FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – It is the story of strangers bonded by their passion for life and connected by the power of social media.
Robert Leibowitz, of New York, has been waiting three years for a new kidney. A trip to Disney changed his life. He wore a shirt at the park asking for a new kidney and a Fort Wayne man stepped up to the plate.
The a single father of five has suffered from chronic kidney disease for decades. He learned about the diagnosis when he was 12-years-old but problems from the disease resurfaced later in life.
“The doctor said, ‘Rob you are probably going to need dialysis and you will need a new kidney,’” said Leibowitz. “I looked at him like he was crazy. I said, ‘Doc I love you but I think I’m going to have to find a new doctor because I feel healthy as a horse.’”
“That’s the problem with chronic kidney disease,” said Leibowitz. “It is a hidden disease.”
Leibowitz has been on dialysis and his name on four waiting lists. He said on average, a name could be on the list 7 to 10 years before finding a possible donor. So he took matters into his own hands.
He and his children went on a special trip to Disney World in August. Leibowitz walked around the park wearing a t-shirt that read “In need of Kidney O+” with his phone number listed.
“I just thought, what better place to reach so many people at one time,” he said.
A woman approached Leibowitz and asked if she could take a picture of the shirt.
“She said, ‘Do you mind if I post it?’” said Leibowitz.”I said, ‘Hell no! Post it! It’s the greatest thing in the world.”
His plea for a new kidney captured the attention of people across the nation. That Facebook post quickly went viral and has since been shared 90,000 times. Leibowitz said hours after the post went up, he began receiving calls and text messages from people who want to help.
Leibowitz said several people offered to donate their kidneys but some were not a match. Others changed their mind. Then he received a call from Richie Sully.
“I called him and left a voicemail,” said Sully. “I just said, ‘I have an extra kidney, you’re more than welcome to have it. I am not crazy but I am from Indiana.”
The next 10 weeks Sully would undergo preliminary evaluations, blood and urine tests, and he lost more than 30 pounds.
In the final stretch of the process he went to New York for CT scans, X-rays and psychological evaluations. That is when he met Leibowitz in person for the first time.
“We had a big hug in the [hospital] lobby,” said Sully. “Everyone was looking at us like we were kind of strange.”
“I think I hugged him harder than he hugged me,” said Leibowitz.
They spent the day together, Leibowitz giving Sully a tour of New York, before Sully traveled back to Fort Wayne to wait for a call from doctors.
Weeks before Christmas, Sully learned he and Leibowitz are a match.
“I called him and said we are good to go,” said Sully. “He yelled and kind of lost his mind and we had a nice little cry. I couldn’t have picked a better stranger to give my kidney to.”
“I was thrilled,” said Leibowitz. “I immediately got on the phone with my kids who were all broken up. He’s giving me more life with my kids. They are my everything.”
The surgery date is scheduled for Jan. 18. Both Leibowitz and Sully said they are anxious. Sully said there is only one thing he wishes he could change if he did this all over again.
“I kind of wish I could have done it before Christmas because I think that would be the best Christmas present you could give somebody,” he said. “But doing it shortly after is pretty decent, too.”