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Would you give a kidney to a stranger?

Elmhurst native feels there’s not enough compassion in the world. So she did something about it.

Barb Neff (right) with her sister Carolyn Rittan.
Barb Neff (right) with her sister Carolyn Ritten. Though neither feels Neff is a “selfless person,” she still gave one of her kidneys to a stranger.
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Barb Neff thought about doing it for two decades.

Which is a pair of decades longer than most people would consider following her example.

Most wouldn’t consider it for two seconds.

But in mid-July, Neff, 52, who grew up in Elmhurst, donated her left kidney to a stranger.

“I’d been thinking about it, on and off, for 20 years,” she said.

But why? It’s tough enough to spur families to donate the organs of loved ones after they’ve died. So-called “altruistic donation” — giving an organ to a stranger while you are alive — is so rare, and such a quantum leap in human generosity, that some health experts agonize whether it is actually selflessness or closer to emotional imbalance.

When Neff was 30, one of her closest friends lost a kidney.

“Liposarcoma, or fatty cancer,” said Neff. “They ended up taking out a 20-pound tumor, a kidney, her spleen, some colon.”

Neff was ready to give her friend a kidney.

“It was a no-brainer,” she said. “But that never transpired. About 10 years later, I heard a podcast about it. It hadn’t even occurred to me that you could give a stranger your kidney. I thought that was something I should look into.”

Again, why?

“Because it just seemed ... more of a ‘Why not?’ than a ‘Why?’” she said. “I think I’m a little more nonchalant about surgery than most people are. It didn’t strike me as that big of a deal.”

And for her, it wasn’t.

“Now, in the aftermath, I feel vindicated,” Neff said. “The first night was tough, but after that, no problems.” Ten days later, she was running.

Neff’s donation actually helped more than one person. It set in motion a “chain donation” benefiting three recipients. Chain donation is a little hard to explain, but I’ll take a shot.

Say your spouse needs a kidney. You’d like to give yours; however, your blood type doesn’t match. But your spouse is a match for a “non-directed” donor like Neff. So Neff gives your spouse a kidney, and you give your kidney to someone you match who needs one, and their designated donor gives their kidney to another, the chain continuing until a kidney goes into someone who was not matched with a willing donor.

She made the decision around Christmas. The screening process — both medical and psychological — lasted for months, and included seeing people with kidney failure waiting for dialysis, sometimes having to drive for hours to do so.

“To have the opportunity to help someone to such a dramatic degree, especially with no perceptible lasting change to my daily life, is mind-boggling,” she wrote on her Facebook page.

I heard about Neff from her older sister, Carolyn Ritten, a reader from LaGrange Park, who went out to California, where Neff lives, to lend a hand during the week after surgery.

So what’s going on with your sister? Just a selfless person?

“Not exclusively a selfless person,” said Ritten. “Who would want to hang out with somebody like that?”

“I don’t know anybody who knows me who would call me a selfless person,” agreed Neff, a freelance writer who calls herself “jaded and cynical.”

“Now I feel, if I gave a kidney, I don’t have to volunteer anymore,” she said, with such apparent sincerity that I didn’t realize she was joking—she’s already returned to volunteering, and vigrously encourages others to follow her example.

“An incomparable and sustained high,” she said, on her Facebook page, calling kidney donation “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Fair enough. But, I persisted, if you considered this for 20 years, what about our current world made you do it now?

“I follow the news too closely,” she said. “I just feel every day there’s more evidence of lack of compassion. We can’t put ourselves in other people’s shoes anymore. It’s really bumming me out. I’m not deluded. I know I’m not going to change anything. But I put some positive karma out there.”

That’s an intriguing thought: In dark times, be the good you wish were more common in the world. Barb Neff gave her kidney to a stranger. I’m sure I’ve done some good lately, but nothing close to that. I’m not going to donate a kidney, and neither are you. But I know I could do more good, and suspect you could, too.