Television news executives usually work behind the camera, but Marc Weiner and his search for a kidney have stepped out to become the story.
“How do you find people? Do you just ask?” for a kidney, said Weiner, who survived bladder and kidney cancer.
His method of seeking a kidney went up this week on a Times Square billboard, a donation from a friend who wants to help Weiner find an organ donor. Weiner and his support circle hope the ad will not only yield a kidney for Weiner, but also bring attention to the shortage of donors across the country.
“This summer, my doctor said you’ve been cancer-free for two years, start lining up a donor,” said Weiner, 53, of Great Neck. “To be honest, there weren’t a lot of people coming forward.”
The billboard flashes a photo of Weiner for 15 seconds at a time, up to eight times an hour, said Dawn Del Mastro-Chruma, a family friend and president of City Outdoor, which owns the billboard. It will run through November.
“My name is Marc,” the ad reads. “I need a Kidney. YOU can Help! www.HelpMarcFindAKidney.com.”
Typical clients for that space include the entertainment industry and maybe the occasional beauty company. For one, such a choice placement — the billboard reaches millions of people each week, according to City Outdoor — isn’t cheap. Companies pay $35,000 for a similar ad package, she said.
“It’s not usually people looking for organs,” Del Mastro-Chruma said.
Del Mastro-Chruma said she’d known Weiner’s wife, Lisa, for nearly 25 years. Inspiration struck when Del Mastro-Chruma saw the story of a 60-year-old New Jersey man that went viral after he wore a T-shirt advertising his kidney donor search to Disney World in January 2018.
“I said to Lisa, I’d like to put Marc up in Times Square,” Del Mastro-Chruma said. “It worked for that guy in Disney.”
Weiner said he was initially hesitant.
“My first reaction was, ‘You’re going to put my fat face up there?’ And my wife said yeah,” he said. “It dawned on me what a generous gift it was.”
In late 2015, Weiner was diagnosed with transitional cell carcinoma, a type of cancer that often affects the bladder and kidneys. Dr. Ketan Badani, at The Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan, was able to remove the cancer and Weiner’s bladder and kidneys in two surgeries in 2016.
The human body needs only one kidney to function. It’s possible to survive without any kidneys, but patients like Weiner must undergo dialysis to remove the waste and excess nutrients a kidney would filter out. It’s a grueling, painful and time-consuming process.
So as soon as Weiner was cleared for a transplant this spring, he left his job with FIOS 1 to focus on finding a donor. But he didn’t really know where to start.
“I knew nothing. I thought I needed to stay cancer-free. Now I’m cancer-free, but I need a kidney,” he said.
The kidney transplant waiting list is notoriously long. In New York alone, 7,556 patients are waiting for a new kidney, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing. Nationally, kidneys are the most needed organ, with 95,000 people waiting for one, followed by livers with a waiting list of 13,700.
Social media is increasingly playing an important role, according to donation groups. Some families set up Facebook pages and hashtags, hoping to get their story in front of as many potential donors as possible.
In 2017, a pair of Pennsylvania children found their mother a new kidney with a viral Facebook video, and online attention helped a 74-year-old Utah man secure a donor for his wife after he was seen walking along busy roads with a sign, asking for a kidney.
Weiner recognizes how lucky he is to have a friend with a billboard in one of the most visited places in the world, he said. Both he and Del Mastro-Chruma said they hoped the story and their social media posts about it will encourage more people to register as living donors for all kidney patients.
So far, his story has spread from local outlets to national ones, including "Inside Edition," CNN and Fox News.
Weiner said in the week the billboard had been up, eight people had already signed up to be screened as potential donors via the Weill Cornell link on his website. It’s too soon to tell whether those people or family members who are now being screened are a match, but it at least increases the chances.
“There’s so many people who need donations,” Del Mastro-Chruma said. “People have seen the power of social media. It’s the fastest way to get your word out there.”