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With kidney donation, congregation extends 'circle of care'

Member to donate kidney to religious education director, as others fundraise and cook.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
3.21.11

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Deborah Nardi, Gail Syring, and Julie Smith

Gail Syring (center), director of religious education at the Unitarian Society of Hartford, Conn., attends a Valentine’s Day dance organized by Deborah Nardi (left) and Julie Smith to raise money for Syring’s medical expenses. (Anne Bailey)

It has never been easy for Gail Syring to ask for help. A director of religious education and a seminary student training for the parish ministry, she’s accustomed to reaching out to assist others.

But a progressive illness has taught Syring some new lessons in life. Her own body was attacking her kidneys, and in the spring of 2010, Syring’s kidney function dropped to just 17 percent. Her doctors advised her to undergo a kidney transplant. It was clear that to stay alive, she would need to accept a lot of help.

Syring never imagined the kind and amount of help she would receive, however. A member of the Unitarian Society of Hartford, Conn., whose two children are enrolled in the religious education program Syring directs, will donate one of his kidneys to her in April. And the community has rallied around her—providing meals, rides, and thousands of dollars toward her medical expenses.

“It really has been an astounding, humbling, and transforming experience,” said Syring, who will undergo kidney transplant surgery on April 27. “It’s a lesson to realize what a gift it is to let people help you. It’s a gift to me as a person, and it has been a gift to the congregation that has created so much goodwill.”

The Unitarian Society of Hartford has rallied around her. In the process of saving their DRE’s life, the congregation has also sent ripples of care and compassion throughout the church community. “This has been the most invigorating and inspiring thing that has happened to us in a long time,” said the Rev. Dr. Barbara Jamestone, the congregation’s minister.

Since Syring joined the church as DRE in 2007, the staff has known that she had a progressive kidney disease called focal glomerulosclerosis. About a year ago, her doctors advised her to begin consulting with a transplant team because her kidneys’ functioning was deteriorating.

She turned to her family to seek a donor, but testing revealed that no one in her family was suitable to donate. Syring put her name on the transplant list, on which people with her blood type typically wait four to six years before finding a donor. And her health was declining precipitously.

In September, Jamestone had the difficult task of telling the church’s board of directors about Syring’s grim prognosis. When board member Joe Rubin heard the news, his immediate response was that the church now had a chance to save Syring’s life. He thought they might be able to find a suitable kidney within their own congregation.

Rubin emailed the congregation with a straightforward and monumental appeal. He wrote: “As Unitarians (or simply caring people), most of us would agree that the chance to save someone’s life is an extraordinary opportunity. Quite simply, we have it before us right now! I’m asking you to consider becoming a hero.”

He included specific information: The donor needed to have type O or type B blood, be between the ages of 18 and 60, and be in generally excellent health. “Gender, race, and ethnicity don’t matter,” Rubin wrote. “We’re not looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Out of a congregation of 250 people, five stepped forward to meet with a transplant coordinator and be tested. Two people—one man and one woman—were a match. Syring decided to accept the kidney of the male donor. (On average, males have larger kidneys, and a larger kidney is preferable for someone who is going to have just one.) While many people in her situation remain on a donor waiting list for years, Syring’s name was on the waiting list for just four months.

Syring’s donor is Dr. John Brancato. He is a pediatric emergency room physician, and he and his partner have been members of the church for five years. (Jamestone officiated at their marriage a year and a half ago after same-sex marriage became legal in Connecticut.) The couple’s two daughters, ages 3 and 7, are enrolled in the church’s religious education program. “Gail is a wonderful person for the congregation,” said Brancato. “To be able to help somebody who has already given us so much is a wonderful thing.”

Before the surgery, Syring’s family and Brancato’s family will have dinner together. She has prepared a gift for her donor: a pen and pencil set. On the box, she had engraved: “For my life, I thank you. 4-27-2011.”

As Brancato and his family have been preparing for him to donate his kidney, other members of the congregation have been rallying around Syring in other ways.

After Syring lost weight to qualify for the surgery, her old clothes no longer fit, and she couldn’t afford new ones as a seminary student with a part-time DRE’s salary. Jamestone reached out to some parishioners who raised $700 for new clothes. Several women volunteered to take her out for an afternoon of shopping and lunch.

One parishioner bought a decorated Christmas tree at a fundraiser by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford that had been donated by LifeChoice Donor Services. It was decorated with angels and butterflies, and it honored donors and their families. The member brought it to the meetinghouse for the holidays, where it stood beside a poster celebrating Rubin, Brancato, and the others who had stepped forward as potential donors.

And for Valentine’s Day, two members, Deborah Nardi and Julie Smith, organized a gala dance party and fundraiser on Syring’s behalf. More than 100 people came: adults and children, members of the Unitarian Society as well as people from Syring’s grade school, high school, and college days. “It was a tremendous outpouring of love and generosity and affection, and also a heck of a party,” Syring said. The evening raised $13,000 toward her medical expenses. Though her $250,000 surgery is primarily covered by her health insurance, Syring also has to contribute to the cost. And she will need to pay more than $10,000 per year for prescription medications for the rest of her life.

“It was a tremendous financial gift and spiritual gift,” Syring said. “To see a whole community come and say we love you and we want to take care of you is such a powerful testament to what our congregation is capable of.”

Members are also signing up to assist Syring after surgery. She has set up an online “care calendar” on which people are volunteering to supply rides to doctors’ appointments, grocery shop, deliver meals, do laundry, and take care of her cats. People are also volunteering to cover her RE duties at church while she recovers.

Members have also signed up to cook for Brancato and his family while he undergoes what is expected to be a four- to six-week recovery from his laparoscopic surgery.

Rubin, who sent out the email to the congregation seeking a kidney for Syring, said, “I feel tremendously gratified that we’ve been able to work together and do this. It’s been very positive and unifying for the church.”

Jamestone concurs. Before the church year started, she had selected a spiritual theme for the year called “extending the circle of care.” She never envisioned that that extension would be so immediate and profound. She celebrates “the joy that has come to our congregation as a result of John’s generosity and Joe’s vision,” she said. “We really can as a community extend our care in an amazing way.”

The gifts have been powerful for the community, and Jamestone believes that they will also have a lasting impact on Syring as she completes her studies at Hartford Seminary and becomes a minister herself. “Gail’s ministry is going to be powerful because she has been the recipient of this kind of care,” Jamestone said.

Syring echoes that already. “All I can do is dedicate the rest of my life and any ministry I could offer to someone else to John and the members of the congregation,” she said, “because they are the ones who make my continued life possible. It’s because of them that I can go on and have an impact on other people.”


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