Oct 6, 2022
Times Square in New York City is one of the most recognizable places throughout the world. It also has some of the world's most visible advertising spots. A man and his wife hoped that notoriety and visibility would be helpful in their search.
Marc Weiner was 56 when he found out he had bladder cancer. A year later in 2016 he underwent surgery to remove his bladder, prostate, and both of his kidneys. This was followed by surgery a year later to remove a tumor from his stomach. This last surgery made Marc cancer-free, though he now needed a kidney transplant. There was no match among the handful of friends and family that were tested to be a donor. The statistics surrounding transplantation looked daunting to Marc. More than 90,000 other Americans also needed a kidney transplant; 13 people a day were dying waiting for one. In New York State, where Mark lived there was an average wait time of 7 to 10 years for a transplant from a deceased donor. Marc was living on daily home dialysis, waking before dawn in order to start the hours-long process that filtered the waste from his blood, and kept him alive. He had a wife, Lisa, and a young daughter named Lily, and he was determined to find a kidney that could help fully restore his health.
Marc and Lisa heard the story of a man from New Jersey named Robert Leibowitz. Leibowitz had worn a t- shirt while at Walt Disney World on vacation that read “In need of a kidney”, and his phone number. He had found a kidney donor.
Marc’s wife Lisa was an advertising executive, and hearing the story of Robert Leibowitz sparked an idea for helping her husband to receive a kidney transplant. She wanted to use the same idea, advertising for the need of a kidney donation, but on a much larger scale than a t-shirt. In August of 2018, her idea became reality with a 5,000 square foot billboard in Times Square. Upon the billboard was a photo of her husband Mark, smiling down on the city, and a link to his new web site. The billboard read, “My name is Mark”. “I need a kidney, YOU can help”. They also posted a photo to social media of Marc and Lily posing in Times Square in front of the billboard. Marc waited for a response, hoping for a stranger who wanted to help, and who would change his life.
The response crashed the portal for prospective donors that Weill Cornel Medicine had set up in helping Marc to find a suitable donor match. Over 1800 people responded, though only a fraction of that number were truly interested in donation. Of those who were tested, no one was a match for Marc. Yet one of those tested was about to change Marc's life, not in the way Marc first hoped for. This person was going to impact many more lives, and his name was Mike .
Mike Lollo was a NYPD detective who first read about Marc’s billboard in The New York Post. Just a few days later he was having urinalysis and blood work done, and preparing to give one of his kidneys to a man he had never met. Mike Lollo was not a match for Marc Weiner. But, once he had started the process of donating, he was resolved in his desire to help someone. He decided to offer his kidney to another stranger, one he was a good match for.
Mike had the surgery in December 2018 to remove one kidney. The percentage of people who donate a kidney to a stranger is small, though in The United States that number is growing because of people like Mike.
A New York Post reporter, working on a story called Marc Weiner to ask for a comment about Mike's decision to donate his kidney, and Marc decided to go to meet this caring and generous man. Marc went to visit him in the hospital, where Mike was recovering from his surgery. Marc was moved by the incredible actions of Mike Lollo; a stranger, who cared enough to give a piece of himself. In return, Mike Lollo was moved by the experience of donating his kidney, and by meeting Marc. Mike decided he wanted to continue to help and so he decided to volunteer for the National Kidney Registry, and later became their chief operating officer.
In late 2020 Marc decided he would try again to find a donor using a billboard in Times Square. This time he realized he might not find a kidney for himself, though he wondered if there were more people out there like Mike Lollos. Often times donations from living donors happen because a person speaks out about their own experience. On the 31st of December 2020, CBS News ran a story on the show “This Morning” that documented Marc's journey to date.
Marc said in the interview, “If you are in the spirit of giving, think about giving your kidney. You're going to save a life, and, ultimately who knows, you might help me out”.
Lessons that were learned from the earlier billboard had prompted Marc and Mike to come up with a system to help potential donors who, although moved to donate, got cold feet, and often backed out. They decided to partner people with a mentor who had been through the donation process and would be there for them to answer questions and calm fears.
Hillary Baude saw the CBS broadcast that December morning. She then watched it again and again on her iPad as she was researching kidney donation. Hillary was motivated by the thought of Marc’s daughter. Her own daughter Ellie was born premature in 2013, weighing just over 2 pounds, and with 2 holes in heart. Open heart surgery at five months old had stabilized her, yet some concerns lingered about her continuing progress. A year after the birth of their daughter, Hillary’s husband Jim was diagnosed with prostate cancer. It was at that point in her life Hillary began to run. She was running from grief, running to relieve stress, and running because she could, she was healthy enough to run. She would strap Ellie into a running stroller and hit the streets of New York. She was moved by the people around her who were suffering with difficult medical problems, yet she was very healthy and able to run. Her husband Jim made a full recovery from prostate cancer and Elllie became the healthy, happy, older sister of a little girl named Josie. Hillary Baude kept running.
When Hillary saw Marc’s story she wanted his family to experience the return to health of their loved one, they way she had hers, and she figured she had a kidney to spare. She was a match for Marc, However it was not the strongest match, and Marc did not receive her kidney. Instead, Hillary initiated a donor chain, her kidney would be transplanted into a stranger who themselves had a willing donor who was not a match for them. That willing donor would then go ahead and donate their kidney to a stranger, and so on. Marc Weiner, thanks to Hillary’s donation received a voucher he can cash in when his health permits and receive a kidney from a donor who is an optimal match.
Four more people who wanted to donate a kidney to Marc completed testing and plan to donate kidneys to strangers. Marc set out to change his life and instead helped to save the lives of at least six other people. Mike continues with the mentorship program they started and believes expanding that program could be key to seeing more transplants from living donors.
On November 7 2021 Hillary Baude ran the largest of US marathons, The New York City Marathon. She wanted to show people that kidney donors can still be athletes. Hillary surprised herself by finishing the marathon in under four hours, and her husband had another surprise waiting at the finish line. Having secretly met up with Marc, Mike, and their families, all were waiting, cheering as Hillary crossed the finish line.
In this video by Current News, it captures Marc's story when the billboard was launched.
You can click here if you would like learn more about how to be a kidney donor.
Monica McCarthy has bachelors in Political Science and Criminal Justice from Central Washington University. A majority of her career was spent as a political consultant. She currently works at KidneyLuv as a staff writer.
This material is for informational purposes only. It does not replace the advice or counsel of a doctor or health care professional. KidneyLuv makes every effort to provide information that is accurate and timely, but makes no guarantee in this regard. You should consult with, and rely only on the advice of, your physician or health care professional.