by Larry Rafes

Let’s cover the basics first: About 11 years ago, I was diagnosed with kidney disease. Almost three years ago, I started dialysis. About a year and half ago, I got a kidney transplant. Now I’m about to embark upon Make a Splash!, a 10-day, 200-mile kayak trip down the Lehigh River to the Delaware River to the Atlantic Ocean. It is truly a miracle that I am able to even attempt the trip, but I have no doubt that I will accomplish it.

The story of the movie “Shawshank Redemption” parallels the journey of my kidney disease and transplant. The film, which didn’t do very well at the box office, has come to be regarded as one of the top 100 movies ever made. In it, Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, goes to jail when he is found guilty of a crime he did not commit. Like me and my kidney disease, he is there through no fault of his own. In prison, Andy goes through terrible abuses, including beatings and rape, but is determined to maintain his humanity and refuses to give up hope.

Andy spends years planning his escape, and no one knows – not even his friend Red, played by Morgan Freeman. Andy tells Red that if he is ever paroled, he should go to a certain tree and walk along the nearby stone wall until he finds a rock that doesn’t belong there. That night, under cover of thunder and lightning, Andy escapes from Shawshank Prison through a 500-yard sewer pipe.

This is what it was like to go through the years of my illness. I did nothing to it, committed no crime – but I was sentenced, like Andy Dufresne, with no release date. The years of treatments and procedures and bad reactions and hospitalizations that I endured were like the beatings and torture that Andy suffered. That last 500 yards through the sewer pipe was dialysis. It was one tormenting problem after another.

Andy came out of that disgusting sewer pipe into the torrential rain. He stood up and tore off his filthy clothes and threw his arms up and exalted in the water washing him clean, down over his head and naked body. He threw his head back and smiled up at the heavens, reveling in the rain that pelted his face. He was free. He had his life back. He had kept his hope and humanity through it all. Andy Dufresne was reborn.

Then what does Andy do? He follows a dream and (does this sound familiar?) he goes to the ocean (in his case, the Pacific), where he finds and restores an old boat. Like Andy, I, too, am going to the ocean. Thanks to my transplant, I too, came out of that sewer pipe and was reborn – and can follow my dream. At the end of my trip, my last stop will be on a restored ship, like Andy  – in my case, the Schooner AJ. Meerwald, New Jersey’s tall ship, where I’ll call, “All aboard!” and talk to attendees about paddling 200 miles to the ocean. I’ll then sail out of Cape May Harbor into the ocean.

But that’s not the end of our shared story. Remember Andy’s friend Red? Andy sends Red a blank postcard, which signifies to him that Andy made it out of Shawshank. Transformed and inspired, Red replaces his cynical attitude about jail with a more hopeful outlook. The next time he’s up for parole, he tells the parole board that whatever they decide, they can’t take his humanity or his hope away from him… and they let him go. Upon his release, Red goes in search of the rock Andy told him about and then on a bit of a scavenger hunt from there. When he reaches the ocean, he also finds his friend – both of them now free.

What does this part of the story have to do with me? Or with you, for that matter?

Andy saved Red, and when he did, he saved the world. In Jewish tradition, it is taught that when you save one life, it is as if you have saved the entire world. The Talmud asks why the human race was created from a single human being, as opposed to the creation of many people at once, like the animals, which were created en masse. From this, we learn that, just as Adam was created in the beginning – and just as he was the entire human population of the world – we, too, need to look at each individual as if he or she were the entire population of the world.

Twenty months ago I could barely walk up a flight of stairs, much less kayak for 200 miles. Now, people are paying attention to my trip – more than I could ever have imagined. Reporters are contacting me for interviews, and a medical magazine wants to tell my story to nephrologists – all ways to spread the word about the value and importance of organ donation. Who knows how many people will be touched by the time this trip is done?

I hope you’ll read more about my journey and consider how you can help. It’s easy to register as an organ donors online, and you can learn more about donation outreach through Gift of Life Donor Program. You, too, have the opportunity to save one life – and in doing so, to save the world.

On Organ Donation and the Importance of Hope

Larry Rafes of practices for his kayak trip down the Lehigh River to the Atlantic Ocean. He is trying to raise organ donation awareness since he had a kidney transplant.

Larry Rafes is a member of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Allentown, PA.