For the boss

October 16, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

WASHINGTON -- Nancy Nearing gave at the office. And I do not mean the United Way. The 42-year-old Virginia mother of two gave a kidney. To her boss.

To put it as simply as she did, "I had a choice of either wringing my hands and saying, 'Oh, dear,' or doing something about it."

For six years, the technical writer, had worked in Rockville on a computer programming team headed by Art Helms. When she heard that he was about to lose his kidneys to a genetic disease, she decided to help. But hers was a help far beyond flowers or even a pint of blood, much more than a get-well card.

Ms. Nearing's story was, no doubt, a welcome contrast from reports about Bad Samaritans that seem to dot the mediascape routinely.

But the extraordinary tale of one kidney transplant became "news" because of what Ms. Nearing and Mr. Helms are not: family.

If the employee and boss had been sister and brother, ho hum. If they had been husband and wife, we would have hardly blinked. But Ms. Nearing's relationship to the much-respected Mr. Helms was just this: "It's such a joy to work for him."

Last year, there were 3,665 transplants from live donors and all but 153 of those came from a relative or a spouse. We expect to give -- and take -- at the family table. Those expectations are so high, the pressures so real, that I am told doctors will help fabricate a medical excuse for the family member who doesn't want to be a "donor."

But this story led me to wonder about how we understand all kinds of mutual exchanges in our society. Why Ms. Nearing is called "a saint" by the man who now thrives on her kidney. Why she might have been called a sinner had she refused a family member.

Today we often know our co-workers better than our cousins. It may be our friends who stay with us for better or worse, not our spouses. In sickness or in health, our children may be scattered and our neighbors on standby.

Yet in the recesses of our mind, we still retain the ancient assumptions of family first. When we search for permanence in a transient world and think about the quid pro quo of help and sacrifice, we think automatically along bloodlines.

The world is full of warning signs about gifts to and from "outsiders." Not long ago, in Minnesota, Dorothy Zauhar's brother gave a kidney to her fiance. It was a gift of love. But when the fiance turned around and married a nurse in the kidney transplant unit, the brother and sister sued.

In college newspapers, I read ads asking young women to be egg donors. What is the difference between a gift and a rip-off?

The workplace seems an equally dicey place for "gifts," fraught with mistrust and the fear of being "gyped." Many regard their workplace as a temporary way station, a Dilbert-like source of insecurity.

When Nancy Nearing gave at the office, one cynic asked me, if he fires her, does she get the kidney back? Another assured me that the only body part he would give his boss was the finger. In fact, before her extrafamilial organ was accepted, Ms. Nearing was sent to an ethicist to make sure that this was a personal gift, not a professional investment.

This cultural reticence does not mean co-workers always stay in the shallowest waters of mutual aid. Reading the new biography of Anne Frank, I am reminded that her father's employees harbored the Franks against the Nazis for two dangerous years. At the same time, we all know families -- even parents -- who give "freely" and then harbor bitter resentments when there is no return. They were keeping book all the time.

But it is when we step outside of the family that many of us are taught to worry about giving and receiving too much. We are warned: Neither a borrower nor a lender be. We learn to wonder: Which gifts come in wrapping paper and which come with strings attached?

Even Ms. Nearing and Mr. Helms, the donor and recipient, now recovering from the surgeries, seemed uncomfortable with the idea that their relationship would change. But, of course, something has changed. And not just a kidney.

"For our kids," Mr. Helms' wife told a reporter, "it put a whole new perspective on life."

These two colleagues broke through a cultural fence of fear and family. Ms. Nearing decided to help. Sometimes it is the good Samaritan who leads the way.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/16/98

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