In August of 2014, Corey Zaretsky donated his kidney to his younger brother, Matty. Just past the second year of what they call his “Kidneyversary,” Matty “couldn’t be healthier,” said Corey, now 26. Matty, a senior at Sarah Lawrence College, uses his Instagram account, @mattyzaretsky, to motivate those with disabilities.
His life could have turned out much differently had Corey not made the decision to become his organ donor. Born with a rare genetic disease, Matty, now 24, had surgery in May of 2014 to remove his pancreas, gall bladder, spleen, appendix and parts of his intestines. And after a year of pancreatitis, which weakened his kidneys, Matty was on the transplant list. Fortunately, his older brother was a 95 percent match.
Corey, who is the travel director for Elite Traveler Media Group, will run this year’s marathon on Nov. 6 not only to raise money for the National Kidney Foundation, but to dispel the stigma behind organ donation. “The key thing that I’m really out there to say is that you can be an organ donor, save someone’s life, and do any of the crazy s**t you want to do. ... If I wanted to go skydiving into the start of the marathon, and then run it just to prove my point, I would.”
Describe your brother’s illness and how you always knew he would need a donor. My younger brother, we’re about two and a half years apart, and he’s my only sibling, was born with a very rare genetic disease called Nail-patella syndrome. This affects your body in several different ways, going from your vision, to your teeth, fingernails, toenails, and bone and muscular structure. And also, kidney disease is a major side effect of the disorder. So he was born with kidney disease, and my parents always knew that one day he would eventually need a transplant. And as I got older and understood more of what was going on with his life, I always knew that one day that day would come. The way I’ve come to look at it in the two years that passed, is that if you’re fortunate enough to have a sibling who is close to you in age, that’s really the person you’re going to be the closest with your entire life. My brother and I are extremely close. He’s my best friend in the world and my roommate. He’s finishing up his last semester at Sarah Lawrence in December and then he’ll be living with me. And I wanted to make sure that I did everything in my power to keep him around.
For a year, he suffered with pancreatitis, which caused his kidneys to begin to fail. In 2013, he developed this random pancreas disorder and to this day, no one knows what exactly caused it. They are still doing research on it today. He essentially had a bout of pancreatitis for a year, which is something that you get maybe once in a lifetime. It’s kind of like appendicitis in your pancreas. But obviously you don’t have your pancreas removed because you need it to produce insulin. My brother was in the hospital with these attacks every two-and-a-half to three weeks. This took him from whatever percentage of kidney function he had, which was fine, to complete kidney failure. He had to be put on a feeding tube because he couldn’t physically eat. And then he was on full-time dialysis because his kidneys were failing.
Take us through the process of donating a kidney.On Aug. 14, 2014, I donated my kidney. In March of that year, I flew out to Minnesota [the transplant took place at the University of Minnesota Medical Center] and went through three days of testing. They test your blood type, tissue type, nutrition levels, body function levels, pretty much any rock they can turn over to look under. You meet with nutritionists, multiple different kinds of doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists. They pretty much do the most thorough workup possible to make sure that not only will you be healthy enough to have the surgery and survive, but you’ll be able to cope with having a surgery like that. It turned out that Matty and I were pretty much a 95 percent match. You really can’t get much better than that. But if I was not his perfect match, then I could have donated to a stranger and that would have taken them off the list and then Matty could have jumped up the list. So in my head I was fully willing to do whatever it took.
Did you have any side effects after the surgery?Literally the day after, both of us were out of bed, walking around the hospital. I felt pretty lousy. Your body is going through this change that it doesn’t understand and it’s overcompensating for the lack of a kidney. And my brother went his entire life from the second he was born until that moment, always with his body lagging behind. And for the first time, he has something in him that’s performing one-hundred percent. He was running around the hospital, meanwhile I was slowly snailing my way through the hallways. But he felt incredible. For me, that made me feel better, at least emotionally. It was instant gratification. It took me about six months until I felt back to close to where I was. It’s always harder for the donors because you’re so used to being fully healthy.
This is your first marathon. How are you training for it? I grew up playing baseball competitively throughout college. My whole life, in competitive sports, if you did something stupid or got in trouble in school, running was a punishment. And I’ve been accustomed to not liking to run. Now people are asking all the time, “How are you running a marathon?” My grandfather, who ran four marathons after the age of 50, is helping me train along with the teams at Lifetime Fitness and Title Boxing in Hell’s Kitchen. I’m running for survival and awareness. My goal is to go out there and have a really good time and pretty much run the whole thing; I don’t really want to walk any of it. And whatever time I get is the time I get. If I see friends in the stands, I’ll probably stop and say hi. It’s all about the message.
To donate to Corey’s run, visit: www.crowdrise.com/nationalkidneyfdnnyc2016/fundraiser/coreyzaretsky