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Patient Stories

What Is Love? (3 Honest Perspectives)

In Sickness and in Health

Love takes on many forms. Sometimes it’s fun and carefree, punctuated with flowers, chocolates and love songs. But when it comes to health, love may not be so romantic. It can mean pausing your career to become a caregiver, or learning how to support someone who has received a cancer diagnosis or is struggling to manage a chronic condition.

As the following stories reflect, love can be a light in the darkest of times. Here, three families reflect on their health journeys and the love that carried them through.

Love in the Shape of a Kidney

“Make it a better day for someone.”

That’s what Mark Goralski always said to his children as he dropped them off for school every day. They listened. After losing their father in 2018, his children carried on Mark’s legacy of kindness by giving the gift of life to people they’d never met.

Mark, who had Crohn’s disease and, ultimately, kidney failure, was sick for as long as his children can remember. In 2011, Mark needed a kidney transplant. His son, Josh, just 19 years old, donated his kidney without hesitating. “It’s the truest form of love,” reflects Mark’s daughter Hannah. “My dad even said, ‘As a father, you’re giving your life to your son.’ And Josh ended up giving life to him. That’s not how it’s supposed to work. It’s very humbling.”

By 2015, Mark needed another kidney transplant. That’s when Hannah and her sister Bethany both prepared to help. As the next eldest child, Bethany, who was inspired to become a nurse at Northwestern Memorial Hospital because of her father’s experience, was tested and approved to donate her kidney. But she never had the chance.

Mark was too sick and, while attempting to regain his health to undergo the procedure, he was placed on hospice and passed away. Devastated, Bethany and Hannah sought a new purpose. “Within a month, you’re looking for new meaning,” recalls Hannah. “I didn’t think of it as carrying out his legacy so much as he was just a caring and giving person.”

“We watched what a miracle it was for my dad to get my brother’s kidney,” explains Bethany. “It was night and day. My parents always taught us to put others first. I grew up with that sense that’s what this is. What you can do for others is an act of love. So when my dad couldn’t get [my kidney], I really didn’t think twice about it.”

Northwestern Medicine Transplant Nephrologist Aneesha A. Shetty, MD, was a member of Mark’s care team, and subsequently worked with his daughters for their organ donation. “He always struck me as a very kind and patient man,” says Dr. Shetty. “You could see the kindness and positivity in him, and I can see the same thing in his kids.”

It was that kindness that was constantly instilled by their parents that led the girls to donate their kidneys for others under one condition ― they did it together. And, thanks to the dedication of the Northwestern Medicine Organ Transplant Center, they were able to find a match. The sisters underwent their procedures one day apart in 2019. “This is the ultimate manifestation of love. You are essentially giving someone a part of you,” says Dr. Shetty.

What the sisters didn’t know at the time is that their donation started a ripple effect. John J. Friedewald, MD, medical director of kidney and pancreas transplantation at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, explains that their donation ultimately allowed five individuals to receive kidneys. Known as a donor chain, a non-directed donor initiates a chain of transplants for other incompatible pairs. "The sisters’ willingness to participate in our Kidney Paired Donation Program allowed their gift to be magnified, helping several other patients waiting for that match to come along,” says Dr. Friedewald.

The sisters proved that love doesn’t always come in the shape of a heart; sometimes it can come in a kidney. Dr. Shetty also notes that love can be shown in different ways. “Mark’s family rallied around him when he was sick, which is an act of love,” she says.

Love and Selfless Giving

Medina Kazimi’s caregiving story starts 13 years ago, when her mother, Zilija, was diagnosed with breast cancer. “Around that time, I quit my job and started caregiving full time.” After battling and beating breast cancer twice, Zilija was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disorder of the central nervous system, which breaks down nerve cells and leads to motor, cognitive and behavioral problems. There is no cure.

“My parents didn’t have an easy life,” Medina adds. And though there were some difficult times, she was determined to provide a loving environment as their primary caregiver. “I can’t imagine not wanting to be involved. It helps me deal with the illness she has by treating her with love.”

Northwestern Medicine Neurologist Danny Bega, MD, who specializes in movement disorders, recognized the difference love made in her care. “It makes a big difference. A patient with an involved and invested care partner can have a better quality of life, because their care partner can make us aware of problems that need to be addressed, and help ensure that management plans are followed,” he says.

“She still has her personality, but it’s hard now,” Medina says about her mother. But she recalls one thing she has learned, and it’s been one constant throughout Zilija’s illnesses: “At the end of the day, it costs nothing to love someone.”

Dr. Bega adds that this love is evident in their interactions. “There is a respectful interaction and a lot of love that’s really obvious,” he says. “One priority has been to keep as normal of a life as possible, not living every day like she’s ill. For example, she has made sure that her mother can still go out to dinner occasionally with her husband, something others might take for granted.”

As a result of her caregiving, Medina developed an interest in sciences and medicine. She hopes to apply that to her practice as a physician assistant, a career path that she never would never taken had it not been for her journey as a caregiver. “I can be that person that can say, ‘I’ve gone through this, and I can help you, both professionally and as a human,’” she explains. “There’s nothing more important than relating to people.”

Love, Listening and Anticipating – Even When It’s Hard

Denis Frankenfield and Bill Host have been together for more than 40 years, but their road has not been easy. In 2002, Bill was diagnosed with cancer. The effects of aggressive treatment took their toll on him, but Bill says Denis never blinked an eye. “There were no questions asked,” he explains. “Denis was there and did what had to happen.”

So when Denis was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2019, the tables turned.

After losing his father to stage IV esophageal cancer, Denis started receiving regularly scheduled endoscopies and colonoscopies. Eventually he was diagnosed with Barrett’s esophagus, which is linked to recurrent gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and increases the chances of esophageal cancer.

“Esophageal cancer is one of the deadliest cancers, and survival rates are much better if we can catch and treat the disease early,” says Samuel S. Kim, MD, thoracic surgeon and director of robotic thoracic surgery.

Esophageal cancer is typically treated with a complex surgical procedure called an esophagectomy, which involves a large incision on the abdomen and chest, breaking a rib and spreading the rib cage open. But, Denis’ treatment plan called for a robotic esophagectomy, followed by chemotherapy. Dr. Kim led the team that performed the robotic esophagectomy, a first at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

“I feel lucky we were able to find it early,” says Denis. As he continues treatment, he has found solace in a strong support system. His group of friends continues to check in on a group chat. Often, a close friend sits with him during chemotherapy treatment, enjoying coffee, a buttermilk donut and hours of conversation.

As for Denis and Bill, they continue to adjust to their new routine. “It’s been a new appreciation for my spouse,” says Denis. “I think the most important thing is anticipating their needs over your own sometimes.” Now that’s love.