Approximately six years after being diagnosed with kidney disease, a beloved Dyker Heights native received the gift of life from a complete stranger from Maryland.
Seventy-year-old Fred Howe, who was diagnosed with Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis (FSGS), in 2012, had been searching for a kidney donor — including through this newspaper, which publicized his plight — since going on dialysis, about three and a half years ago.
“Dialysis is not one of the best feelings,” he said. “It keeps you alive, but it doesn’t make you better.”
For that, Howe needed a kidney. Initially, he was on a three-year-long organ donor waiting list. While that might have been discouraging, he and his family swung into action. “There was one man that said to me, if you’re looking for a donor for a kidney, you have to put the effort in like you were looking for a job that you’ve always wanted your whole life,” Howe recalled.
One ray of light was how many people reached out to help.
“When you’re in need of a kidney or on dialysis, people are so concerned about you,” the emotional Howe explained. “One guy who leads a prayer group in his church said he was going to pray for me every Friday. I was absolutely blown away. The thing is people really do care but don’t know what to do, I think because there’s a real lack of awareness sometimes or a fear of not knowing what you can do to help. Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting the word out.”
Thanks to organizations like non-profit Renewal, the help of his wife Barbara and a friend he met online, Howe’s family found a way to get the word out to help find a donor. His need was publicized online, and locally, as he and his wife made signs and flyers to distribute around the borough.
“I even went to my grandkids’ grammar school, St. Bernadette,” Howe explained. “The principal was very nice. She let the kids go around to all of the classrooms and hand out the flyers and asked the kids to bring them home to their parents. The principal also put it in an email to parents. P.S. 127 did it too. Then you have to sit back and make the plan.”
Barbara had joined a local Facebook prayer group, which turned out to be a major turning point in Howe’s recovery.
His eventual donor, Joe Gilvary, was also in the group and saw that the Brooklyn man was in need of a kidney.
“When I was a kid I had a kidney infection. I spent time in hospital and years taking penicillin,” he explained. “I figured I wouldn’t ever be able to donate a kidney.”
However, his kidney healed over time and when he saw the post, he knew he wanted to take action and help out a complete stranger.
“How could I say no?” Gilvary asked. “It’s like having a superpower and saying, ‘Maybe I won’t save that person’s life.’ I had the opportunity to save a life. And I had that opportunity based on something that I never earned in any meaningful way that was given to me. I didn’t do anything to deserve that kind of health and I’m still very healthy. When I saw Barbara’s first announcement in the group, it was God nudging me to think about doing this; when I did it, it fell into place.”
After overcoming various obstacles and making visits to various hospitals all over the country, in June of last year, Howe was ready to receive the kidney transplant. However, he and Gilvary didn’t meet until the day of the surgery.
“He came in and we gave each other a hug,” Howe said. “I asked, ‘What made you do this? You don’t know me.’ He said, ‘We don’t know each other but I saw a picture of you with your grandkids and I didn’t want them to grow up without a grandfather.’”
The surgery then took place and was successful.
“I feel great,” Howe said. “God blessed me for a reason because these things don’t happen by accident. I didn’t get sick by accident. I used to go to the hospital three times a week to get checked. I go once a month now.”
Following the surgery, Howe and Gilvary got to know each other better. Back in December, Gilvary came to New York with his daughter, and Howe and his family invited him for dinner at Gino’s Restaurant in Bay Ridge. They also paid for Gilvary’s hotel stay, calling the place where he was staying and asking the clerk to charge the bill to them.
“As far as I was concerned, on June 19, the surgery was done and we were even,” Gilvary said. “They are just so crazy generous. I understand this is a big thing, but still to me it doesn’t seem they owe me anything for it.”
The dinner turned out to be a celebration of friendship and life.
“I told his daughter, you’re going to get a real understanding of what people think of your dad tonight,” Howe said. “She had no idea what was going to happen. Everyone in the restaurant was hugging him, shaking his hand, and he was totally overwhelmed.”
Then, the Howes posted a photo of the encounter on Facebook, and got a tremendous response. Recounted Howe, “One said, ‘You’re an angel. God sent you.’”
The two men, both New York Mets fans, plan to see each other again this summer at Citi Field to take in a game.