Kidney patient likens finding donor to ‘winning lottery ticket’

Staff Writer

Ross Bear was living a beautiful life. After graduating from Holmdel High School, he attended Brookdale Community College, then Rutgers University. He married Marnie Rotter of Manalapan, had two sons Ethan, almost 12, and Henry, almost 14, and moved to Newtown in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He worked for Verizon, aspiring to be a teacher.

Then, on Feb. 10, his life came to a screeching halt.

Bear, 43, woke up that morning not feeling well. He decided to visit the emergency room of the local hospital under the assumption he was experiencing high blood pressure or increased anxiety. After taking some medical tests, he thought he would be released from the hospital.

He previously had no symptoms other than feeling cold all the time, which he attributed to exhaustion from working long retail hours during the holidays. His last bloodwork showed no abnormalities.

Instead, that afternoon, he was told he was having issues with his kidney functions.

After more tests and biopsies, Bear was diagnosed with irrevocable kidney failure. A nephrologist was brought in to discuss his options.

“I was obviously mortified. My life had stopped,” Bear said.

Bear had fistula surgery in late April, which connects an artery to a vein to enable dialysis — which he began in May to reduce waste and excess water in his blood that accumulated as a result of his failing kidneys.

As the youngest patient at American Renal Associates in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, Bear has been going for dialysis for four hours on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, which causes him to sleep for four hours after treatment because of the lingering effects, he said. He can also get decompression sickness — better known as the bends — for days if too much fluid is removed during dialysis.

“It’s quite a challenge,” he said. “There is no medicine that fixes a kidney. There is no way to reverse kidney damage. A kidney is nothing more than an oil filter, and you can’t fix an oil filter.”

He must avoid chocolate, bananas, potatoes and tomatoes — “Try being a Jersey boy trying to cut these things out of your diet” — and limit red meats and dairy.

“I see far too many patients who go to dialysis who are not compliant and have further challenges,” he said. “It’s a small price to pay. I don’t complain. I don’t allow myself to have pity parties.”

In the meantime, Bear began looking for a kidney donor. Since he has Type O blood, he is a universal donor, but can only receive blood or living organs from another Type O person.

In addition, in order to be cleared for a transplant, one must have the approval of a nephrologist, a cardiologist, an endocrinologist, a hematologist and a general practitioner, he said.

Plus, the wait time for an organ provided by a deceased donor can be more than five years, he said.

Trying to find a living donor, Bear was told none of his family members are a match – including his parents Anita and Ken of Holmdel, his sister Stacy of Holmdel and his sister Leslie of Cherry Hill.

He instead decided to reach out to his Facebook community to see if anyone would consider getting tested. His friend’s brother-in-law, Jim Baker, was inspired to get tested because his boss’s daughter, Emily Stillman, contracted meningitis during college despite being vaccinated. Six patients were saved by her organs after she died.

Bear said Baker wanted the opportunity to give life to someone. Baker could not be reached for comment by press time.

“He is my winning lottery ticket,” Bear said of the former U.S. Marine, who has three children of his own. “There are so many signs this is the right person for the donation at the right time.”

As a result, Baker will be flying out from Michigan to take part in Bear’s surgery on Sept. 24 at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Baker is expected to be in the hospital for five days and cleared to fly after 10; Bear will remain hospitalized for at least a week, stay in isolation at his home until around Thanksgiving, and be required to travel to New York twice a week for six to eight weeks to ensure his body is not rejecting the kidney.

Bear credits his will to survive to his sons.

“I have two children that are my anchors,” he said. “They are the reason I’m able to get through this.”

He recommends that everyone “get tested” and “listen to your doctors.” He also encourages supporting the Gift of Life Gala through the National Kidney Foundation, and joining the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) since 125,000 people are waiting for a kidney but only about 5,000 people receive one annually.

“One school of thought is that when the time comes, you have the ability to live on and save someone else,” Bear said, quoting the Talmud’s text of “He who saves a single life, saves the entire world.”

Bear is looking forward to putting this chapter behind him, and has set a goal with Baker for next year: the two hope to hike 100 miles of the Appalachian Trail.

“It’s the icing on the cake. I’m healthy. I’m strong. I have a lot of living left to do,” he said.

To support Bear’s journey, Texas Roadhouse will hold a fundraising night 4-10 p.m. Oct. 1 at its Holmdel location, 2105 Route 35. Ten percent of food purchases will be donated with the presentation of the designated flier. For more information, call 732-671-3749.

Contact Jennifer Amato at