Four decades later, a Greenport friendship could save a life

07/28/2015 6:00 AM |

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More than 40 years after they met inside Mrs. Coon’s Greenport Elementary School classroom, Beth Reed wants to give her childhood friend Joann Tamin a special gift: a healthy kidney. 

Years ago, her wish would have been deflated by the simple fact that she is isn’t a compatible donor for Ms. Tamin. But thanks to modern technology and innovative thinking, Ms. Reed is still able to help her friend by participating in a kidney exchange program through which Ms. Tamin will receive a kidney from a compatible stranger and, in a karmic return, Ms. Reed will donate to a different patient in need.

“I was blown away,” Ms. Tamin said. “I can’t believe that she would do that on my behalf because she wants me to have a better quality of life.”

Ms. Tamin was diagnosed with a kidney disease called membranoproliferative glomerulonephritis, often referred to as MPGN, when she was 12. She had two transplants from cadavers, one in 1983 and one in 1997, but both of those kidneys eventually failed.

For more than 10 years, Ms. Tamin has been awaiting a third transplant. Finding a suitable donor is challenging because she’s a tough recipient to match — or, as she says, “like a needle in a haystack.”

In the meantime, she must undergo the grueling, draining process of dialysis: three times a week, almost four hours at a time, she sits hooked up to tubes as her blood flows through a cleansing machine.

“Dialysis is really a sentence,” she said. “It’s not a death sentence, but it’s either you do dialysis or you die.”

The two friends remain hopeful. Ms. Reed traveled to New York from Roanoke, Va., where she now lives, two weeks ago for a regular re-evaluation. While Ms. Reed was here, she said doctors were “very positive” about Ms. Tamin’s chances of receiving a donor in the near future.

“It’s just a matter of when,” Ms. Reed said.

Ms. Reed said that despite the geographic distance between them, the two have maintained a special bond through the years. She chose Ms. Tamin as her maid of honor and even named her son Joe in honor of the name Joann.
Their lives have always been “in sync,” Ms. Reed said — her husband died within a year of Ms. Tamin closing her retail store, JET’s Dream, in Greenport.

So with a lifelong bond encouraging her, she joined Weill Cornell Medical College’s kidney exchange program in December 2012.

Now, Ms. Reed believes she and her friend are closer than ever.

Weill Cornell has been participating in the program since 2008 and has performed more than 100 successful transplants by paired donations, according to an information sheet provided by Ms. Tamin. She and Ms. Reed are entered into the National Kidney Registry, an organization founded in 2007 by a Babylon man to facilitate these sort of exchanges.

Such swaps are becoming ever more popular, too: In 2012, a single donor set off a 60-person chain of transplants, according to a February New York Times story.

Thanks to her friend’s participation, Ms. Tamin can receive the organ she needs from a live donor — a healthier exchange with a higher chance of success and longevity — not just from a cadaver.

In a way, Ms. Reed is donating to her friend by proxy.

“If she did not have somebody putting her into that live exchange, she would not be able to be in that [live donor] pool,” Ms. Reed said. “It seemed like she needed a boost.”

And a boost it was: Since the two joined, Ms. Reed has noticed a distinct shift in Ms. Tamin.

“You wouldn’t know how much that changed her outlook,” Ms. Reed said. “She wasn’t looking forward to very much, and this gives her something to look forward to. You need that hope in your life.”

For Ms. Tamin, the gesture reflects the character of a woman who has supported her through all of life’s trials and tribulations.

“People say, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s such a commitment and it’s so commendable,’ ” she said. “But anyone who knew Beth isn’t really surprised.”

The experience has made the friends closer than ever, Ms. Reed said.

“Giving something of yourself to other people that you know and love and care about is not that hard,” she said. “The more we give, the more we get back.”

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Caption: Joann Tamin looks at a photo of her and Beth Reed. (Credit: Chris Lisinski)

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