The idea for the T-shirt was a Hail Mary, a play Rob Leibowitz made out of deep desperation.
Leibowitz, 60, had been enduring dialysis for years while his kidneys failed. He was grateful the treatments were keeping him alive, but they were four hours long, three days a week, a challenging commitment for a single father of five working full time. He needed someone to give him a kidney.
The search for a donor was complicated by his blood type, O Positive, which makes him a universal kidney donor, but only able to receive a kidney from a person with the O blood type. Leibowitz’s children could not donate to him for medical reasons.
He was on the list to receive a kidney from a deceased donor at four New York area hospitals, but the waiting was seven to 10 years long, and his health was declining.
“Your body is deteriorating every single year,” said Leibowitz, who lives in Lawrenceville, N.J.
Leibowitz said as he waited and searched for a donor, he was determined to enjoy his life, which included taking vacations with his kids. A self-described Disney fanatic, Leibowitz takes them to Walt Disney World about every other year.
“Most of the time parents go to Disney for their kids. My kids go for me,” he said of his children, ages 15 to 32.
When planning a trip to Disney World for August 2017, Leibowitz came up with the idea to make a shirt asking for a kidney donation. He works for an advertising firm, so he knows a thing or two about how to connect people with messages.
“I wanted to get off dialysis, I wanted 25 more years with my kids,” he said. “If I can get one person’s attention, that’s one more than I have.”
His daughter designed the shirt, and he spent about $35 to get it printed. The white T-shirt had simple black writing on the front and back: “In Need Of Kidney O Positive Call” and it listed a phone number.
“Where else am I going to get more exposure than Disney World with hundreds of thousands of people walking around every day?” Leibowitz said. “And maybe I’d get a little pixie dust.”
At the Disney parks, Leibowitz saw people were noticing his shirt and taking pictures. In the Magic Kingdom, Leibowitz met Rocio and Juan Sandoval who posted a picture of his T-shirt on Facebook.
In the photo, Leibowitz was pushing his son Max in a wheelchair. The wheelchair was for Leibowitz in case he got tired of walking, but he was feeling well, so Max, who is able-bodied, jumped in for a ride. Rocio told Leibowitz she was hoping to get 200 shares.
It was shared 33,000 times in the first day and more than 90,000 times by the end of the week. Within a few days, Leibowitz had been contacted by about 100 people.
“All of a sudden my phone was off the hook,” Leibowitz said. He responded to each text, phone call and Facebook message. “I had no clue that this thing would be so viral, so successful.”
Donating a kidney requires a long screening process, including extensive medical tests and a psychological evaluation. Of the people he contacted, Leibowitz said about 50 of them were committed to seeing if they were a match.
After initial testing, three potential donors went to New York for additional testing, which included meetings with psychiatrists, social workers and a surgeon. Then there were blood tests, X-rays and tissue tests. None of the three were a match.
Then Leibowitz heard from Richie Sully, also a single father, who has two daughters and lived in Fort Wayne, Ind. After passing the initial tests, Sully took a 16-hour bus ride to New York for further testing. It could not have gone better.
After four years of searching, Leibowitz had finally found his match.
“I called my kids, and my kids broke down,” he said. “It was such a feeling of relief and happiness.”
Leibowitz took Sully on a tour of New York, and the men became fast pals. “We had so much in common — sports music, family,” Liebowitz said.
He told Sully he thought they would have been “lifelong buddies” if they had met under different circumstances.
The surgery was completed Jan. 18. at New York Presbyterian Hospital and was a great success. Leibowitz and Sully left the hospital a few days after.
“It’s not a big deal,” Sully told the New York news station PIX 11 about the surgery. “If we could get people to understand how much of a big deal it’s not, we would have so many more donors.”
After all the media attention Leibowitz received, he has been contacted by several people who are in need of a kidney transplant.
“Don’t give up hope, your time will come,” Leibowitz tells them. “You have to stay positive”
“I hope people think about being a donor,” Leibowitz said. He wants the public to know kidney donors live long, healthy lives.
“Everybody has two kidneys,” he said. “You have a spare. Share your spare.”
This post has been updated to clarify the kind of blood, type O, that is a match for Leibowitz.