by Leah Burrows
A year ago, Bob Boutin’s blood was poison.
After living with type 1 diabetes for three decades, his kidneys were worn out, operating at only 10 percent capacity. Tackling the smallest task felt like walking up five flights of stairs with a bad case of the flu.
Boutin ’87 needed a kidney transplant, and he needed it yesterday. An inductee into Brandeis’ Joseph M. Linsey Athletics Hall of Fame, he made his living molding young baseball players at his Plymouth, Mass., business, 4 for 4 Hitting Instruction. With no donor match in his immediate family, Boutin faced the bleak prospect of joining the more than 100,000 people in the U.S. on the kidney transplant list, who may wait five years or more for a donor.
Then an email changed his life.
Last summer, Boutin’s college-baseball teammate Peter Kaslauskas ’87 was organizing a fundraiser for him, so the Brandeis Department of Athletics wrote about Boutin’s need for a kidney in a newsletter emailed to hundreds of former student athletes.
Another college teammate, Bob Tenczar ’87, who had also been Boutin’s Rosenthal Hall suitemate, read the newsletter item, and reacted viscerally.
“I could imagine myself so clearly in Bob’s situation that I could almost feel his pain myself,” says Tenczar, a director of business planning at Microsoft in Seattle. “That is what empathy is to me — a physical response.”
Close friends while at Brandeis, Boutin and Tenczar had stayed connected through social media but hadn’t seen each other in nearly 15 years. Almost immediately after reading the newsletter, Tenczar emailed Boutin, and the two began corresponding.
When Tenczar discovered they shared a blood type, an idea crept into his mind. Without telling Boutin, he began researching organ donation.
He learned that donors and recipients needn’t be related, that a person can live a full life with one healthy kidney, that the success rate of transplant surgery has improved dramatically over the past few decades, and that a donor’s risk of developing a life-threatening problem is about one in 3,000.
Tenczar discussed the possibility of donating a kidney with his wife and two children. He prayed. He talked with his brother, a physician, to get answers to specific questions.
After a while, Boutin got a call from Tenczar, who told him he’d been exploring becoming a donor. When he got off the phone, Boutin was flooded with hope, fear, disbelief, relief — and, ultimately, guilt.
“I thought, I don’t deserve this,” Boutin recalls. “I couldn’t ask someone to do this for me.”
But Tenczar wasn’t asking. “Let’s just see how far we can take this,” he told his former teammate.
Over the next several weeks, Tenczar began a three-phase medical evaluation. Each stage of testing offered him the opportunity to pull out, but each only strengthened his commitment.
During phase 1, he was poked, prodded, X-rayed, tissue-typed and tested for kidney function and physiological abnormalities. His full medical history was reviewed to rule out kidney disease in his family.
In September, Tenczar flew to Boston for an extensive three-day phase 2 evaluation at Massachusetts General Hospital. In the hospital lobby, the two friends met for the first time in 15 years.
“Bob walked in wearing a backpack, and I could swear it was 1985 and he was walking from Usdan to his classes,” recalls Boutin.
The pair fell back into their easy rhythm, chatting about baseball, family and friends. “The bond we formed at Brandeis was strong, so I felt very comfortable with him,” Tenczar says. “At the same time, I was struck by how uncomfortable and fatigued he looked.”
page 2 of 2
When they discussed the donation process, Boutin was struck by his friend’s commitment. “His energy and enthusiasm were infectious,” Boutin says. “I started feeling hopeful that the end was finally within reach.”
At Mass General, Tenczar underwent more blood and EKG tests, and chest and kidney scans, and was examined by a nephrologist, a psychiatrist and a surgeon.
Finally, Tenczar was deemed fit to donate, and he and Boutin were officially declared a match. The surgery was scheduled for November, assuming that a final round of blood work and an anesthesiologist’s review went well.
“You don’t have to do this,” Boutin told Tenczar over and over again. “I’ll still be grateful if you want to pull out.”
But Tenczar told Boutin the truth.
“Even if I hadn’t been a match with Bob, I would have done a kidney paired donation, donated to someone in exchange for someone else donating to Bob,” Tenczar says today. “If Bob wasn’t eligible for that, then I would have donated my kidney anyway. I was so far along in the process, and the need was so great.
“Plus,” he continues, “I personally benefited. There is always personal reward when you give of yourself, and here was an opportunity to demonstrate to my kids the power and impact of an act that involves risk and sacrifice.”
Although Tenczar’s commitment floored Boutin, Jonathan Himmelfarb ’77, the Joseph W. Eschbach Endowed Chair in Kidney Research at the University of Washington and director of its Kidney Research Institute, says he sees this kind of resolve all the time.
“When people walk into my office, most of them have already made the decision to donate,” Himmelfarb says. “It’s an intuitive decision for many people because, for them, it’s just the right thing to do.”
Unlike a cadaver transplant, a living-donor transplant is one of the few medical procedures that, in part, violates the Hippocratic oath to do no harm. When surgeons take out a healthy kidney, they are removing one of the body’s important insurance policies.
“The risks are never zero in any serious medical procedure,” Himmelfarb says. “As a physician, I have to make sure the benefits to the patient are at least equal to the risks. The psychological rewards — including that sense of performing an altruistic act — are a great benefit to donors.”
When Tenczar woke up in the hospital after the four-and-a-half-hour procedure, the feeling of altruism was deeper than any relief painkillers could provide, especially after he saw Boutin.
“The effect was incredible,” Tenczar recalls — there was color in Boutin’s cheeks, energy in his movements, strength in his voice.
“I felt better immediately,” Boutin says. “It was like I had been a dull pencil and I finally felt sharp for the first time in years.”
Is organ donation altruism? Tenczar says no. His motivations weren’t selfless, he says, since the decision and the result were personally rewarding.
Is it love? Boutin says yes.
“Bob knew I couldn’t bring myself to ask anyone to donate,” he says. “It’s too big a sacrifice, too big a risk for someone to take on. Bob took that on.
“I would call that love. Personal risk is the ultimate expression of love.”