Elliot Kaye had been hanging out with his new kidney at the ballpark a couple of days a week for years. He was alongside it at games and on weekends. They even went to Havana together.
He’d been looking everywhere else for the thing that would save his life.
When he got on a nationwide transplant list and was ready for the kidney to be hundreds of miles away, inside a total stranger, 52-year-old Kaye never imagined that he had been right there, next to his perfect match for years.
And Eric Saul, the owner of that kidney until last Thursday, had no idea that the father and son who were so obsessed with fluids during all those practices and games, who ran to the bathroom a whole lot more than everyone else around them, were managing their water intake because they both have polycystic kidney disease.
“When I got to the hospital for tests, I asked, ‘Is it for Noah or Elliot?,’ ” said Saul, 42, Noah’s private baseball coach who volunteered as soon as he learned about the disease.
The Kayes didn’t talk about the disease or the deterioration they saw in Elliot, with his fatigue and the pain of his engorged kidneys even when they went on the annual baseball trip to Cuba that Saul organizes.
After being friends with the family for about five years, Saul read about it in the Washington Post, when I wrote a column about them and the calamitous timing of Elliot’s impending kidney failure and donor search launched in February 2020, at the dawn of the pandemic.
I met Elliot years ago when he had a big Washington job as the chairman of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the guy who stands at lecterns issuing recalls or scorching companies in hearings when mobile phones catch fire or crib bumpers suffocate babies.
Elliot grew up watching his mother suffer from polycystic kidney disease. It took her life a few years after he learned that he also has it when he was in his 20s.
He knew the hereditary disease would make his kidneys swell with so many cysts that they could grow to the size of footballs. And he knows the same thing will happen to his older son, Noah, who is 17 and can already see the protrusions of his swelling kidneys on his lean body. Noah is not ready for a transplant now but will likely need one in the future.
“I hope this provides hope for Noah,” Elliot said from his hospital bed over the weekend. “That part is important right now, modeling hope for Noah.”
Doctors removed both of his kidneys in the Jan. 6 surgery, which was unusual but underscored the extent of the disease, Elliot said.
The average kidney is about 4 inches long and might weigh as much as 6 ounces. Kaye lost 24 pounds when they removed both of his kidneys. They were bigger than footballs.
“It’s been very emotional,” Kaye said after the surgery. “At least for me. I have not been able to come up with the right words to thank them. ‘Thank you’ feels inadequate, but it’s all we’re equipped with.”
Saul, an architect and after-hours satirist, was pragmatic and wisecracking about the whole thing. (I am forbidden from using the word “hero.”) He promised Elliot he was going to drink heavily before going under to give that kidney a final workout under his care.
The choice was an easy one for Saul to make after reading the story about Elliot.
The last time Saul – a lifelong baseball player who still makes the local all-star rec team every year – went under the knife was when he was 11 and had his appendix removed.
His health wasn’t a factor. His only hesitation was making his wife understand the idea of his living with one kidney the rest of his life.
“I sort of went with my tail between my legs to my wife when I told her about my plan,” he said. His wife, who got to know the Kayes on the Cuba trip, gave it an immediate thumbs-up.
Some of his friends told Saul he was crazy.
The doctors at the Georgetown-Medstar Transplant Institute made him see a therapist to make sure he knew what he was doing, part of the standard protocol.
The usual sticking point over the procedure is, ‘What if your own kid needs one?’ Saul and his wife don’t plan to have children, he said.
He’s been content to coach hundreds of baseball players. And donating an organ is a way to show leadership on and off the field.
A man who mocks the performative actions of D.C. elites in his online publication, the Takoma Torch, Saul has delivered with a mic-drop donation of his own. I mean, we may stuff $10 in the Salvation Army bell-ringer’s bucket or write a check to charity. But an organ? Who does that?
I asked him if he feels any kind of special, blood-brother connection to Elliot.
“I think knowing we were suffering through the same surgical pain together might have brought on some feelings of a brotherhood, like we were battling through this together,” Saul said. “It was helpful that we knew we were physically close, the next hospital room over, and we would check in on each other.”
For now, he’ll be happy to see his kidney at practices and ballgames. Maybe they’ll all head back to Cuba one day.
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