Cancer patient's daughter saves Seaford doctor's life
The odds of this happening is like winning Powerball six weeks in a row
By Melissa LeGates
Although Sheryl Magathan of Frankford and Dr. Burton Aronoff of Seaford are some 30 years apart in age, they sometimes introduce themselves as identical twins. The "soul" siblings are a medical marvel in the kidney donation arena.
Through his practice, Delaware Digestive Disease Associates, Aronoff was used to creating medical miracles for others. However, when the gastroenterologist and gastrointestinal tract cancer specialist found himself in need of a life-saving miracle, he couldn't muster up the faith to see past his own terminal diagnosis.
He had developed a fatalistic attitude, closed his practice, resigned himself to enjoy the little time he had left on earth and was on his way to buy a bright, red convertible.
That was until Magathan and her mother bumped into Aronoff in Hardees in Georgetown. Aronoff had treated Magathan's mother, Diana, for a rare type of Carcinoid cancer in her stomach called the Zollinger-Ellison syndrome and hadn't seen either woman since he shut the doors on his practice in August 2008.
Magathan's mother was in remission but it had been a slippery slope for more than a decade.
"When I found out Dr. Aronoff was out of practice, my hope for my mother went out the window," said Magathan about her mom's future health.
At the time, Magathan was just another face to Aronoff in a sea of patients and supporting family members, but the doctor was a beacon of hope to the young woman now 28 but just 15 when her mother was diagnosed.
When Magathan and her mom saw him that day at Hardees, they were happy to run into him. However, he wasn't the same optimistic man who told the mother of five children to fight and never accept the recommendation of other doctors who dispensed death sentences in days or months.
Something was missing in his face. Magathan was despaired to see he had no hope. She could tell he had accepted the same death sentence that he told his patients to fight.
That day he shared with the mother and daughter that his kidneys were failing. He had lived with diabetes for 34 years, but had developed Antiphospholipid syndrome, a disorder where a person's immune system mistakenly produces antibodies against certain normal proteins in their blood. With the addition of the syndrome, he was dependent on a dialysis machine to filter the toxins out of his body for six hours a day, three days a week. The complicated process was depleting his body and will to live.
When Magathan heard the news, she was shocked but still hopeful. As a lifelong, devout Christian, she believed in divine intervention. Instead of caving into the fear surrounding both her mother and Aronoff's diseases, she thought to herself, "could this be my answer to prayer?" She had seen countless miracles occur in her mother's treatment, who had originally been given a 3-month death sentence by other physicians. Aronoff helped her when no one else would, and 13 years later she felt blessed to still have her around.
For the last two years prior to running into Aronoff, she had been praying and asking God to use her to bless someone else. So where Aronoff could only see medical complication upon complication, Magathan saw the beginnings of God's promise and will. She knew in her soul that God wanted her to bless this man.
The three sat down to share a meal together. Within minutes, she asked him if she could donate one of her kidneys to him. "My first thoughts were that is a nice gesture but she doesn't know what she is getting into," said Aronoff.
As a doctor and man of science, Aronoff implicitly understood the slim statistics surrounding successful donor operations. Several of his friends had stepped forward and asked to be donors, but didn't make it through the screening process. So what were the odds that this young woman, who had no genetic link to him, would be a match?
However, Magathan wouldn't be deterred. Throughout the year-long process, she kept reassuring him she would be the one to donate her kidney to him.
"If we hadn't been a match, I would have still donated my kidney because it would have placed him higher on the donor list," she said. However, the wait list to receive a kidney donation from a deceased donor is about seven years, according to Aronoff. He knew he didn't have seven years to live with his current kidneys. Against all odds, the two received the incredulous news. Sheryl's kidney was a 6-point match, which is extremely rare because many biological parents and siblings are only a 3-point match and still can't donate to each other.
For a 3-point match, Aronoff said the average person is expected to live with a donor kidney for 10 to 11 years but for a 6-point match the odds increase to 20 years. The two were ecstatic.
Meet your twin
Aronoff's doctor told him, "Burt, you have found the proverbial needle in the haystack. The only way you could have gotten a better match is if you had been identical twins."
The long-time fellow of the American Board of Gastroenterology was bowled over backwards at the news. "The odds of this happening is like winning the Powerball lottery six weeks in a row," Aronoff said.
Still something seemed off, and Magathan sensed it as well. Several weeks before the surgery, Magathan made Aronoff promise her he wouldn't die on the operating room table.
The off-hand comment stuck with him, as he began to have weird unexplained symptoms. He sought medical care and was told the symptoms were "all in his head." He knew his body better than that and sought another opinion.
Listen to your heart
It turned out it wasn't in his head; it was his heart. He had a condition nicknamed the widow maker where the blood in his left ventricular was severely reduced.
Once diagnosed, he was rushed in for an immediate quadruple bypass surgery. The recovery delayed the kidney surgery another excruciating four months.
In July 2010, the two headed up to New York-Presbyterian Hospital to the Rogosin Institute, and the surgery went off without a hitch. A year later, both Aronoff and Magathan kidneys are back up to full function.
The surgery was uncomfortable and taxing on both their bodies. Magathan still finds it uncomfortable to sleep on the side where her kidney was removed. However, she believes the temporary discomfort has been a small price to pay.
She can live with only one kidney and still have a full life. Within three to six months, the remaining kidney started compensating for the other. Aronoff now has three kidneys. Surgeons didn't take out the bad kidneys. Instead, they installed Magathan's donated kidney in front of his belly. The avid gardener can't pull his belt too tightly anymore, so it is a daily reminder of what is important in life.
"When you dealt with life and death, and death was the most likely outcome, petty annoyances don't mean a thing," Aronoff said.
What does matter is doing what he loves best - providing patients with hope and comfort. For him, every day is a puzzle in the inner workings of the human body and every person's diagnosis and recovery provides a new challenge.
Aronoff re-opened his practice this February at 904 Middleford Road in Seaford. A plaque with Sheryl's picture hangs in the lobby. It reads, "If you appreciate the medical care you received today thank my kidney donor Sheryl Magathan who made it possible."
Aronoff's recovery happened just in the nick of time, as Magathan's mother once again faced feelings of helplessness when her pain relapsed. Only a short half a year after the soul sibling's surgery, Magathan's mother had lost hope. She was tired of almost 15 years of fighting. Once again, Aronoff was by her side saying "no, no, no we can do something about this pain. Don't stop fighting!"
After all, the two now shared common blood - a young woman who wouldn't give up on either of them. Aronoff and Magathan kidnapped her mother and took her to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
The hospital checked her out and prescribed a new medicine for her that actually worked. Aronoff said the results where miraculous within one month the pain was gone and within two months there was no evidence of the disease.
The senior Magathan had once again escaped death with her faithful doctor and daughter at her side.
Beating a death sentence to find faith
Magathan had restored Aronoff's hope, and he was ready once again to pass it on to his patients. "There is no such thing as a death sentence," Aronoff said. "I get riled up when doctors say a person has 'X' amount of time to live. Frankly, they make me look good."
Besides a new lease on life, Aronoff also received another gift from Magathan. By observing Magathan's faith first hand, the man of science now believes there is a higher power at work in the world. Now the friends both attend Bay Shore Community Church in Gumboro each Sunday.
"The Bible talks a lot about God's timing. I probably only eat at that Hardees about every five years when I buy a new vehicle," Aronoff said.
If he hadn't bought the little red sports car, he wouldn't have run into Magathan and listened to a seemingly impossible idea that saved his life.
"It is improbable that I survived this surgery, improbable that I am doing this well and improbable that I am back in practice," Aronoff said. "When you see someone acting on the word of God, never disagree with God."
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