A Bellmore woman who received a kidney transplant met for the first time with the mother of her donor — their fates now intertwined — sharing hugs and tears Tuesday morning at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset.
Linda Dolinger lived with high blood pressure for more than a decade, a condition leading to renal failure, which caused extreme exhaustion. In April, she was placed on a list with a possible five- to-seven-year wait for a kidney transplant. Friends and family members came to her aid, undergoing testing to see if they were possible matches. However, finding a match proved difficult because her antibody count was too high.
Dolinger ultimately found her match in Alexis Zayas, 27, of East Meadow, who died in a skydiving accident in June. In fulfilling Zayas' wishes, her family, including her mother, Ava Jacobs, also of East Meadow, worked to find recipients for her organs, and they were able to connect with Dolinger through posts on Facebook.
“I am forever grateful to Ava and her family for giving me the gift of life. If not for Alexis, I would not be here doing this story,” Dolinger said.
The two families’ fates seemed to be intertwined from the start. Dolinger’s sister, Sherryl Garry, a teacher from South Bellmore, taught mathematics to Zayas and her brother, Matthew, when they attended Woodland Middle School in East Meadow, and she had a fondness for the family.
“She was a free spirit and I truly remember her being that way,” Garry said, recalling Zayas.
Over the past five months, Dolinger, 59, has kept up with the Facebook posts of Zayas’ mother, and believes she knows her donor’s “spirit” — spiritual and adventurous.
“I will be eternally grateful,” she said.
Jacobs, 59, described her daughter as a giving person who donated anything she could — from clothes to blood — and they wanted that spirit of giving to continue. People who met Alexis instantly liked her, and her presence would light up a room when she walked in, her mother said. Alexis' laughter was contagious and she was loved by many, more than Jacobs said she realized.
“I’m here because I want to honor her legacy,” said Jacobs, her voice filled with emotion, sitting behind a small photo of Zayas with a sunset and palm trees in background, and with a Tasmanian devil doll, the mascot of her dive team.
Zayas’ organs were harvested June 6, four days after her accident, altogether providing five people with the gift of life.
“This is a story of an incredible young woman who had the courage to dream a heroic dream," Dr. Ernesto Molmenti, who performed the transplant, said of the donor.
Dolinger’s transplant highlights a little-known process, which is called a directed donation, making it possible for family members to request an organ be donated to a specific person, as long as the deceased has registered for organ donation. Not many people know it is legal in New York, making it underutilized. Only several hundred cases have been reported in past years, according to Molmenti.
"It’s relatively infrequent,” he said.
Jacobs said she now highlights organ donation to honor her daughter. Jacobs said she has read 95 percent of people favor organ donation, though only 56 percent are registered to take part in the process.
“I just think that if people knew they had a chance of saving a loved one, that maybe they would be more likely to sign on. Just go online, you don’t have to go to the [New York State Department of Motor Vehicles],” she said. “I think that will increase the number of people who are on the registry and save lives.”
Zayas, a swim instructor and lifeguard who took the Nassau and Suffolk police departments’ exams, was declared brain dead on June 2 after her parachute crashed into the side of building in Massachusetts.
In the hours after her daughter’s accident, Jacobs, who rarely posted to Facebook, took to the social media platform and began asking for prayers. Once learning of her daughter’s fate, that she would never recover and her wishes to donate her organs, Jacobs began to ask if any friends or family if they knew of someone who needed an organ.
Four people reached out to her, including a childhood friend of Alexis who told her mother, who was friends with Sherryl Garry, Dolinger's sister. Eventually, the connection was made.
“It was meant to be that this woman sitting here was meant to be alive,” Jacobs said.
Linda Dolinger said that without Zayas as a direct donor, "this never would have happened.”
“At this time of Thanksgiving, this is why it’s so important to let everybody know donors are needed for people like me and there can be direct donors,” Dolinger said. “There are plenty of places to contact.”