In death, a wife's gift of life

Marian and Rafi Sharif entered the hospital, expecting him to receive a methadone user's kidney. But a brain hemorrhage killed Marian - and made her the source of Rafi's new organ.

August 08, 2005|By Greg Barrett | Greg Barrett,SUN STAFF

Marian Sharif tried several times to give away one of her kidneys. Take it, she pleaded with her husband, Rafi - it could save your life.

No, he'd answer. It's too risky. If their 11-year-old daughter, Anya, could not have two healthy parents, she needed at least one.

After being diagnosed with hepatitis C several years ago, Rafi, 65, had received two liver transplants, and now his kidneys were failing him, too. So when the University of Maryland Medical Center found a less-than-ideal match for him June 30, the Baltimore couple accepted it as the best option. It didn't matter that the deceased donor had been a methadone user. Without the kidney, Rafi might live to see Anya enter high school; he was unlikely to see her graduate.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun gave an incorrect name for the park where Marian and Rafi Sharif were wed in 1991. It was Baltimore's Leakin Park.
The Sun regrets the errors.

But the fates of Rafi and Marian, two devoutly spiritual people from similar Lithuanian heritages, flipped as they waited in the prep area of the transplant unit. Marian suffered a massive brain hemorrhage and Rafi would eventually leave the hospital with her ashes in an urn and her healthy kidney sewn delicately into his body.

"If somebody would tell you a story like this, you would not believe it," said Dr. Luis Campos, the University of Maryland transplant surgeon who had the idea to salvage new hope from the family's loss. "It is incredibly tragic. But in a sense, Mr. Sharif was able to make something good out of it."

Marian Yasenchak Sharif's eight-paragraph obituary in her hometown Wilkes-Barre, Pa., newspaper doesn't fully capture her life - and, certainly, not her extraordinary death. She was a 50-year-old doting mother of one, an avid gardener, a licensed practical nurse, an acupuncturist, a Windsor Hills neighborhood leader, a class mother at Owings Mills' Garrison Forest School, a passionate lover of dance and theater, and a student of Sufism and yoga.

"She had a deep spiritual sense that guided her life," Rafi Sharif said yesterday at his Windsor Hills home, speaking softly, appearing weak and occasionally emotional. "My spirit is not as pristine as hers."

Lying near Sharif's feet yesterday was a black Labrador-border collie mix rescued by Marian several years ago. When Marian found her outside a Baltimore strip mall, the dog had just given birth and appeared weak and sickly. She used all of her training - even acupuncture - to nurse the dog back to health, Sharif said.

She had done the same for her husband when his body rejected a liver transplant in 2003. A second transplant was successful, but then the kidneys began to fail. Without a new kidney, Sharif, a former Boy Scouts of America executive, had only three to four years to live, doctors said.

The waiting list for patients needing a healthy kidney is five to seven years. With Sharif's complicated medical history, "some kind of renal function is better than none," Campos said.

Sharif's blood was being filtered regularly with dialysis. His lean frame had withered after the liver transplant, from 160 pounds to 120, then climbed back to 138.

Sharif fit the criteria necessary for patients to receive, in effect, transition kidneys, Campos said. These are inferior kidneys that can last about six years - or long enough for someone to endure the waiting list and receive another, healthier kidney.

It was under those conditions that the University of Maryland Medical Center phoned on June 30 with news of a donor. But as Marian shared the excitement with her best friend, Cindy Spitzer of Randallstown, she sounded concerned. Spitzer believes that traumatic experiences with the liver transplants and subsequent rejection had made her friend anxious about this next transplant.

No one knew Marian was ill, though. Her blood pressure was slightly elevated, and for two days she had quietly suffered headaches. Her friends thought it was just the tension - Marian's intense desire to take care of her family and get Rafi well.

"She loved with absolute passion," said Marian's older sister, Ann Marie Bonislawski, speaking yesterday from her home near Atlanta. "Everything she did she would do with boundless passion. And she was very passionate about her daughter ... and about her husband's health."

At the University of Maryland Medical Center, Marian laid her head on Rafi's lap as they waited for blood tests and X-rays and all the particulars that accompany major surgery. Rafi stroked her blond hair, hoping to quell the pounding headache, and she took a short nap.

When Marian awoke, she sat up and a stroke hit her with such impact that, as Sharif began to describe it yesterday, he wiped his eyes and fell silent, unable to share the details. More than two dozen doctors and nurses rushed into the room, but Sharif believes his wife died immediately. Sharif canceled his transplant and, by the next day, doctors had declared his wife brain-dead.

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