risk than landing a Douglas A-4 Skyhawk on the deck of an aircraft carrier at night -- a feat he had pulled off 122 times without incident over five years of active-duty service with the Navy.

"I said to myself, 'I'm going to call him when I get home,'" Graham said. "And I got home and I sat down at my desk, dialed the number and Alan answered the phone."

Segal told Graham that, if he was serious, he and Joy would pick him up early the next morning and take him to Columbia University Medical Center in Manhattan, where Segal had a previously scheduled appointment. Graham agreed, and the next day 13 vials of blood were drawn from his body -- the first in a draining battery of about 30 physical tests that eventually would identify him as a match.

Dr. James V. Guarrera, the surgical director of adult liver transplantation at Columbia University Medical Center, said Graham's offer came at a critical time for Segal.

"He had a virus called a BK virus, which attacks the kidney," said Guarrera, who performed both of Segal's transplant operations. "That contributed to him losing his kidney function. He had not had to go back on dialysis, but he was very close. He was down to less than 15 percent of his normal kidney function ahead of the transplant, so he was pretty sick and we decided to do it quickly."

Hurry up and wait

"Quickly" meant a deliberate process that unfolded over four months leading up to the transplant operation on April 8. Graham waited until just days before the operation before casually telling Eileen, his wife of 43 years, over dinner that he was giving one of his kidneys to a man who had been a complete stranger just four months earlier.


"I said, 'Oh, by the way, on Thursday I probably won't be here, and I probably won't be here on Friday,'" Graham recalled, drawling through a thick, droopy mustache. "She said, 'Where are you going?' I said, 'I'm going to Columbia-Presbyterian.' 'What the hell are you going there for?' I said, 'I'm donating a kidney to a fellow I met who lives here in Franklin Lakes.'

"She said, 'What? What?' That's just what she said. 'Are you ... crazy?' I said, 'No, I'm a match.'"

Graham spent 2 ½ hours on the operating table; Segal was there for six. Graham left the hospital two days later, returning immediately to work to recoup income he had lost to hospital visits and the operation itself.

Segal was in the hospital for a week and spent a second week recovering at home before returning to his job as the business manager at an Audi dealership in Nyack, N.Y. Doctor visits are now scheduled just once every three months, down from twice a week in the period immediately following the operation.

"I haven't had one bad day," Segal said of the period since the transplant. "I get up in the morning, I feel good. I haven't felt this good in 20 years. I have more energy and strength than I ever had, and I want to go to work every day."

New outlook

Joy Segal said her husband received a new outlook along with his new kidney.

"It's not just life-altering, it's beyond that," Joy said. "Because beside the kidney, beside him living, I think he's a changed person. I think that you can't just accept something like this without being changed. And I think what you're hearing from Mike is that he got something, too."


For Graham, who speaks to Segal on the phone most days and hugs him whenever they meet, helping to save the life of his new friend is his greatest accomplishment.

"Landing on a carrier, that was kind of awesome," Graham said. "Flying off a carrier and landing on it at night was scary. Absolutely, it's terrifying and nobody likes to do it because there's so many things that can go wrong and kill you.

"But this," he said, "is something from the heart. I mean, I saved somebody's life, and anybody can do it. Anybody. There's 87,000 people waiting for kidneys in this country and a lot of them die before they even get a chance. Of all the things I've done in my life, this is the highlight."

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